The past two years have been exciting for our team at the Center. Our first project interviewing Black youth about stigma and tobacco use has been eye opening, and we’re spending most of our time now coding interview transcripts and conducting analyses. We’ll be posting more on that in the future. We’ve also started a new project on Intoxication and Gender (Geoffrey Hunt is the Principal Investigator on that one) which will be included on the website soon. And, we are cautiously optimistic about the potential funding for two additional projects coming on board in the next few months. It’s been busy but so rewarding.
Because of all of these new projects, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about ways to disseminate our research—that is after all an important part of our projects. But, questions have come up over the course of the past two years that we take with us as we start up new projects and develop new approaches to dissemination.
One issue in particular, that we’ve been thinking a lot about recently, is how to be both transparent in our research process (e.g., by sharing anonymized fieldnotes from our researchers, audio segments from interviews) while also not misleading the public about the results of our research. How do you showcase an interviewee’s perspectives in a way that both validates her lived experience but doesn’t lend more weight to her experience compared to others who participate in the project? We’ve rightly received criticism about this exact question in reviews of our grant applications and responded by talking about disclaimers and such that we can put up on the website.
But I’m not sure that’s sufficient. It’s funny because over the course of my career I have heard qualitative researchers talk about how we have to struggle to highlight the results of our work within a society that values numbers. But in our experience so far with dissemination, people’s stories have weight. I have never liked to talk about qualitative data as “stories”—it feels like it invalidates qualitative data as scientific knowledge. But interestingly in this context of online dissemination, when we have shared segments of our participants’ “stories”, they have reach and, perhaps one day as our social media network expands, they will have power.
Our goal is explicitly to highlight participants’ voices so that their perspectives about issues relevant to public health are highlighted. But what if one participant’s voice is heard above all others, and yet doesn’t represent the experiences of the group? As a qualitative researcher, I believe that a single experience is important. But what if a single person is an extreme outlier—the perspective may be interesting, but what if that extreme outlier is interpreted in such a way that it is presumed by the public to be representative? What do we do with that?
Controlling our dissemination activities too much feels counter to our goals of making our research process more transparent. It feels like colonizing a dissemination process intended to be decolonizing. One way to address this may be to specifically highlight the alternative perspectives of participants. Over time as content increases on our website this may naturally occur. But this idea of trying to look for alternative perspectives is fundamentally important in qualitative data analysis (all types of data analysis for that matter). It’s an essential part of the analytical process. So, relying on this process by presenting more than one perspective or “story” about a particular issue, may help to minimize the possibility of invalid interpretations of our data from readers (or ourselves).
We believe that there are many ways to interpret qualitative data. Multiple interpretations of qualitative data can be valid. But, those multiple (and sometimes conflicting) interpretations must be conceived in a rigorous and systematic way that is justifiable. So interpretations that aren’t justifiable are invalid. Now, who defines what is justifiable is clearly problematic. But the reason that I am going on about this philosophy of science stuff is to point out that there are clearly invalid ways to interpret qualitative data.
This leads to our second goal at the Center, which is to serve as a resource for people who are interested in qualitative research design and methods. We also hope to be a platform for discussing these issues so that the public has a role to play in how these issues play out at the Center. In the coming months we will be starting a Zotero group related to dissemination and research engagement. We hope you will join and contribute! Please write in below in the comments. We’d love to hear your thoughts.