Who does research on the researcher?

Who does research on the researcher?

Photo of antique typewriter holding a sheet of paper that has "What's your story" typed on it

(Image in public domain)

Since February of last year, I have been talking to Black and Latina women from the Bay Area about their perceptions of and experiences with police. These women that I have had the pleasure of speaking with have all been between the ages of 18-25. As I have sat with stories of their interactions with police, as well as their views of police and policing today, I couldn’t help but think: How have I not have had the experiences that these women have had?

I am a part of the same demographic of women who have participated in these interviews: young, in her mid-ish 20s, Black and from Oakland. Questions of how I have not had experiences similar to the young women of Color I’ve interviewed, as well as acknowledging my role as a researcher, dawned upon me during two separate interviews when two Black women from Oakland asked me if I had ever been stopped by police. When I gave them an answer and inquired about why they had asked, they followed up with statements like: “You’ve only been in a traffic stop, huh?” or “You don’t look like you’ve been stopped by the police because you look like you went to college.”

These statements not only provided a fraction of these women’s perceptions of and experiences with policing, but also provided some insight into the role(s) of a participant and a researcher. I was glad that these women asked me questions as I had asked them many. I was elated that they knew they had the space to ask me questions. I have done many interviews where participants felt that I was looking for a particular answer or felt pressured to answer questions in a particular manner.

As a qualitative researcher, I am interested in the experiences and narratives that others share with me; but I realized that I often miss other narratives and experiences as well: How does a participant see me as a researcher? What do they think my stories are and how does this influence how we interact with one another? What does all of this mean in regard to “building rapport”?

As much as I can understand and acknowledge esoteric statements and experiences of those I relate to, I realized that barriers can still exist: I am still a researcher and I am still the one asking the questions.

Thank you for sharing that

Thank you for sharing that

Tin can phones, CC BY StockMonkeys.com

Tin can phones, CC BY stockmonkeys.com

I was just finishing up an in-depth individual interview for our LGBTQ Adults and Tobacco Stigma study. I announced that I had one last question. “Do you have any feedback for me about the interview or the study?” We sometimes get responses like, “The survey was too long,” or “You didn’t ask me enough about [a specific topic]. This participant, a woman about my age, a lesbian of color, responded differently. “No. It was really good,” she said. “I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all.” She said this with an inflection of surprise. I paused for a moment. This was the first time during the interview that I really didn’t know what to say. I wanted to say something like, “That makes me really happy to hear, because it’s profoundly important for me as a researcher and as a person to affirm the dignity of others as they share their stories.” Instead, I responded with a weak, “Thank you for sharing that.”

But I knew in that moment that there was so much more to her statement. I wanted to begin the interview all over again. I wanted to know why she was so surprised that she had not been made to feel uncomfortable. I wanted to know when, where, how often she finds herself in situations where she is being paid to share her stories and experiences and thoughts, but feels uncomfortable doing so. I wanted to know why she chose to share that observation with me. As a researcher, I could have responded with, “Tell me more about that” or even “Have there been times when you did feel uncomfortable?” Instead, I responded with a weak, “Thank you for sharing that.”

Our study investigates not just tobacco-related stigma, but also various ways in which people who have been marginalized experience stigma in other aspects of their lives. In this moment, I was reminded, as a researcher and as a person, how important it is to affirm each person’s story. But I was also reminded how easy it is to silence a person simply because you are not quite sure how to ask them to say more.