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.

Stories have weight

Stories have weight

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? Continue reading