Saturday, January 19, 2019

The price of empathetic research

The central way social researchers like me study a topic or problem is through qualitative research.  Engaging people, most often strangers, in in-depth conversations to try to understand how they see the world, what they value, what they know and want to know.... and most often for me... hearing and recording the language they use to encode all of this.  The topics I study are health, disease and risk.

For over 40 years I've been giving myself up to my participants' realities and emotions, struggles and triumphs.  And all this time I've always known it was exhilarating but exhausting work.  Even as a young researcher I'd come out of a one and a half hour focus group filled with phrases people used, statements that stuck with me, but also the need to rest, physically rest.  I was never the one to suggest to my colleagues  - "let's go get a bite."  I had to get somewhere quiet and close my eyes and rest.

I said to myself it was just my weaker constitution - maybe I just wasn't the hardy, robust field researcher I aspired to be.

As I grew into myself and my confidence, I didn't hide this need to retreat after a research encounter.  My students knew that if they were note takers or observers, after a long in-depth interview or group they couldn't expect me to expound brilliantly on what had just transpired.  They accepted my fugue state as we packed up our recorders and equipment and headed out, knowing that we'd gather the next morning to go at it.

And as the self acceptance of age and experience became mine I began to spend more time thinking and teaching my students about this phenomenon, this toll that qualitative research could take - should take.  I taught it as a litmus test of whether you really were getting to something in your research or not.

And then, last night I was reading a beautiful book that one of my former students, and now accomplished environmental scientist and writer, Lauren Oakes just wrote - In Search of the Canary Tree (Basic Books, Hachette, 2018). The book is her journey studying the slowly disappearing Yellow Cedars in Alaska - her Stanford PhD dissertation work.

The first half of the book is a truly amazing story of a young woman setting out into some of the most wild of wilderness to map trees - some thriving, many dying.  The second half of the book is the story of her qualitative research - the many interviews with conservationists, fishers, native Alaskans with long ties to the land and sea.  And in the middle of collecting these stories her beloved father suddenly, dies. The loss, as she recounts - "irrevocable."

With only a short  break she continues to interview people to hear how they see the death of the cedars - this change, this loss.

Last night as I was reading I came upon a short passage.  Oakes is writing about what she felt living her research life and her personal life at such a sad and consequential time. 

"I was tired from putting my own loss on hold, from opening myself up again and again to hear and try to understand what so many people were experiencing in relation to the standing dead." 

I stopped.   How could this one sentence do this - capture what I'd been feeling for all these years.  To be a good, to be a great qualitative researcher, you work to disguise your own thoughts, opinions and needs or distress. You have to get out of the way and let the other person think and speak.  On good days you have exquisite timing in what you ask and say. On off days your questions fall flat.

You hear difficult things all the time:
     "Vaccinations are a conspiracy to murder minorities"
     "His pre-school teacher says he only needs more words"
     "Diabetes is my family's history.  No changing that."
     "I'm not planning to leave even if the volcano erupts"
     "No more soap and water for me - just sanitizer."
      "Ebola is going to kill most of us in Manhattan"

A trained therapist who works with patient or client over time - works towards a goal - making something better for the patient.  The qualitative researcher has to identify and accept what is. Often we're in and out quickly  We're careful to do no harm but we intrude. We choreograph the conversation, the dance - always having it appear as though the participant is leading.    As tactful and polite as we are, we nudge people to think and talk about things that stir their thoughts and emotions - the inequality, health risks, illness, endurance, fears and triumphs.   We pursue these to get our questions answered, our data gathered.  

And so in big and little ways, we absorb the harm.  It’s the tacit tradeoff we make when we do what Behar calls “ethnography that breaks your heart.”  (The Vulnerable Observer: Ethnography That Break Your Heart (Beacon, 1996). The momentary depletion Oakes put to words reminds me once again that it is the necessary path we walk.   And perhaps, as I'm aging, a longer nap is thoroughly justified. 

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