gulp. you have something critical to say about your research site and/or participants…

Last week I posted on the importance of thinking ahead of time about how your research participants might react to what you’ve written about them. While that’s a problem, it can be avoided. But you may find yourself in a sticky situation with participants, one that you can’t duck. That’s when what you want to say is going to be critical – less than flattering about your research participants or a sub-section of them, and/or the research site, and/or the things that go on and that you’ve witnessed. Even if you have maintained great working relationships with participants and shown them everything that you’ve written so far and talked to them about the emerging ideas you have, you may still find yourself in the situation at the end of your project where you want to say something that you just know they won’t like.

This can cause sleepless nights. They’ve let me in to look at what they are doing and now I’m going to say something critical… I can’t not say it, as this is what my research results say and I have to be true to the analysis … but how can I report this in a way that’s acceptable, even-handed and fair, and doesn’t cause them distress ….

Now I don’t have all of the answers to this, and I don’t think anyone does. But I’ve certainly seen and experienced the problem.

I remember a research project a long time ago when a group of researchers were working with a school to help teachers change their practices. At the end of the project it seemed that, even though the teachers had done some good things with their classes, they were still talking about the students in really deficit terms. The researchers felt that they had to put this in the report. The teachers and the head were really upset about this, denied the researchers’ ‘evidence’ and then refused to have the team back in the school. They saw the text as a breaking of trust and the implicit research contract they had understood to be in operation.

Quite some time later I found myself in much the same situation. An artist had been working with a school where I was researching with colleagues, and written a book with the children which the teachers didn’t like, and the head refused to publish. The artist was, understandably, outraged by this. My colleagues and I decided that that the issue was worth writing about (see the published paper here), negotiated to do that with the school, and decided that the key thing was to put all four ‘sides’ of the issue – the views of the artist, the children, the head and the teachers. We chose to approach this as a ‘critical incident’; this allowed us to represent each point of view fairly and in ways that everyone appeared to feel was fair enough. Nobody seemed to feel badly misrepresented, although none of them liked our conclusion much – namely, that it was a no-win situation for everyone concerned. It was one of those times when things just don’t work out, too many competing agendas and needs operating all at once.

And I recall very vividly another tricky instance from a project involving case studies – the research team wanted to say both positive and some negative things about a number of the sites. It was important to the funder that they know the problems, and the sites too, but we didn’t want the people in the sites to get so defensive they couldn’t hear what was being said. So we wrote appreciative case studies which were about the ‘best’ that was going on, and which none of the sites could feel bad about – but we then wrote a cross case analysis where all of the ‘bad things’ were discussed but not attributed to any particular site. This critical discussion took as much space in our report as the appreciative work, so we showed symbolically that it was as important to understand the problems as the ‘good stuff’. But one site still complained that we hadn’t said enough about them that was positive.

But I’ve often been involved in projects where I/we have worked hard with participants on the ‘bad stuff’ before any writing has been done, and before anything has gone public. Participants then usually feel that they have moved on by the time anyone sees it. I now generally try to negotiate some kind of protocol at the outset of projects about bad news and going public, particularly in commissioned projects.

However you might want to look at arts based methods (see below) which can be particularly helpful in some tricky circumstances. I have examined several theses where people have written fiction in order to preserve anonymity, and to present negative information in ways that challenge but don’t directly confront. I’ve also worked on Reader’s Theatre and ethnodrama project reports which, like the critical incident approach, set out to present all points of view in a distanced but compelling way. The audience can themselves then see the various competing lines of thinking at work and thus better understand their own everyday experiences and practices. However, you do need to be either skillful at writing/filming in order to work with arts methods, or you need to enlist the assistance of someone who is.

The key point here is that you can’t dodge difficult issues. As a researcher you have both an obligation to report the knowledge that you have worked systematically to produce, but you also have an obligation to participants to not harm them in the process. And of course, preventing them knowing what you think can also be construed as harm, just as handling bad news carelessly might be. So this does mean finding ways and tools to help give the ‘bad news’ – and it also means forgiving yourself if it goes awry. Sometimes it just does go pear-shaped despite all best efforts. I’m afraid it is naïve to think that simply keeping participants on side through a project is always going to be the way to avoid difficulties. Sometimes sh**t happens, despite our best intentions and processes.

I’m interested to know what other people’s experiences are of giving bad news to people who’ve given their time and opened themselves up to our researcher eyes and ears. What was the issue? How did you handle it? Was there any particular tool or approach that you found helpful?

And, shouldn’t we talk about this more?

Additional resources:
Special OA issue of FQS on performative social science
Patricia Leavy 2009 Method meets art. Arts based research practice. Guilford Press (second edition coming)

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in arts based research, case study, critical incident, criticism of participants and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to gulp. you have something critical to say about your research site and/or participants…

  1. badblood says:

    I wrote about this issue in a post for the Research Whisperer — I was working in a community-based organisation in a role that ‘did the evidence stuff’ (research, evaluation, etc) and we got a new manager who saw evaluation as highly threatening and said, outright, she would censor anything that could make the service look bad. I was able to call on a couple of experienced researchers on my project reference group for advice. One said ‘Well if you’re not putting that issue back to the critical reference group to resolve then it’s not really action learning!’ The other made the very practical suggestion of splitting the findings between two reports, one for external stakeholders that emphasised the positives and one for internal use that was more warts-’n-all.

    Separately, in the consultation work I’ve done across a number of issues and sectors, I follow a practice similar to what you describe here — I call it ‘appreciative attribution’, where I’ll name an person/organisation if I’m quoting something they’ve said or done that deserves credit, but I’ll deidentify (or negotiate the wording) when I’m talking about something critically.

  2. Kip Jones says:

    “Finesse” –whatever that is! Also, letting the dust settle (and I think you’ve mentioned that). With a bit of time and space, not only our reactions to ‘difficult’ situations or experiences may mellow, but so will any responses to our reporting on them. I had an extremely unsettling and difficult encounter with a group of ‘citizen advisers’ for the research behind our film, RUFUS STONE. I immediately wrote about it on my blog, but subsequently was ‘asked’ to remove it, which I did. Their vitriolic comments at the time,however, ended up in the script for the film. So you are right: fiction works!
    Thanks for mentioning the FQS Special Issue and Patricia’s book.

  3. Steve says:

    I have seen this issue brewing in my own doctoral work for a few months now, and still can’t see how to resolve it. My nine participants all work in distinct school types, which is why they were selected, and so much of the description and analysis will necessarily be attributable to an individual (although I can start to see thanks to this blog and badblood’s response how I might at least reduce that).
    How do you cite participants and hope to say anything meaningful or insightful about these utterances at all without going beyond, problematising or at least placing in a wider context their own interpretation? Any of these acts has ethical implications.

    • pat thomson says:

      Yes, when you have a design which makes anonymity difficult this can be a very tricky problem. Im sure its something that your supervisor will be very involved in thinking about with you …

  4. M-H says:

    These are really difficult situations. Thanks for your thoughts, Pat. Another situation that is related but not exactly the same is when the press or a media outlet or social media latches onto your research and reports it in a way that doesn’t reflect what you thought you were saying. Participants or participating organisations then find themselves having to react against something you never thought or said. These things can take on a life of their own, and are a another less-discussed danger of research.

  5. Chris says:

    I have in the past been a little involved in some research with a certain marginalised cohort. There’s a perception or perceived pressure that research must fit within certain narratives and a very large elephant or two in the room go unmentioned. In this area, I feel like there’s generations of either starry-eyed academics writing essentially the same thing, or others who simply walk away feeling muted because it isn’t acceptable or too risky to offer certain kinds of analyses. In this instance there might be clear political implications or disruption to participants’ lives should some things be acknowledged, meaning there could be an ethical justification for not publishing some research. However, this also means that the story being told might be missing important features and therefore be inaccurate. I sometimes wonder about what data and analyses go unpublished out the fear of offending or respect for participants?

    Another issue might be interviews with members of organisations who conflate their participation with the researcher’s support for their group or cause. Should it be mentioned to participants in advance that the reseacher’s analysis may not be favourable to the participant or what they represent?

    • pat thomson says:

      There’s a very nice discussion in Fine and Weiss book The unknown city about dealing with poor working class interviewees who were also violent and racist. They talk about how they wrestled with it, how not to reinforce stereotypes, how not to reproduce romantic views.

  6. Pingback: anonymity in research – how now? | patter

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