Today brought some interesting discussions on qualitative fieldwork, including on researcher roles and relations during data generation. First up was a COCAPP-A project meeting which included a conversation about observational methods in inpatient mental health settings. Second was a seminar led by Michael Coffey‘s PhD student Brian Mfula, drawing on his ongoing PhD experiences of ethnographic fieldwork centring on care planning and care coordination in forensic mental health care.
Brian shared his experiences of negotiating access, and of his reading and thinking about insider and outsider roles. This led to a wide-ranging talk amongst those present on fieldnotes and approaches to qualitative research (Grounded theory, anyone? Phenomenology? Or perhaps thematic analysis is more your thing?). We talked, too, about reflexivity, and knowing when (and how) to leave the field. Along the way this took us to the National Centre for Research Methods’ excellent Review Paper, How many qualitative interviews is enough?
Around ten years ago I contributed a chapter covering some of this territory to Davina Allen and Patricia Lyne’s edited book, The Reality of Nursing Research: Politics, Practices and Processes. Titled Data generation, this contrasted survey principles and practices in The All Wales Community Mental Health Nursing Stress Study with the ideas and methods in my (then-ongoing) ethnographic PhD, Health and Social Care for People with Severe Mental Health Problems. I wrote about decision-making, and the extent to which data are interactionally produced by researchers and participants together:
Whilst different strategies place different expectations and demands on nurse researchers, this chapter has also shown that – whatever approach is followed – data generation is always a purposeful activity demanding a reflexive stance. The principle of reflexivity underpins the idea that research always takes place in contexts, shaped to significant degree through an interaction between researcher and researched. The character of data produced in a study is moderated by aspects of the researcher’s personal biography and their interaction with research participants. This is a well-established principle in the social sciences. In nursing research, however, reflexive investigators have to give consideration not only to general biographical aspects such as age and gender, but also to their specific occupational backgrounds and practitioner experiences. A self-conscious, reflexive approach includes acknowledgement of the utility and the limitations of practitioner knowledge, and the implications of this for data production.
I’m now thinking that today’s seminar and discussions show how live these issues remain, and will ever remain so.