The Joy of Qualitative Research

I have considered myself a qualitative researcher since I used my undergraduate BSc Psychology dissertation to explore students’ perceptions of suicide. At the time, I was working as a befriender at Maytree Respite Centre for the Suicidal. The rich and often harrowing stories shared within the nurturing walls of the Maytree house could never be truly quantified and to do so would have removed the humanity and pain interwoven through the narratives of Maytree’s guests.

My dissertation sought to capture students’ thoughts and beliefs about suicide and thematically analysed interviews were the approach I chose. This soon became a project exploring mental health stigma - a key theme which arose from my participants’ contributions. Creating work which closely conveyed my participants’ lived realities and provided a legacy of their voices soon became a significant intrinsic motivator for me.

From then on, my passion for qualitative methods grew and continues to endure. Whilst I decided not to work clinically as a psychologist within a top down mandated policy context of the English National Health Service (NHS), the gratitude I feel resulting from the privilege of being able to just listen to people’s stories through my research is immense. I am not there to treat nor influence, I simply offer the space, learn and reflect.

Though I have skills in both quantitative and qualitative methods, it is my qualitative work that has led to profoundly fascinating insights on a human level. In my career, I have had the joy of working on numerous academic and non-academic research and evaluation projects in a wide range of organisational contexts. I am predominantly interested in studying groups of workers within health and social care, utilising ethnographic methods. In much the same way that an anthropologist of days gone by would live with a distant tribe, I too embed myself in the day to day reality of the organisations I study.

However, I don’t subscribe to the notion of the removed observer nor to ‘othering’ (researcher vs studied subject). Rather, I participate in the projects and programmes I study and become part of the wider team, gaining an in depth insight into their work and professional relationships.

I have learned that relationships at work can make or break a project (I write more on this here: http://www.peah.it/2020/11/9020/). I have also gained tremendous insight into the interactions and organisation of NHS teams — but those elements that are tacit until observed and analysed, rather than what in Scheinian terms is visible as part of an organisation’s culture.

Through my qualitative research and evaluation work, I have observed, listened to and learned from offenders within the criminal justice system, homeless Polish men in London, senior policymakers in several government departments, C-suite executives, clinicians, allied health professionals, administrators and patients in numerous health specialties, those diagnosed with dangerous personality disorder within high security settings, charity innovators, those from disadvantaged communities and many more individuals and groups from all walks of life. Each was far more than any of these labels can ever convey. Qualitative research is a wonderful outlet for my curiosity about people’s understandings of their unique experiences.

(photo by my daughter aged 10)

My research has at times been used to inform policy, secure more funding for programmes of work with societal benefit and to improve management practices or patient care pathways. I also advise others on their research, either as a board member or as a ‘critical friend’/peer-reviewer. Much of this work includes helping to support working relationships between researchers and the operational teams implementing the programme of work which is being researched. These softer, qualitative skills are crucial here and again ones I have increasingly developed as a result of my own qualitative research.

Qualitative research is therefore a powerful tool for capturing human experience, and one that can lead to tangible social change. Over fifteen years later, I approach each of my research and evaluation projects with just as much joy as I did that very first undergraduate dissertation. I am thankful for the voices of Maytree’s residents whose powerful stories of human suffering and survival inspired me to create a paradigm for my life’s work.

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