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?