Mixing it up: Participation and Qualitative Research

Having made a commitment to a participatory approach it is often assumed that the methods will neatly slot into place. The reality, however, is that different methods have different effects to both foster and limit participation as Sonia Ospina and her colleagues found.  They were investigating the Leadership for a Changing World program that is sponsored by the Ford Foundation.  The program from 2001-2005 encompassed 165 individuals from 92 social change organizations involved in a diverse range of activities from community building to advocacy on a range of issues from health care to the environment.  The researcher’s commitment to a participatory approach led them to develop a “hybrid design” that would use three established qualitative methods in order to balance the interests of the funder, academic colleagues as well as engage program participants. It was successful but “demanding” throwing up thorny issues around “positionality”.

Mixing Methods and Participation: Shifting Positions

The researchers were interested in exploring leadership as a collective achievement rather than focusing on individual characteristics and behaviors and developed the following research question- “in what ways do communities trying to make social change engage in the work of leadership”.  To seek answers they employed three methods:

  • narrative inquiry – involving site visits and extended interviews to develop a “leadership story” for each organization;
  • ethnographic inquiry – working with individuals over 3 months to paint a portrait of particular leadership issues and practices;
  • cooperative inquiry – group work engaged in cycles of action and reflection to explore a “burning question” of their practice.

The advantage of three methods was that they could “weave the lessons” from each of the different streams into their research. Their goal was to combine these conventional methods with a commitment to participation and to adopt a “positionality” – their relationship as researcher’s vis-à-vis research participants – as one of “reciprocal collaboration” (drawing on the work of Herr and Anderson who propose 6 positions ranging from an insider studying their own practices to an outsider working with insiders).  They found, however, that maintaining such a stance proved to be difficult – influenced by three principle issues – “control over the research process, the action orientation of the research and the voice represented in the production of knowledge” – issues directly influenced by each research method.

For example, when using the cooperative inquiry and ethnography qualitative methods, the control of the research was quite clearly shared with participants in contrast to narrative inquiry and cross-site analysis where researchers managed the process entirely. The participants found narrative inquiry “too removed from their daily work and were less interested in participating in all its stages”.  The researchers did find real benefits of sharing control, arguing that the more democratic process enhanced the quality of knowledge generated but they also point to the energy involved in ongoing negotiations over who would do what and the heavy investments in building trust that were triggered anew each time a new participant joined the project.

In terms of the action orientation of the research, the cooperative inquiry and collaborative ethnographies enabled participants to propose questions of relevance to their work and facilitate a positionality of mutual collaboration.  Narrative inquiry, however, was more focused on producing knowledge for external practitioners and academic audiences having “no direct consequences for any given participant’s work”. While the three methods enabled the development of materials that could be tailored to different audiences the researchers were disappointed that not all “products were successful for participants” especially the narrative inquiry that “based on the participants feedback we decided that the stories contribution did not warrant the labor involved”.

Finally, in terms of voice – considering the knowledge that was created and whose voice was represented – the researchers observed the greatest impact on their positionality.

“While we designed a process to engage many voices at multiple points, each final product represents choices that inevitably excluded some representations.  Here our positionality became particularly acute…. Who has the power to make those final choices?”

Cooperative inquiry as a method enabled the voices of participants to be represented in final products in comparison to cross-site analysis where the researchers operated as outsiders working with insiders where the researchers “voice was dominant”.  This experience of trying to understand their relationship towards participants resulted in some significant challenges:

  • The researchers had less autonomy to interpret data and draw conclusions than they were use to.

“Traditional qualitative researchers, like their quantitative counterparts, have more degrees of freedom to pursue their own understandings of the data than action researchers do”.

  • The researchers experienced challenges associated with producing materials that described a single organization.  Securing participant approval meant that sometimes whole sections of a document were not included if participants perceived the material to be inaccurate, misleading or potentially harmful or that they simply disagreed with the researcher’s interpretation.
  • The process favored positive assessments of the organizations involved.  For example, the narrative method tried to use appreciative inquiry to overcome suspicions of the participants but this in turn “determined the type of stories that we heard”.

Sometimes an appreciative inquiry was confused (by participants as well as by members of the research team) as an invitation to whitewash the messiness of real experience by downplaying its problematic dimensions.

  • The researchers also spoke to the people that the participants suggested therefore missing an opportunity to explore the “work of leadership in contested contexts”.
  • The diversity of voices made it hard to generate coherent content and integrate the knowledge into a single account.

Mixed Methods Thoughts

I enjoyed reading this article – it shows researchers grappling with their commitment to a participatory approach in order to meet the different needs of their stakeholders.  The hybrid design exposes how some methods may be more suited to increasing participants control, voice and practical outcomes, as well as the importance of researchers having the freedom to hold a critical stance and a position of “reciprocal collaboration”.  Finding the ‘right’ mix of methods and the necessary skills may, however, make these types of projects extremely challenging to design and implement.  The researchers also recognize that hybrid designs inevitably mean a loss of quality in the way each individual method is implemented but the value is in their combination.  The overall effect is a richer, fuller picture that is arguably worth all the effort.

*Ospina, S., Dodge, J., Foldy, E., & Hofmann-Pinilla, A. ( 2008 ). Taking the action turn: Lessons from bring participation to qualitative research. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.) The SAGE handbook of action research: participative inquiry and practice. Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE.


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