In this piece, two early career researchers (ECRs), Muna and Nour, reflect on their experience of conducting qualitative research. The blog post is a continuation of the vibrant discussion the four authors had at the ECR Network Symposium held in June 2022. They show how, through careful and ongoing reflection on their decisions about theory, method and ethics, they created opportunities to make a contribution to knowledge in their own academic disciplines and to their understanding of qualitative research more generally. Muna begins by thinking about her ethical obligations to her research participants. Nour follows with an account of the benefits of flexible reflexivity when it comes to thinking about theory.
Being reflexive in the face of ethical dilemmas
Muna conducted a longitudinal case study about teachers’ cognition for her PhD. Work with the participants began before the Covid-19 outbreak and continued through for 11 months; in this time, some pivotal questions were raised highlighting a set of dilemmas related to ‘unspoken’ (or perhaps ‘taken for granted’) research ethics. One important question related to the participants’ wellbeing. Anxiety and stress, arising from the fact that the outcomes of the pandemic were unknown, were unexpected findings in the study, with the participants showing signs of depression. These findings led the researcher to reflect on the ethical obligations associated with the study. Should the researcher risk alarming the participants by sharing the fact that signs of poor wellbeing had been found? To what extent would the researcher’s own wellbeing and vulnerability be affected by these findings?
These reflective thoughts and reflexivity played a significant role in the study, encouraging more critical engagement with the research; for example, due to the Covid-19 outbreak, regular communication was not sustained from most participants. One participant became busy trying to save her business and was not responsive to the research; the researcher decided to respect her space and stopped further communication. However, reflecting on the research journey did not always result in finding answers. Instead, it may be preferable to leave these questions open, rather than settling for unconvincing and incomplete answers. This was the case not only because it is challenging to find answers to contemporary dilemmas (May & Perry, 2017), but also because this process was about the researcher confronting their own research and noting the dilemmas faced during the research process (Fine & Weis, 2004).
‘Finding’ a theoretical framework: Challenges and reflections
By conducting a qualitative needs analysis, Nour attempts to gain an in-depth understanding of the different sorts of challenges Algerian science PhD students face when writing scientific articles. Among the decisions doctoral students have to make is to select an appropriate theoretical framework (TF) to guide the data collection and analysis processes. Nour’s experience with ‘finding’ a candidate TF was characterised by confusion, indecisiveness and the fear of not ticking the box, as she was unable to identify the TF that aligned with her study’s aim.
‘An important takeaway is the necessity to develop one’s ability to turn an obstacle into an advantage.’
At this stage, it was necessary to find a robust TF; a useful starting point was to consult what research methodologists had posited on the matter. Grant and Osanloo (2014), for example, asserted that ‘Qualitative research designs may begin with a […] less structured theoretical framework to keep the researcher from forcing preconceptions on the findings’ (p. 16). Similarly, Nour’s approach was to develop predetermined categories by drawing on a variety of relevant theories (that is, deductively) then, using thematic analysis, identify the themes from the data she collected (that is, inductively).
Upon continuous reflection, Nour’s conviction is that qualitative inquiry offers flexibility as long as all decisions are justified. An important takeaway is the necessity to develop one’s ability to turn an obstacle into an advantage.
Muna and Nour’s reflexive approach to their research is evident in their accounts of the dilemmas they faced along the way – dilemmas that they faced not only in the early stages of their work but throughout the journey, and even at what might have been expected to be the ‘end’; ends which may have turned out to be other beginnings.
Both Muna and Nour are willing to share their reflections on their research journey and the obstacles they have faced along the way. In doing so, they generously create an opportunity for other ECRs, and other researchers generally, to think of problems in their research as topics for analysis, and as potential contributions to our understanding of research theory, methods and ethics, and the interaction between these three.
Fine, M., & Weis, L. (2004). Writing the ‘wrongs’ of fieldwork: Confronting our own research/writing dilemmas in urban ethnographies. In G. Shacklock & J. Smyth (Eds.), Being reflexive in critical educational and social research. Falmer Press.
Grant, C., & Osanloo, A. (2014). Understanding, selecting, and integrating a theoretical framework in dissertation research: Creating the blueprint for your ‘house’. Administrative Issues Journal: Connecting Education, Practice, and Research, 4(2), 12–26. https://doi.org/10.5929/2014.4.2.9
May, T., & Perry, B. (2017). Reflexivity: The essential guide. Sage.