Reflecting on collaborative scholarship down under

Authors: Caitlin Gormley (University of Glasgow) and Berindah Aicken (University of New South Wales)

On working together

Travelling to the other side of the world to analyse transcripts seems like a mid-PhD crisis, however connecting with the few other researchers in this niche area was an opportunity too good to pass up; especially the prospect of meeting another PhD student who had also recently completed researching with people with learning disability/cognitive impairment in prison. After meeting on Australian soil, we decided to make the most of being within the same time zone to draw upon each other’s skills and knowledge. We took two weeks to reconsider our ‘problems’ as challenges which can be overcome with a fresh perspective through discussion, swapping transcripts and realising the support available in working together.

Moving out of the fieldwork phase of research is a difficult transition. You’ve just spent a year co-producing qualitative data with participants; transcribing endless hours of interviews verbatim, hearing your own voice, and all the cringe-worthy moments that this brings (although, see Bird, 2005); and, wondering what to do with the sheer volume of this information. As one of our colleagues pointed out:

Nietzsche

Source: Quopic.

Sharing your work with another person, particularly at this stage, can be a really daunting task. Your baby is now a toddler. However, once you get over the initial trepidation of laying yourself bare, it is a positive, enriching and validating process.

We started by having long lunches on UNSW’s library lawn, just talking about our research. One of our initial anxieties was that our projects were too similar, and that our backgrounds were too distinct. However, these long conversations were really important to abate these fears as we realised that our work is distinct yet complimentary. Through this organic process of talking, eating, and talking some more, we discovered that we could maximise our research potential and reach by laying our cards on the table with one another.

Swapping transcripts

To fully appreciate one another’s methodological approach and style, we swapped the transcripts of one participant we each found challenging to analyse objectively due to the emotive nature of the content. Traditionally, for a solo qualitative researcher, this would be a terrifying prospect. We deliberately put ourselves out there in a vulnerable position, but overcoming any perceived concerns has led to nothing but reward in comprehensively understanding the other’s respective, and our shared, research experiences. This process reconfirmed the differences between our work, cemented our trust and enhanced our respect for each other’s projects.

An independent observer can assist the researcher to maintain objectivity. The content of in-depth qualitative interviews, especially those sensitive in subject, will conjure a degree of researcher subjectivity; research can never be value-free (Becker, 1967) Reading, coding and providing feedback provided space, distance and recognition of the researcher within the co-production of interviews. Whilst the aim is not to use the other’s conceptual lens or coding approach, the goal of this activity has been to:

  • demonstrate rigour within qualitative data analysis;
  • critically acknowledge our interaction with the stories we have heard;
  • consider our positionality within the research relationship.

In other words, we provided respite for one another while appropriately marshalling the boundaries of the research exchange beyond the fieldwork.

Supporting each other

This collaborative reflective practice led us towards a supportive relationship which fostered our sharing of ethical and moral challenges which came out of the fieldwork and validating the scope and potential contribution of our research. This has resulted in a holistic approach, which draws from our strengths, overcomes the fear of being judged by a peer and enhanced our ability to communicate willingly, openly and constructively with one another.

Our research falls within an under-developed area of knowledge, so connection is crucial equally in terms of our own academic and professional development, and that of the field as a whole. We critically discussed what it means in practice to inhabit such an interdisciplinary domain where theoretical contribution is made by: criminology; sociology; psychology; and, disability studies. It is invaluable to take this time to have these conversations with another who is at the same stage of research, grappling with similar issues and deciding how to honour the participants’ stories through an interdisciplinary melting pot.

Connecting in this way can minimise the isolation which may be experienced while actually doing a PhD, and can, in turn, harness a sense of community. Put another way, having someone stand next to you while the abyss returns your gaze has an empowering drive to move forward, beyond the hurdles.

References:

Becker, H. (1967) ‘Whose side are we on?’ Social Problems 14(3): 234-47

Bird, C. (2005) ‘How I Stopped Dreading and Learned to Love Transcription’ Qualitative Inquiry 11(2): 226-248

About the authors:

Caitlin Gormley is in the third year of her PhD at the University of Glasgow and has spent this semester at the University of New South Wales, Australia. The institutional visit has been spent connecting with researchers with similar interests while analysing her fieldwork data. Her main research interests are around the sociology of punishment, prisons and penology, learning disability, and phenomenology. You can reach Caitlin via email at j.gormley.1@research.gla.ac.uk

Berindah Aicken is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, Australia and is a Chief Psychologist for Corrective Services New South Wales. She has worked with people in custody, particularly people with cognitive impairment who offend, for the last 11 years. Her research interests relate to the liminal experience of people with cognitive impairment who offend and assisting them to share their stories. You can contact Berindah by email at Berindah.Aicken@dcs.nsw.gov.au