Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Coming in from the Margin: Research Practices, Representation and the Ordinary

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Coming in from the Margin: Research Practices, Representation and the Ordinary

Article excerpt


I distinctly remember how my first interview with Tammi (1) had ended. It was late afternoon and beginning to get dark outside. Her front door was open and I was half way through it when I said, in passing, "I really like your house--it's so warm and welcoming." In a matter-of-fact tone, she replied: "Well, it's a lot better than the one I lost in the flood of '89. I never liked that house. I lived there with my exhusband, who used to beat the crap out of me." (2) Tammi was one of the women I had interviewed as part of a larger study on women in Appalachia. I recall getting angry with myself for having turned off my digital recorder. When Tammi unexpectedly brought up flood and abuse, my immediate thoughts at the time had been: "Now this is the stuff interesting studies are made of!"

Not ten minutes earlier I had been winding up a "life map" exercise with Tammi in which I had asked her to draw a horizontal line across a page, with peaks and valleys to represent the highs and lows as they occurred during the 40 years her life. Across her map was a high and proud straight line, with one exception. The dip in the line, she explained, was her recent breast cancer diagnosis. The line came back up quickly and remained steady, Tammi added, because she was in remission and had regained her health. Where were the flood and the abusive husband? I wondered afterwards, as I drove away from Tammi's house. Now, much later, I am able to recognize that I had been simultaneously impressed and disappointed with the steady line of Tammi's life map. Tammi's description of her successful battle with breast cancer was admirable, and yet, I was also selfishly disappointed that she had not talked more about other past struggles. At that time I was still under the impression that an interesting life history was one overwhelmingly marked by difficulty, resilience and triumph. In short, I had wished Tammi were more marginal.

Tammi was one of seven women I had interviewed as part of an exploratory study on women in Appalachia, a region I had recently moved to but knew nothing about. The study focused on the women's perceptions of challenges they faced and resources available to them to address those challenges. A co-worker introduced me to Tammi and she was the first woman I interviewed. Tammi graciously helped me to contact two other women living in her surrounding area, and each of those women introduced me to further contacts. This method of gaining access to research participants is often called "snowball sampling" (Birenacki & Waldorf, 1981, p. 141; Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 124), and Tammi was the beginning of my snowball.

Although I had asked and received permission from my university to interview up to twenty women for my study, (3) I found myself wanting to have deeper, less restricted conversations. Thus I began thinking about the interviews I had already conducted, and looked for an opportunity to return to the field to go both deeper and wider. Several weeks later, I returned to interview Tammi a second time.

This time I replaced my structured interview protocol with very broad, open-ended questions. I asked Tammi to simply talk about her life, in any way she wanted. Tammi and I talked for hours. During this second interview, I was able to listen to Tammi's stories without worrying whether her answers adequately addressed my preconceived questions.

Later, when I began analyzing the transcripts from the two interviews, I realized what a difference the two different interview approaches had made. During the first interview, I had regretted not capturing Tammi's account of flood and abuse because these had corresponded with my line of questioning about life's "challenges." But my desire to hear about struggle and marginality had nearly overshadowed the rest of Tammi's narrative. Flood and abuse might have been interesting to write about, but positioning off-handed comments as if they were central would have been slanting Tammi's story to suit my own needs. …

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