Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Conducting Qualitative Research on Parental Incarceration: Personal Reflections on Challenges and Contribution

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Conducting Qualitative Research on Parental Incarceration: Personal Reflections on Challenges and Contribution

Article excerpt

Incarceration has become a fact of life for many American families. According to recent national data, more than half of the 2.3 million inmates incarcerated in America's prisons and jails during 2008 were parents to minor children (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010). These data further suggest that inmates were parents to an estimated 2.7 million children under the age of 18, or approximately one out of every 28 children in the United States. Researchers from across the social sciences have documented that parental incarceration often has implications for parents' economic prospects and psychological well-being, for children's behavioral, academic, and emotional outcomes, and for family-level processes (for reviews, see Arditti, 2012; Dallaire, 2007; Johnson & Easterling, 2012; Murray, Bijleveld, Farrington, & Loeber, 2014; Murray, Farrington, & Sekol, 2012), underscoring the need to understand when, how, and why incarceration affects children and families.

The majority of research on parental incarceration has utilized quantitative methodological approaches and has relied heavily on secondary analysis of datasets that were not designed to address questions related to parental incarceration, which has limited our ability to identify the mechanisms by which incarceration affects individual and family well-being (Dallaire, Zeman, & Thrash, 2014). Qualitative approaches to incarceration research can help remedy this gap (Edin, Nelson, & Paranal, 2004) and, in general, provide an important complement to quantitative investigations. Qualitative explorations offer detail and texture, give "voice" to participants, and can capture aspects of family processes and functioning that are inaccessible via quantitative protocols. Indeed, a growing body of qualitative work in this area has revealed unique insights about the experience of parenting behind bars (Arditti, Smock, & Parkman, 2005; Enos, 2001; Golden, 2005; Owen, 1998; Shamai & Kichal, 2008), the challenges of reentry among female probationers (Arditti & Few, 2006), factors that influence how children's caregivers are affected by parental incarceration (Turanovic, Rodriguez, & Pratt, 2012), the social and emotional difficulties that children encounter during parental incarceration (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008; Siegel, 2011), and the conflicting feelings that children often have about parental reentry (Johnson & Easterling, 2015a; Yocum & Nath, 2011). Of particular importance, qualitative studies have also illuminated evidence of positive functioning that has yet to emerge from quantitative studies. For example, qualitative investigations have revealed that incarceration may serve as a "turning point" or key factor in motivating positive change for parents (Shamai & Kochal, 2008; Edin, Nelson, & Paranal, 2004), that it can help families to pull together in new and productive ways (Arditti & Few, 2006), and that children with incarcerated parents are often resourceful in seeking out social support and enacting healthy coping strategies (Johnson & Easterling, 2015b; Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008).

Despite the promise of qualitative work for research on justice-involved individuals and their families, it poses a number of logistical and ethical challenges for researchers. The purpose of this paper is to describe our method, discuss the challenges we have encountered in our qualitative work with incarcerated mothers and with adolescents who have experienced parental incarceration, and offer suggestions for overcoming these challenges. We build on previous discussions of conducting research in prison settings (Apa et al., 2012; Arditti et al., 2010; Downing, Polzer, & Levan, 2013; Maeve, 1998; Patenaude, 2004) in three important ways. First, our focus is on exploring family issues related to incarceration with qualitative methodology, specifically using what we term a "phenomenologically-informed" approach. Second, we discuss the challenges of interviewing children with incarcerated parents. …

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