Sister-to-Sister Talk: Transcending Boundaries and Challenges in Qualitative Research with Black Women*

By Few, April L.; Stephens, Dionne P. et al. | Family Relations, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Sister-to-Sister Talk: Transcending Boundaries and Challenges in Qualitative Research with Black Women*


Few, April L., Stephens, Dionne P., Rouse-Arnett, Marlo, Family Relations


Our purpose is to discuss the challenges that Black women researchers face when doing qualitative research with Black women on sensitive topics. From a Black feminist perspective, we explore the dynamics of race, class, and gender in the informant-researcher relationship between Black women. We also share five recommendations for conducting ethical qualitative research with Black women: contextualizing research, contextualizing subjectivity, triangulating multiple sources, monitoring symbolic power, and caring in the research process.

Key Words: African American, ethics, feminism, qualitative research, women.

In thinking about how to conduct ethical research with Black women that is empowering for the community and those involved in the research process, three Black family studies scholars came to terms with how research on Black women and families has been historically conducted and presented in family studies and similar disciplines. We identified five ways in which the experiences of Black women and families have been misrepresented, misappropriated, and/or misconstrued.

1. Deviance and negative developmental outcomes historically have been the dominant foci of studies on Black family life (Bell-Scott, 1982; McLoyd, 1998).

2. Researchers commonly have represented Black family life through comparative quantitative data collected mostly from Whites. Other racial-ethnic groups were included less often. Thus, Blackness or the experiences of Blacks was defined in terms of difference from Whiteness (Jones, 1991).

3. Although studies on sensitive topics with Blacks often are descriptive in nature, they lack within-group investigations and often are based on nonrepresentative groups of Blacks drawn from clinical, high-risk, and convenience samples (Murry, 1992, 1995; Staples, 1994; Wyatt, 1991).

4. Quantitative findings about the effect of race generally are by-products of statistical controls for race or ethnicity (McLoyd, 1998).

5. Researchers have used steadfastly traditional theories that do not reflect holistically Black women's experiences (Allen, 2000; Bell-Scott, 1982; Dilworth-Anderson, Burton, & Johnson, 1993; McAdoo, 1991; McLoyd, 1998; Staples, 1970).

In considering these five phenomena, we provide documentation of how stereotypes and myths about Black families in general and Black women specifically have been perpetuated. From this documentation, we strategized about how to avoid these pitfalls in research.

Our efforts reflect a series of conversations about approaching qualitative research that address sensitive topics with Black women among three Black family studies scholars. In coffee shops and each other's homes, we discussed what we were learning as we interacted with Black women informants from diverse backgrounds. We talked about the few published articles on the process of interviewing Black women (Johnson-Bailey, 1999) that could serve as a template for our own research endeavors. We wanted to know how other Black women scholars negotiated and transcended boundaries that emerge and dissipate between Black women in the researcher-informant relationship and how they were able to translate sister-to-sister talk into contributions to family studies literature. Sister-to-sister talk is Afrocentric slang to describe congenial conversation or positive relating in which life lessons might be shared between Black women. It is in the spirit of those conversations that we decided to share our experiences of this aspect of qualitative research and to encourage other women scholars, particularly Black women scholars, to write about overcoming challenges in our pursuit of truth and knowledge about, by, and for Black women.

Another revelation that emerged from our conversations was that although we came from diverse families of origin, linguistic traditions, geographical locations, and socioeconomic status and were at different phases of our academic career, we were bound by the commonalities of being both Black and female in academia and in American society, as well as identifying ourselves as Black feminist scholars. …

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