Avoiding your data (also known as burying your head in the sand)


It has been about seven weeks since I finished doing interviews with the participants in my study. I did 14 interviews in total, and they ranged from around 50 minutes to nearly two hours. Much as the process of interviewing was tiring, and the transcribing a bit of a nightmare, for the most part I loved doing the interviews and having the opportunity to talk to the female doctoral students who had agreed to share their stories with me.

But I’ve avoided really looking at the data I collected during those interviews. The thought of sifting through the transcripts and the responsibility of trying to derive meaning from them seemed so intimidating. I distracted myself with other interesting things; reading about feminist research and narrative inquiry, starting on my methodology, volunteering to organise a conference, and setting up a writing group. In my defence, these were (almost) all things I that needed to do, and would have had to do at some point- and so it hasn’t been a waste of time. Yet what motivated me to start this research was the opportunity to find out about the experiences of my participants, and understand the various factors which affect their career aspirations during their PhD. And I won’t achieve this by burying my head in the sand.

So I’m finally engaging with the interview data I collected. I decided to listen back to the audio and re-read the transcripts, without putting any pressure on myself to start immediately analysing what I found. I wrote short summaries of  the key points of interest in each interview, and made a note to go back and look at some instances in more depth. Even after just doing this, I felt immediately like I had made a decent start and that I was no longer, as Silverman (2009) puts it, ‘drowning in data’.

I found that listening back to the audio from one particular interview reminded me of the smaller details of the interview; where it had taken place and how warm it had been that day; the small talk we made before the interview began, and how one seemingly offhand comment revealed so much. How fast the participant had spoken throughout, except when she was unsure, or where I could see that she was recounting something which was more difficult to voice. The way she talked about not wanting to be defined by her studies, and what I’d felt and thought to myself when she said that.

These details are the things we easily forget or dismiss; the parts of the data we collect that are glossed over and therefore written out of research. But by writing them into our research, we give a more detailed, rich account of our data- what Geertz (1973) called ‘thick description’. Our research is more faithful, and more transparent for being written in this way.

My approach to research is reflexive; I believe that it is important to acknowledge the impact that I as the researcher have on the research, and to actively reflect on this. My relationship with participants affects what they tell me and how they ‘tell’ themselves. As Stanley and Wise (1993: 161) contend:

‘Because the basis of all research is a relationship, this necessarily involves the presence of the researcher as a person… One’s self can’t be left behind, it can only be omitted from discussions and written accounts of the research process… it is an omission, a failure to discuss something which has been present within the research itself… in doing research we cannot leave behind what it is to be a person alive in the world.’ 

This approach to research both acknowledges and values subjectivity. My own thoughts and reflections affect how the research is conducted- the questions I ask in the interview, the insights I draw from what participants tell me, and how I choose to write about them. The challenge comes in trying to express the subtleties of what participants disclose, drawing meaning from how they tell their stories and representing this in a way which is interesting, meaningful and respectful to them.

All of this requires an approach to research which is not evasive, and which places value on the contextual detail of the data- an approach which clearly stems not from avoiding your data and burying your head in the sand, but purposively engaging with the generously given stories of participants, and trying to do them justice in your representations.