We first met Meaghan, a young woman recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, in Assignment 1, and have continued to explore her story through Module 2. This week, we return to Meaghan’s story as she learns about the role that qualitative research can play in addressing questions related to living with the disease.
Although Meaghan does not think of herself as having an unhealthy diet, she follows her doctor’s advice and begins to think more critically about the food choices she makes. She also joins a local diabetes support group. After several visits, Meaghan begins to develop some questions of her own about the role that changes in access to food and food preferences have played in her own family’s experiences with type 2 diabetes.
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Meaghan and many of her relatives are members of a First Nation in northeastern B.C., and she has often heard her grandmother talk about the major upheavals in community life following the arrival of European settlers to the region in the mid-nineteenth century. Restricted access to land and resources, combined with economic shifts, meant that families in Meaghan’s community began to rely less on foods that were hunted or gathered from the nearby forests, grasslands, and river valleys. Store-bought, processed foods became more prevalent, and, for some people, began to replace country foods as prestige items.
Today, processed foods are convenient and relatively cheap, and are preferred by many people over foods like moose meat and wild berries. Meaghan wonders if this shift had an impact on the rise in type 2 diabetes among her family members over the past two generations. When she raises these questions with her support group leader, he introduces her to Terry, a public health researcher who is interested in the same issues.
Terry is excited to tell Meaghan about her latest research project: an ethnographic study of the role that food availability and choice play in the instance of type 2 diabetes in First Nations communities. In addition to learning about contemporary trends, Terry is interested in the historical trajectory of this shift, and people’s perceptions about the relationship between changing cultural practices, food choice, and health. She provides Meaghan with an overview of her research design, which she describes as an observe, ask, read approach.
First, Terry requests permission from the participant community to conduct research there. She learns about local research protocols and ensures that proper research ethics are followed throughout the study. Next, she conducts participant observation with ten local families over an 18-month period, noting their shopping and eating habits, and asking questions along the way. She also asks to tag along when family members go hunting, trapping, fishing, or gathering, which nearly half of them do at some point during the year. In order to gain a more thorough understanding of community members’ relationships with food, culture, and health, Terry conducts in-depth interviews with 50 people — men and women from various age groups.
During the course of the research project, Terry writes daily field notes, and once her data begins to accumulate, she writes reflective memos to help her identify and sort out emerging themes. These memos also help her to identify if she needs to revise her interview questions or participant observation habits in order to better address her research questions. Terry tells Meaghan that she also plans to visit the provincial archives to gather primary and secondary historical information about eating habits, food procurement, and changing subsistence patterns, in order to make links to contemporary experiences within the community.
When Meaghan meets Terry, Terry is just entering into the data analysis phase of her research project. In addition to developing themes and codes for her data, Terry also believes that her analysis will be enhanced by considering her data through the theoretical lens of a body of theory called political economy. Political economy considers the role of political power in structuring economic possibilities and constraints. Used together with her own themes and codes, this theoretical lens will help Terry to build a theory to address her research questions.
Once Terry has developed a working theory, she will return to her data to test it by searching for negative cases. She will continue to revise and test her theory until no negative cases are found. (Don’t worry—we will learn about data analysis and theory next week. Once we do cover these topics, we will return to this case to help support your understanding of the qualitative research process from start to finish).
After reading Meaghan’s case study, answer the following questions. Keep in mind that these are the types of questions that you should be able to apply to any qualitative research report in order to assess whether the study was carried out properly and how the researcher(s) reached their conclusions.
1. How does the researcher describe her approach to research ethics protocols?
2. What qualitative research design is the researcher using? How can you tell?
3. What might the research design look like if the researcher had taken another approach? Choose an alternative approach and outline a research design for this project, using that approach.
4. Describe the types of data gathering techniques used by the researcher, and discuss the types of information that might result from each of these techniques.
Meghan’s Case (4)
Now that you have explored data analysis techniques and theories in relation to qualitative approaches, go back to the group discussion you started in Lesson 7 and continue by considering the following questions.
Answer this questions
1. What kind of a role does theory play in helping Terry to analyze her data and develop conclusions?
2. What kind of theoretical lens did Terry use to inform her research? Why did she choose this lens, and what does she hope it will help her to understand?
4. Are there other theoretical lenses that she might have used that would provide a different perspective?