Tag Archives: parent perspectives

Knowing when to stop

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I’m really enjoying my research at the moment. I know this will probably change over the next few months, but for the moment there it is. Enjoyment.

A few things are contributing to my current happiness:
1. Full-time on-campus study is working well for me. I have a routine, a stable workspace where I can have things set up ready to swing into action the moment I arrive, friendly but equally focused colleagues, and access to those secondary but important ‘parastudy’ items (coffee, food, wi-fi, library).
2. I seem to be hitting a good work-life balance – at least for the moment.
3. I’ve stopped recruitment and in a few weeks I will have completed my final interview.

It’s the third of those points that is the focus of this post.

After a rather lacking-in-confidence start, I’m now feeling at ease in my discussions with parents. I have my list of materials – audio-recorder, mapping tools, paperwork – pretty much down pat so I don’t foof around too much getting myself ready to go. I’ve had enough (and varied enough) conversations that although each one is different, I feel capable of responding to most unexpected situations. I have a few core questions that I (mostly) remember to ask in some form, depending on the flow of the discussion. And I know that if I was to stop right now, I have enough information upon which to build my thesis.

So why am I still going? This is something my supervisor has gently challenged me with recently, and I’ve been asking myself the same question. In some methodologies there is a clear guide to help answer this question: you state a particular number of questionnaires to be circulated and your sample is the number returned, for example. Or you code as you go, and stop when you reach saturation and no new ideas are emerging. For me, each interview brings a new slant on the topic. As unique as everyone’s situation is, every parent’s information will in some way be different to every other parent’s.

An added factor for me is that I enjoy the process of listening to the parents who are taking part in the study. It fascinates and energises me. I’m inspired and intrigued by them, and honoured that they trust me with their information.

So, at some point, I will need to draw that imaginary line in the sand and say ‘enough’. At that point, my study lurches into a new phase, and this is perhaps also why I’m putting off the line-drawing moment. It was easy enough to decide to stop recruiting; this did feel like hard work, sending out multiple slightly customised pleas for assistance to reach parents, going back with more information, explaining my ethics approval and why I can’t just change my public documents at will, waiting on all sorts of different agencies’ internal processes over which I had absolutely no control (‘could you just send an email about your study to … and they’ll have a look at it and get back to you’). Deciding to stop recruiting but remaining open to any further requests to participate that might trickle in from past advertising, has been a nice relaxed space to be in.

According to my project proposal and ethics approval, I’m aiming for 30 participants, with individual one-off meetings. There was some hesitation about whether this was too many (as my supervisor pointed out, this could result in a lot of data to manage, and I might stop seeing major new themes emerge well before I got to 30), although one of the academics on my proposal panel queried whether this would be enough to be able to obtain more widely useful findings. At the time I write this post, I’m anticipating a total of 25 parents, but I’ve changed my methodology slightly to accommodate some couples who wanted to meet together in the one discussion, and the option to have more than one meeting if the single one wasn’t enough or time was too constrained. As a result, the number of meetings and the number of parents doesn’t quite match.

I’m transcribing and jotting down my thoughts on emergent themes as I go, and I’m starting to draft my methodology chapter, but once I stop meeting with parents I will need to turn my attention fully to these tasks. And there, possibly, lurking just beneath my consciousness and occasionally popping up its fanged head, is The Thing. I know once I start that phase, the whole candidature moves into its final stages. The abstract ‘when I finish my thesis’ (somewhere, over the rainbow…) becomes a more concrete date. A dog walking over this concrete date would still leave paw prints, but it’s firming up as we speak. And I’m not sure I’m ready! Also, I know this next phase is the bit where people tell me I will start to hate my thesis, and I will start to hate my supervisor (I find that really hard to believe, but this is what I’m told) and it will all turn into a Great Big Tedious Drudge.

Because I feel ambivalent about concluding the interview phase, I’m hoping that my supply of interested parents will simply trickle away of its own accord, so that there will be no identifiable moment when I have to say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t meet with you, I’ve completed that phase of the study.’ On the other hand, at the moment it looks like I will have completed all the parent meetings a month ahead of schedule, which makes me happy. Maybe I’m ready to move ahead after all, knowing that there will always be people out there who have interesting things to tell, but who will need to do it some other way than through the this vehicle. Um, what’s a post-doc?

Gender and parent perspectives

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As time goes by, I’m discovering more and more research that presents parent and/or carer perspectives. Although many of these studies are essentially program-evaluative in nature (ie parents/carers are a source of data about a program, rather than being a focus of interest in their own right), at least there seems to be a move towards seeking their views first-hand and not using staff or others as a proxy voice.

But…are we actually hearing from ‘parents’, or from ‘mothers’? ‘Carers’, or ‘female carers’? How effectively is this question dealt with in research design and in data analysis? And what does it mean for my study?

It’s no secret that there is a gender imbalance in many health and community services, and that this is in evidence (with some exceptions) among both the front-line workforce and service users. Data on the informal carer workforce provides a similar picture. I have plenty of personal experience of working in female-dominant workforces and in primarily female workplaces, and have grappled with this issue for many years. As a manager in a past role, I tried hard to recruit male workers, but with little success apart from supervision of one male social work student on placement. The team I worked with ran parenting sessions using a range of program models, but with one exception these were poorly attended by fathers. The exception was a one-day session on paediatric first aid (very concrete and action-based in its content – hint, hint). Despite efforts to engage fathers and seek their guidance about service approaches, our achievements were very limited.

In the context of research into parent-carer perspectives, issues of gender have tended to lurk somewhere in the background, with maybe a passing mention but often drowned out by foreground ‘noise’ on other aspects of  methodology or data analysis. My own thinking has followed the same lines – while I couldn’t honestly say that I haven’t given gender a thought, neither has it been uppermost in my thinking, until recently.

It was an article entitled ‘Gender imbalance in pediatric palliative care research samples’, by Macdonald et al* that captured my attention and got me thinking about the relevance of this question to my own study. Macdonald et al’s literature review found a significant increase in the quantity of North American literature presenting ‘parental perspectives’ between 2003 and 2008, but noted that across the 45 studies that met their inclusion criteria ‘(m)others constituted 75% of the overall sample of parents’ and ‘in only four studies was the gender imbalance addressed as one of the limitations of the study’ (p.435). If fathers whose participation was in the context of a ‘couple’ were removed, the imbalance was even more marked (84% mothers, 16% fathers).  The only study that showed equal representation of mothers and fathers was a study of couples.

Macdonald et al discuss the dangers of assuming that maternal viewpoints can represent parents in general, particularly in the context of grief and bereavement. Considerations of gender need to be incorporated at every stage of the research design, not least at recruitment. Data collection methods, similarly, may unwittingly engage or disengage according to gender. I’ve decided that it will not be enough to simply discuss gender imbalance as a potential limitation in my study; my research design will need to include recruitment and data collection strategies that enable (as far as possible) an equal representation of male and female perspectives. Of course, gender is itself a complex concept, and as Macdonald et al also warn, ”(r)esearchers must be attentive to the nuances and complexities of gender identities and roles; not all parents will identify with or conform to gender patterns, which also vary cross-culturally’ (p. 440).  They note the risk that researchers can, even inadvertently, further reinforce stereotypes in their handling of this issue.

The other aspect of gender is my own – am I, as a female researcher, possibly influencing the engagement of participants and the data they provide (or don’t)? I think the answer has to be yes, and while there may be some strategies I can use to minimise the impact of this, as a post-grad research student these will be limited. I can’t, for instance, work with a male co-researcher or research assistant, although I might seek out a male researcher to advise on some aspects of my design. I’ll need to anticipate that this is a feature to be considered in my data analysis and discussion, and ensure that it is addressed when the time comes.

In thinking all this through, it occurred to me that in terms of my particular research question (exploring parent-carer interactions with complex service systems), there is a specific additional area of exploration that I could follow, which is the role of gender on parents’ self-identity in relation to service systems and on their system interactions. Is the gender of the parent-carer a factor in the parent’s conceptualisation of self as ‘co-client’, ‘co-worker’, ‘resource’ (as per Twigg and Atkin**) or ‘protector’ (my own addition)? Is it a factor in services’ perception of the carer? Mind you, to explore the latter question I would need to collect data from services, and this hasn’t been part of my plan to date…

*Macdonald, M., Chilibeck, G., Affleck, W., & Cadell, S. (2010) Gender imbalance in pediatric palliative care research samples. Palliative Medicine. 24(4) 435-444.
**Twigg, J. & Atkin, K. (1994) Carers perceived: Policy and practice in informal care. Philadelphia, PA: Open Press.