Guest post #6, Nick Emmel: Revisiting yesterday’s data today

past-present-futureToday we welcome Dr Nick Emmel as our guest blogger. Nick has been investigating social exclusion and vulnerability in low-income communities in a city in northern England since 1999. The research discussed in this blog, Intergenerational Exchange, was an investigation of the care grandparents provide for their children. This was a part of Timescapes, the ESRC’s qualitative longitudinal research initiative. More details of this research are available at http://www.timescapes.leeds.ac.uk/research/intergenerational-exchange.html.

In this thought provoking post, Nick reflects on his experiences of revisiting qualitative data, and the ways in which new interpretations and explanations are generated over time. 

 

Revisiting yesterday’s data today¬†

I have recently finished writing a paper about vulnerability. This is the third in an ongoing series of published papers; the first published in 2010 and the second in 2014 (Emmel and Hughes, 2010; 2014; Emmel, 2017). Each elaborates and extends a model of vulnerability. All three are based on the same data collected in a qualitative longitudinal research project, Intergenerational Exchange, a part of Timescapes and its archive. The second and third paper draw on newly collected data from subsequent research projects as well. In this blog I want to explore how interpretation and explanation are reconstituted and reconceived through engagement with these new data and theory, considering some methodological lessons in the context of qualitative longitudinal research.

At first sight the narratives told us about poverty, social exclusion, and the experiences of grand parenting by Bob and Diane, Ruth, Sheila, Geoff and Margaret, and Lynn, which populate these three papers seem fixed, even immutable. After all, I am still using the same printed transcripts from interviews conducted between 2007 and 2011, marked up with a marginalia of memos and codes in my micrographia handwriting, text emphasised with single and double underlines in black ink. But each time I get these transcripts out of the locked filing cabinet in my office I learn something new.

To start with there are the misremembered memories of what is actually in the transcripts. Many of the stories our participants tell, Geoff and Margaret’s account of the midnight drop, Sheila bathing her kids in the washing machine, or Lynn walking into the family court for the first time, I have retold over and over again. In their retelling details have been elaborated, twisted, and reworked to make better stories so my students, service deliverers, and policy makers will think a little harder, I hope, about powerlessness, constrained powerfulness, and ways in which excluded people depend on undependable service delivery. In this way they are no different to the original stories, neither truth nor untruth, but narrated for a purpose, to describe experience in qualitative research. Getting the detail and emphasis right is important. The participants know their lived experience far better than I do. Re-reading the transcripts, these stories are reattached to their empirical moorings once again. But this is only the start of their reanalysis.

Rereading may confirm empirical description but past interpretations are unsettled by new empirical accounts. New knowledge has the effect, as Barbara Adam (1990:143) observes, of making the ‚Äėpast as revocable and hypothetical as the future‚Äô. ¬†In the most recent of the three papers the apparently foundational role of poverty elaborated in our first paper is reinterpreted. New data from relatively affluent grandparents describe the barriers they face in accessing services and the ways in which these experiences make them vulnerable. This knowledge has the effect of reconstituting the original transcripts, shifting attention away from the determining role of poverty to relationships with service providers in which poverty may play a generative part. These data evoke new interpretations. But it is not only new empirical accounts that reshape this longitudinal engagement, new ideas are at play.

In this blog I have suggested that new empirical accounts change how we understand and interpret existing data. To ascribe reinterpretation only to these insights is not enough however. Explanations rely on more than reconstructing empirical accounts in the light of new insight. For a realist like me theories guide the reading of the original transcripts and the collection of new data. Theories are practical things, bundles of hypotheses to be judged and refined empirically. We started with a theory about time as a chronological progression of events, as is explained in the first paper. For our participants, they noticed little difference as recession merged with recession all the way back to the closure of the estate’s main employer in 1984. This theory was found wanting when we came to looking at young grandparenthood and engagement with service provision in the second paper. A refined theoretical account of the social conscience of generational and institutional time supported explanation. These theories, like the empirical accounts of the social world they are brought into a relation with, are revocable and only ever relatively enduring.

To paraphrase the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, no researcher ever steps into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and it is not the same researcher. Revisiting yesterday’s data today reminds us of these methodological lessons in qualitative longitudinal research.

References

Adam, B (1990) Time and social theory Polity Press, Cambridge.

Emmel, N. (2017) Empowerment in the relational longitudinal space of vulnerability. Social Policy and Society. July.

Emmel, N. & Hughes, K. (2010) “‘Recession, it’s all the same to us son’: the longitudinal experience (1999-2010) of deprivation”, 21st Century Society, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 171-182.

Emmel, N. & Hughes, K. (2014) “Vulnerability, inter-generational exchange, and the conscience of generations,” in Understanding Families over Time: Research and Policy, Holland J & Edwards R, eds., Palgrave, Basingstoke.

Image source: Fosco Lucarelli ( https://www.flickr.com/photos/fosco/3915752142/).