Moving beyond binaries in research: weaving the tapestry of participants’ experiences

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Dr Lynette Pretorius

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Dr Lynette Pretorius is an award-winning educator and researcher in the fields of academic language, literacy, research skills, and research methodologies. 

In today’s data-driven world, there is a lot of talk about making decisions based on so-called objective data. For example, schools and universities use information about the mix of students and staff to shape how they teach and run things. Information such as age, where people live, how much schooling they have had, or their income is collected to help make these so-called “informed” decisions. But here’s the problem – we sometimes forget that the people collecting these forms of data and those making these decisions have their own biases. Decisions reflect the majority view, which means that other experiences are often sidelined.

We need to understand that different parts of our backgrounds interact and affect the way we experience the world, often in very different ways. This is what is termed intersectionality. Using intersectionality as a lens helps us to recognise that we cannot look at parts of someone’s identity in isolation. We need to see the whole person and how all parts of their identity come together, influencing their experiences and the way the world sees and treats them. It is like saying, “To understand the whole story, you can’t just read one page. You need to read the entire book.”

This highlights that researchers and decision-makers need to work to improve processes for data collection and analysis to better reflect the diversity of people’s experiences. So, why is it so crucial to bring diverse perspectives into the research mix?

  • Firstly, past research has not done a great job of representing everyone. Surveys can often be pretty narrow, missing out on the complete picture of who participants are, which means we are not getting the full story on how to solve problems for everyone.
  • Secondly, by embracing diversity in research, we stand up for fairness and social justice. Imagine surveys that only see concepts in black and white, leaving out people who do not fit neatly into specific boxes. We are missing out on understanding different experiences and perspectives, which can make our research richer and more meaningful.
  • Finally, acknowledging a wide range of experiences helps us dig deeper into our findings, giving us a clearer view of what is really going on in our context. This approach challenges us to think beyond the usual categories and consider the complex ways people identify themselves. By doing so, we can better reflect society’s diversity and push for changes that make society more inclusive and equitable for everyone.

Despite some improvements in how we collect data in recent years, there is still a long way to go. We need to ensure that our research methods allow people to share the full spectrum of their identities, respecting the richness of their experiences. It is all about giving everyone a voice and ensuring research serves us all, not just a privileged few.

The thing is, when we are exploring human experiences, we must embrace the messiness and all the different parts of who people are. But, sadly, many times, research just clumps people into simple categories, missing out on their full stories. This approach does not just overlook the richness of their identities; it can also make them feel like their voices do not matter, with their real-life experiences either ignored or questioned.

In my recent paper, I propose a new way of collecting data about research participants. I propose that we say, “Hey, let people tell us about themselves in their own words” rather than asking specific questions that limit their responses. To do this, I argue that researchers should include a question where people can share their own diversity stories when they fill out surveys. Why? Because it does justice to their experiences and knowledge.

I have seen firsthand how rich and deep data can be when people share their stories this way, especially when this data is combined with other open-ended research questions. My paper makes the case for letting people have a say in how they are represented in research. It is about giving them the power to share their identities in their own words. The main findings from my study include:

  • When I asked open questions, the replies were eye-opening: I decided to ask people to tell me about themselves in their own way, without the usual checkboxes. And wow, did I get a treasure trove of responses! Some people went the traditional route, but others shared stories and parts of their identities I would never have captured with a simple tick box. This approach really highlighted how everyone has their own unique blend of experiences and backgrounds.
  • Self-written diversity statements are gold mines of insights: One aspect that was particularly unique in my study is that I asked people to jot down their thoughts on what makes them, well, them. I did this by asking them to write their own diversity statement. The depth of what I got back was incredible – from personal tales of grappling with ableism to rich descriptions of cultural heritage and everything in between. It is like these self-written snippets opened a window into the real lives and challenges people face, way beyond what any standard survey could capture.
  • Weaving stories together to highlight the tapestry of people’s lived experiences: One of the most exciting findings from my study is how I used all these different bits of info from the surveys and weaved them into what I call holistic introductory stories. Imagine taking a bit from here and a snippet from there to stitch together a complete narrative about someone. It is like getting a full-colour, 3D picture of a person rather than a flat, 2D sketch. This way, I was not just seeing bits and pieces of someone’s identities, but I was developing a better understanding of how all those bits fit together to make my participants who they are.

My findings highlight the importance of encouraging epistemic justice in our research practices. What is epistemic justice, you may ask? Epistemic justice is about fairness: it ensures that everyone’s voice and knowledge are equally respected, no matter where they come from or how they express themselves. It is about ensuring all perspectives are considered, especially those often ignored or undervalued. To really do justice to everyone’s knowledge, we have to be open to different, even incomplete ways of understanding. That is why I am using open questions and these stories to give everyone a platform to share their experiences. I believe stories are how we make sense of our world. As has been highlighted by other researchers, stories help us understand not just the surface-level stuff people share but the deeper, sometimes hidden layers of their lives.

My focus has been on getting people to write down their stories because there is power in writing. But now that this study is finished, I am thinking, why stop there? There are so many other ways to share and understand each other’s experiences. So, looking ahead, I am keen on mixing things up even more, using all sorts of creative methods to make sure everyone feels seen and heard, especially those who have been left out of the conversation for too long.

Questions to ponder

If you had to write a short diversity statement about yourself, what would you say?

How does the incorporation of self-written diversity statements and open-ended questions in surveys challenge traditional methods of data collection in qualitative research?

The paper advocates for epistemic justice through methodological innovations in order to reduce biases and inequalities in research. How does giving participants the agency to define themselves challenge or change the researcher’s role?

The research outlines a more artistic way of understanding participants through holistic introductory stories. What advantages does this creative approach offer, and what challenges might it pose in traditional research environments?

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