Research assumptions

Today I want to write about assumptions we make in our research. As we describe our research, particularly its methodology, we often make a series of assumptions underlying it. And yet, I think there is another set we tend not to explicate, simply going along with how things are done. After all, research is a social practice.

The post is inspired by an academic promotion procedure in which a portfolio of qualitative work was reviewed and a number of criticisms were made with regard to it. A few of them, in my view, were made without deeper reflection on what was actually proposed and criticised. I am not identifying the work, because I want to raise a more general issue, which I think is much more common (though I have no evidence apart from my academic experience) than might appear at first.

The research and its criticism are as follows. It explored people’s stories of suicide attempt. The informants were approached soon after their attempt and were identified by the usual demographics such as gender, age, class (with education level used as proxy). The results, in my view very interesting, are irrelevant for the point I want to make here, so I am not discussing them.

So here comes the criticism levied from the point of view of clinical psychology. The author of the research did not give two pieces of information: the informants’ medical history and their diagnosis (although it was not explicitly stated, I understood it as the diagnosis pertaining to the F section of the ICD-10). There was no explanation for the requirement, no argument, it simply was presented as a major flaw of the work. I disagree with the criticism, but what I really want to focus on the assumptions behind the demand for such information.

The first and probably most important assumption is that suicide is in one way or another linked to mental illness, or, in its radical version, that suicide is necessarily caused by a mental illness. Needless to say, the assumption is contested, both within mainstream suicidology and outside. In the former, while it is shown that people diagnosed with mental illness (I am putting aside the discussion about the validity of such diagnoses) do commit more suicides (yes, I use the phrase ‘commit suicide’ fully aware of its consequences) than the non-diagnosed population, still the rate of diagnosed people taking their lives is still relatively low (I am not at all suggesting that it is acceptable), which might actually lead to a conclusion that it is not the illness itself, but its social context, for example, the stigma it carries.

In critical suicidology Ian Marsh’s work on history of ‘discourses of suicide’ is a great example of challenging the relationship between suicide and mental illness. Marsh convincingly shows the steady encroachment of psychiatric discourses onto suicide. Indeed, it will probably culminate in pathologising all suicidal behaviour, which has already been announced by the APA. Marsh shows the social and political nature of such assumptions.

And so, what is quite hotly contested in suicide research is rendered as an obvious and major flaw of the assessed piece of research. Was it intentional? I doubt it very much, the critique followed a particular practice of psychological writing in which you simply give certain information, probably also without much reflection. I wish I could simply write it was nonsense, but I am not certain it is – I’ll come to it below.

The main problem is of course that the assumptions I refer to above were probably tacit, hidden, given no reflection, we make them daily. The solution – much more of Graham Scambler’s meta-reflection, also outside sociology. But as I was musing about the above, probably feeling a bit smug, I started thinking about my own work, for example, my research on men’s depression.

So here is a little snippet from the introductory chapter of Men’s Discourses of Depression:

As it happened, all my interviewees were white, Polish, heterosexual, between the ages of 30 and 60. All were or had been (three were divorced) in stable relationships with female partners (usually, wives).

I am pleased to say that I actually did ask myself at the time why those characteristics, but the answer was too difficult to consider in the book was and it has remained elusive. The only response I could come up with was: because this is what I am expected to do. These are the ‘little’ demographics ‘one offers’ and, I suppose, it makes some sense, especially in view of both masculinity research, depression research and probably some other. Still, we write these things mostly without giving it another thought, we just follow the practice, I think.

But as I was writing my ‘homework chapter’, I was also very conscious of creating categories for my informants, which they didn’t necessarily inhabit, at least during the interview. I was making them into people that ‘we’, academics, consider important.  And I did actually consider writing things such as:

Appeared very unhappy, cried during the interview, never smiled, says his daughter loves him.

I didn’t write this, because I could equally well have written something like this:

Shaking voice, soft-spoken, joked a couple of times, told me of suffering caused by his son.

Or perhaps I should have written about one of my informants as the one who asked whether I masturbated. The question came out of the blue and I was so taken aback that just about half the interview was gone before I did.

Or perhaps I should describe the person by what I did? I remember a moment in one of the interviews when I looked at my watch. It was automatic, I just wanted to keep track of time. And yet, my informant noticed it and said something like “We’re finishing, aren’t we?” and was ready to go. It took quite a number of apologies and assurances that we were not finishing and we had all the time we needed. I think the man relaxed after about 10-15 minutes, but I am not entirely sure. I simply relaxed too much into thinking I was an experienced interviewer.

But can you really imagine a serious study in which an informant is defined by his question about masturbation? No, I can’t, either. And yet, this was the most important thing about this interview and, to a considerable extent, if I were to describe him (I still remember him very well), this question would actually give good insight into what kind of interviewee he was.

And so, no matter what I write, there is another way, another version of what defined the person for me. But the crucial bit is, of course, ‘for me’. So what about for them? And here I realised that I had no idea. Yes, I did have their stories, many of which were about themselves (I often ask informants to tell me about themselves), but these stories were situated, told in the context of a particular question or moment in the interview. How would they like to be represented by a few labels – no idea.

Is it a problem? I think it is. I understand very well that even though I choose to speak to men, they might not speak as men (I have written about it), but here the issue is at a different level. But making up a number of labels whether I like it or not I suggest that these labels somehow matter. But do they? Obviously, the answer to such a question goes way beyond this blog.

So, is there anything I can do about it? I’m not certain again. I could actually ask the informants to describe themselves. I, for example, would describe myself as a foreigner, which is a very unlikely label to be given to me by a researcher, regardless of the research I participate in. But then, do you, the researcher, care? After all, we could end up with too many different descriptions of people whom we chose on the basis of the categories we, and not they, find important (more often than not, I imagine, for very good reasons). These categories might of course be also important to the informants, but might not.

And then there is also the issue of research practice. We do things in particular ways and we all know reviewers criticising us after not following the ‘rules’. And so, we are more than likely to continue to ‘make up people’ (to use Ian Hacking’s tem), because that’s what we do.

And so, rather than with a bang, I end with a whimper, I’m afraid.


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