Dealing with the unexpected

January 2013, half way through the research agenda

Taking stock of my research activities conducted in the autumn 2012 (NOT of the collected/generated data), I’m thinking of the applicability of the “amendments section” in the RREA form (Amendments to proposed research design for LOW risk research, which records “any applications made during the life time of the Project regarding minor changes from what was approved”).

I’m wondering if the following is a minor change that needs to be recorded in the amendments section and re-approved… Or is it sufficient to include it in the researcher diary and refer to it (as necessary or appropriate) in the thesis? I’d say it’s the latter, and am recording it in my researcher diary as a valuable lesson in the unpredictability of research circumstances…

Interview instead of focus group

In my original research plan, I included a focus group (a small group of 4-6 volunteers) to discuss some of the issues signalled in the initial questionnaire that my volunteering participants were to fill out at the onset of the research. The focus group, composed of willing students, was to meet for about 30 minutes one day last October. Having given out information sheets and consent forms and explained my research details orally to a number of students, I initially secured the consent of four female volunteers. We agreed on the time (Monday, the 22nd of October, at 3 pm, after classes), place (my office) and the format of the session (I was to pose questions related to their educational experiences which they would answer/discuss, and I would record the exchange).

However, in the end, three of the volunteers did not attend the meeting. The one participant who did come explained that their absence was most likely caused by the timing of the focus group, which was scheduled to take place two days before a major religious holiday in the country (although we were still conducting normal classes at that time), when female members of the family would be expected to help with the preparations for the festivities. I was a bit disappointed, but thanked her for coming to explain it to me and cancelled the meeting. I thought she would take this opportunity to leave my office, but, rather unexpectedly, she said that she wanted to hear and answer my questions and talk about her educational experiences studying English in the Academic Bridge Program. Of course, a “focus group” sort of discussion was impossible, but she suggested she could be interviewed and recorded instead.

So, very pleased but a little unsure about this unanticipated change in my research proceedings, I switched my recording device on and started asking her questions which were originally designed for the focus group, but also related to the interviews planned for a later stage in the research. Of course, I had to tweak them as we went along, simply to fit in with the context of what she was saying.

The interview was an unexpected addition to my research scheme at that point in time.  I did plan to use interviews with volunteering students, but a little later on in the process, AFTER the focus group. In fact, the student in question had earlier expressed an interest in being interviewed, and not just taking part in the focus group. She came to my office unasked, a few times, prior to the scheduled focus group meeting, out of her own interest in my study, as she put it. So, in a way the focus-group-turned-interview became (or at least could be considered) a legitimate part of the design.

But then there is the question of what fits in where and when within the grand scheme of one’s research as approved by the Review Panel and discussed with supervisors. What needs to be adjusted, altered, or modified, in the course of the inquiry? In other words, is everything in the proposal set in stone? Researching real people in real life/work contexts can be tricky because of the unpredictability of their reactions or other factors that affect participation (like the timing of my focus group). And all that’s even before one gets to consider the validity and reliability of responses. How much flexibility can we allow ourselves before more formal steps need to be taken to sustain the ethical validity of the research activities? In this particular case, I feel very strongly that no ethical boundaries were in any way crossed, but the possibility of encountering “the unexpected” in my research proceedings needs to be written into its narrative as part of reflexivity.