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© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

CASE STUDY Black women and mental health (from Sosulski et al., 2010)

In their research, Sosulski et al., (2010, pp. 34–­35 ) combined life history methods and feminist narrative analysis to explore Black women's everyday experiences with mental illness. They used this approach 'to examine mental illness as a flexible concept best understood as situated within the context of women's broader life experiences'. They argued that life histories reveal negative and positive experiences within the context of the person's whole life, resulting in 'a complicated set of stories' that 'may be unexpected, even changing the nature of the research'. These techniques, they argued, 'transform gaps and misunderstandings in mainstream research created by the absence of the standpoints of marginalized people, such as Black women living with mental illness'.

They argued that combining life history techniques with feminist narrative analysis provides a vehicle to reflect the women's standpoints, without predetermining outcomes based on the researchers' frames of reference. Life narrative, they argued, provides women's analysis of their own situation rather than a chronology of events to be interpreted by others. They explained their rationale (Sosulski et al., 2010, p. 37):

Life story techniques introduce the opportunity to collect rich data textured by the respondents' own interpretations of their experiences and the social circumstances in which their story has unfolded, and the ways in which they continue to be active agents (Atkinson, 1998; Gluck & Patai, 1991; Roets & Goedgeluck, 1999). Feminist life history methods serve a political purpose, to "... negotiate openness, expose hegemonic power arrangements and inherent silences, highlight secrets of oppression and resistance, and revalue knowledge that risks being disqualified in current social sciences" (Roets & Goedgeluck, 1999, p. 85)….

This study privileges the narrators' (i.e., study participants) interpretations by examining their actual language and symbolic meaning, and presents an overview of the connections the narrators make as they weave their stories into the whole narrative construction.

Sosulski et al., (2010, pp. 37–38) argued that approach depended on the research aims and objectives; in their study they key research questions were:

"How do Black women diagnosed with severe, chronic mental illness conceptualize their life experiences and mental health challenges?"
"What experiences stand out in the lives of Black women living with severe mental illness?"

To explore these two research questions the question

"what stands out for you in your experiences?" is posed to the women, expressing the idea of prominence and framing the question in terms of events that first come to mind when they think about their lives. These events may or may not be directly related to experiences with mental illness.

They argued for a multi-method data collection process using 'first-person narrative interviews, observations, writing and informal contacts with respondents, and ethnographic research'. They key is that 'information contributes to the overall picture or frame for the life history and provides insights into the individual's standpoint' (Sosulski et al., 2010, pp. 38–39). In the event they enrolled participants who agreed to a minimum of one half-hour screening meeting, one face-to-face interview, and one follow-up interview. The first interview ranged between two and eight hours in length with a follow-up interview one to four hours in length. 'Other forms of data include summaries of the narratives, timelines, and original creative works produced by respondents, such as stories, poems, or songs if participants offer them to more fully communicate personal stories.' The interviews asked respondents to describe their lives and probes attempted to structure the histories,

Following the explanation of life history method and the purpose of the project, the women tell their "life stories" in whatever way they like and describe notable events that they believe define their experiences (Todres, 1998)-in this case, as Black women with mental illness. Probe questions inquire about the timing of specific events or asking them to speak to thematic categories that are significant in the extant literature, such as relationships with people or institutions. Timelines may be constructed to account for events in the women's lives.  (Sosulski et al., 2010, p. 39)

They described their feminist narrative analysis as follows:

Our method presents the respondents' own perspectives, assuming that they are the authority on what has happened in their lives, what they need, and what solutions might assist them. We use a dialogic strategy from the data collection stage on, first through conversation with participants during the interviews and in later conversations with them if they choose. The analysis is also a dialogue among the research team members, who discuss the texts on three levels: (1) the literal meaning of the women's speech as they describe events; (2) the symbolic meaning or why they believe certain events occurred or why they are particularly significant; and (3) the researchers' understanding of the socio- cultural environment that connects themes across interviews or in the literature. Data and themes are compared across cases or aggregated to demonstrate trends and variation; the data also provide examples of respondents' standpoints and political dimensions of their life stories (Collins, 2000; Krumer-Nevo, 2005). Finally, respondents may comment on the researchers' interpretations of their individual interviews, aggregated findings, and overall trends. (Sosulski et al., 2010, pp. 39–40)

The narrative analysis, they explained, centred on study participants' own analysis of their personal relationships, relationships within their community as well as institutional relationships. The researchers sought their respondent's suggestions for local and societal change. The participants indicated how 'their racialized and gendered experiences differ from conventional depictions of people living with mental illness'. They need to be reflexive {LINK] in their approach:

The researchers understand that their own perspectives are marginal, but carefully reflect on how their interpretations are likely influenced by disciplinary training and personal standpoints. The research team has no expectations about what kinds of stories might emerge from the interviews (e.g., some women may talk about childhood trauma, but we do not assume that all of them will). Yet we draw on disciplinary theory to explain structural influences (e.g., services the women receive and interactions with institutions like welfare and schools) and psychological phenomena that may be related, and to highlight areas of divergence from the literature. (Sosulski et al., 2010, pp. 40–41)

The team had different standpoints and disagreements about the women's literal language and interpretations of their stories were discussed and final version of the analysis was shared with respondents, who further add to the exposition. 'The circular, iterative process allows for working with the data several times and interrogating various potential interpretations, "... asking questions of it, proposing ideas about its meaning, considering what really stands out from the descriptions and pondering on what might be absent" (Mackey, 2004, p. 183)' (Sosulski et al., 2010, p. 41).

The research article then included a lengthy excerpt from a single life history, that of 'Maria', which was then discussed in the context of the study.

Life history method assisted Maria in constructing her own narrative. She focused primarily on her childhood, including painful and joyous memories, developing consciousness about her mental illness through her stories about children and child- hood. She related lessons she has learned about herself, her family, her community, and institutions that she relies on for help and sustenance. She believes that mental illness is a part of "the way she is," and that there are many other people who were born like her. Her behavior is mediated both by her reactions to memories of stressful and traumatic events and by the importance she places on being calm and present for her children. Yet she also recognizes the responsibility of her family, community, and professionals as entities that should have seen her mental illness and helped her get treatment; should have told her that mental illness is genetic, so she could make an informed choice about whether to have children; and should have stopped her violent outbursts and protected her from the violence that was perpetrated against her. Yet at other times in her narrative, her family helped her find treatment, information, and even presented her with a potentially protective perception that some of her "visions" are a gift that she can appreciate and perhaps provide her with power and status within her church community. Most of all, the collection of stories and the way in which they are told help us formulate insights into Maria's standpoint and how mental illness fits into the complex chronicle of events in her life. (Sosulski et al., 2010, pp. 50–51).

The remaining discussion reflected on the practice and policy implications for addressing mental health issues among ethnic minorities in the United States.


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