A few weeks ago I was working in Newcastle upon Tyne, a city I lived in for 15 years and the place where I did my PhD. Driving back into the city I found myself reflecting on how the landscape was shaped by research participants. I drove along one of the routes I used to take to visit one of the ladies who participated in my fieldwork. Every time I return I do this drive and every time I pass within a few streets of her home.
I see her face, I remember the numerous occasions she made her son walk me to the bus stop on a dark evening as she wanted to make sure I was safe.
I was privileged to work with a group of women living with rheumatoid arthritis over a period of two years, visiting their homes on a regular basis to conduct 1:1 interviews and then finally working with them together in a couple of focus groups. Not just the usual cross sectional single interview but a longitudinal qualitative study and not just interviews either, for certain periods they kept diaries as well. They were amazing women of different ages and from very different backgrounds. Over the course of my fieldwork they welcomed me into their homes, shared their experiences, challenges and aspirations and aspects of their family life.
When we read methods textbooks we read a lot about the impact of the researcher/participant relationship and how it shapes the data we collect and the interpretations we arrive at. We read less, I think, about the impact that the people who take part in our research have on our lives and especially our lives as clinicians.
Having supervised healthcare professionals undertaking both Masters and PhD dissertations I have heard versions of this story recounted on numerous occasions.The common thread running through supervisory meetings is, “I learnt so much that I didn’t know”.
On a personal level some of that learning was about how an impairment is only one facet of the rich tapestry of people’s lives and how, when its management is located within this context, there is a shift in emphasis that is missing from clinical encounters.
The women who participated in my PhD changed the way I work and think. My interactions with them took place over 20 years ago but they are still very alive to me and even more so when I return to Newcastle. I wonder how their families are doing, sons and daughters are now probably married, some of them will probably grandmothers. I wonder how they are and whether they have been able to achieve some of the things we talked about.
Fieldwork and data collection may end but if, as qualitative researchers, we are generating in-depth data the people we research with become a part of our lives. They shape aspects of our thinking and, if we are healthcare professionals, they inevitably shape the way we practice. We may ‘leave the field’ but the field does not leave us.