Hearing the narrative, seeing the person: Considering the appropriate research methodology
By Kieran McCartan, PhD, and David Prescott, LICSW
A memorable case discussion attended by the second author featured a consultant recommending multi-systemic treatment (MST) for an adolescent who had been acting out aggressively ever since his father’s death. The case manager was concerned about his behaviour and had just overseen an unsuccessful course of MST with this client. Despite the fact that MST hadn’t worked, the consultant recommended that it be repeated, not because it was the correct intervention for that particular individual (for whom grief counselling might also have been appropriate), but because of the strength and quality of the MST research. The situation calls to mind words from a UK practitioner during a conference in 2012: Are we personalizing our manuals or manualizing our persons?
It often seems that our field is governed by large-scale studies and quantitative evidence indicating that a particular treatment, intervention, or process either works or doesn’t work. Understandably, we look at the broader outcomes of re-offence and risk reduction to drive future processes. We (the authors) are not saying that this is wrong, but rather that practitioners should remember the individual in the process, as well as the greater cohort. Sexual abuse (and treatment for sexual abuse) is as much about personal narratives and context as it is about processes and outcomes. Sadly, our most sacred studies don’t always take into account the experiences of those who have lived through the interventions.
The prevention, treatment, and management of people who have committed, or may commit, sexual offences include features that range from the individual through to the social and cultural. One implication is that we must use multiple research methodologies to answer a range of questions that include the “service user”, the “service provider” and the facilitating institution; their “voices”. A single research methodology, epistemology, ontology, or form of data analysis will not work in all circumstances; especially given that research and practice linked to sexual abuse cross many social (politics, law, policy, sociology, criminology, psychology) and physical (chemistry, biology, psychology) disciplines, and everything in between (public health). We need quantitative studies to look at large cross-population samples and answer broad-based questions. However, is a quantitative approach the best one for small-scale, small-cohort, individualised, practice-based, policy-based or process-driven questions? No, it isn’t. We often need to consider case studies or qualitative research methods to answer these more personalised, individualized, and small cohort questions. The research question, who is asking it and why they are asking it are central drivers as different disciplines and different groups have different agendas; which is fine, as long as its transparent and clear!
We need to use the research (and treatment) method that enables us to answer the question that we are asking. We can’t fit a particular research question into a certain methodology for artificial reasons because, in reality, it will fail and jeopardise the outcome. Certain research questions linked to prevention, treatment, management, and community integration need to be qualitative so that we can capture the appropriate narrative and understand whether the process or intervention is working at a ground level. We need a qualitative, or case-focused, approach to hear and understand the “service user” experience, or the expert voice, within the cohort sample and a larger outcome. This is essential because we need to connect research and treatment in a coherent way that does not create paradigm extremes (quantitative being the choice of “research” and qualitative being the choice of “treatment”). This happy medium incorporates multi-stage, multi-methodology, and multi-disciplinary studies in order to focus on the larger research questions as well as capturing the personal narrative. A multi-methodology approach enables us to explore treatment, research, and policy questions and facilitates a more holistic response.
Working in a politically, socially, and personally, sensitive area demands that we think ethically about the research that we do and the way that we do it. Often times we need to do the complex, expensive research study that allows us to understand the reality of the situation. Unfortunately, this type of research does not happen as much, or in as much of a nuanced way, as it should.