05: Methodology

The following section provides a rationale for the choice of methodology and method adopted for the current research project. Methodology, as a research strategy is underpinned by the kind of research questions a study is aiming to answer and the nature of the phenomenon being investigated. The methodology is also embedded into the researchers ontological and epistemological perspective, and the researchers own ontological and epistemological stance will be addressed. This section will also explore the methodological orientation, how? philosophical underpinnings of the chosen methodologies, criteria for evaluating qualitative research, ethical considerations, followed by the research design of the current study, limitations and reflexion.

METHODOLOGICAL ORIENTATION

The present study has been built on a qualitative research framework, based on the type of research question the current study aims to investigate, as well as reflecting the researcher’s own ontological and epistemological orientation of social constructivism.

ONTOLOGY AND EPISTEMOLOGY

Ontology is concerned with the nature of reality, whereas epistemology is concerned with how we can learn and know more about the nature of reality (Decorte and Zaitch, 2010, p. 121). Within this framework, researchers distinguish between two paradigms, positivism and constructivism. The positivist paradigm states that there is an external objective reality that can be observed and measured by researchers without the researcher influencing the object of inquiry. According to this paradigm the phenomenon or object under investigation exists in itself, undisturbed by the surrounding context.

Constructivism on the other hand, in which the present study is rooted, states that an external reality that can be objectively observed and studied by researchers does not exist. In contrast, each individual has a different viewpoint and perception, based on their experiences and as such, there does not exist one reality, but multiple realities as we are all the creators of our own reality.

As this study is rooted in constructivism, it is important to acknowledge that the process through which information and knowledge have been gathered, has been a collaboration between the researcher and the participants.

PHILOSOPHICAL UNDERPINNINGS

The current study combined two research approaches, narrative methodology and interpretative phenomenological analysis.

INTERPRETATIVE PHENOMENOLOGICAL ANALYSIS

The current study aims to explore the lived experience of former members of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their sense making after being excommunicated and shunned by their former community. One research approach that stands central in the exploration of lived experiences and meaning making is Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). The key characteristic of IPA is that it offers in-depth insights into the phenomenon under investigation, as a reflection of how it is experienced and lived through by individuals. IPA is concerned how individuals experience and give meaning to life changing events. IPA has been chosen as research frame for the current study, as its exploratory nature allows for an in-depth analysis of shunning as it is experienced by the individual. This is particularly useful in this context, as research in this area is scarce and IPA could offer much insight into this under-researched area. IPA is ideally suited for the questions this study wishes to address, the experiential and sense making nature of individuals in the face of adversity. Furthermore, IPA was particularly appealing to the researcher, due to her training in counselling, as it allowed for a detailed exploration of the needs and issues former members of Jehovah’s Witnesses face in their recovery from abuse.

IPA as a qualitative research method is designed to allow researchers to investigate individuals subjective lived experiences and sense making. Sense making, making sense of our experiences, is central to our human experience. Reflecting, most commonly retrospectively, on our experiences and evaluating how they shape our identities and how we perceive ourselves to be in the world and in relationships with others, allow us to gain a sense of certainty and control. It makes it possible to gain ownership of our own life story.

IPA has been designed as a unique research method in psychology and has initially been used by health psychologists. Over time, it has come to be employed in various other disciplines, such as clinical and counselling psychology as well as social sciences (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009, p.1).

The IPA approach is informed by three major philosophical underpinnings: phenomenology, hermeneutics, and idiography (Pietkiewicz & Smith, 2014, p. 362). Phenomenology refers to an individuals’ perception of an experience, event or object. Oftentimes, the things individuals are taking for granted can take centre stage of phenomenological inquiry, and it is an attitude of curiosity for these things that are taken for granted, that is at the heart of phenomenological inquiry (Finlay, 2015, p. 16). Edmund Husserl, who is regarded as the father of phenomenology, looked at phenomenological inquiry as an opportunity to challenge scientific positivism by embracing the study of subjective experiences and discovering how the ‘things themselves’ present themselves to us. Husserl believed that this could be best achieved if researchers were ‘bracketing’ their previous experiences in order to examine the ‘things themselves’ in a non-judgmental manner, free of any preconceptions (Finlay, 2015, p. 45).

Phenomenologists are interested in the way individuals experience and make sense of the world around them, in particular events that are of particular significance to them (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009, p. 1). However, IPA is also founded on the principle of hermeneutics, the study of interpretation, which reminds us that the way we experience things and events around us is not objective, but informed by our previous experiences and is thus inherently subjective. This presents researchers who choose to use IPA with what is referred to a ‘double hermeneutics’ (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009, p. 3). The individual interprets and makes sense of his/her own experience, according to previous experiences and knowledge. The researcher, on the other hand, tries to make sense of someone else’s sense making. However, the researcher’s interpretation of the respondent’s experiences is also guided by his own pre-existing experiences and knowledge. The researcher, therefore, plays a central role in the construction process of the data, and it is thus vital for the research to be aware of these existing dynamics (Finlay, 2011, p. 24). This is balanced with hermeneutics of empathy or faith and critical or suspicious hermeneutics (Josselson, 2014, p. 3). The researcher is caught between aiming to gain ‘closeness’, an ‘insider perspective’, to learn and try to understand the experience from the individual’s viewpoint, and ‘distance’ that allows him or her to critically examine how individuals give meaning to their experience (Todres, 2007, p. 58). To remain ‘scientifically aware’ while entering participants subjective lifeworlds is challenging. Finlay (2015, p. 23) states that as phenomenological researchers ‘we do not access an ‘inner world’ so much as an individual’s relationship to the world’. For example, things respondents choose not to tell about their experiences may be just as important as the things they do tell.

The third major philosophical underpinning, idiography, refers to the investigation of single cases and individual experiences (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009, p. 29). The aim of IPA is not to come to general conclusions or to test hypotheses, but to present a detailed picture, a ‘thick description’ of an individual’s experience. While researchers using IPA, search for similarities and differences between the respondents’ individual accounts, the results generally do not lend themselves to generalization, due to small sizes (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009).

NARRATIVE RESEARCH

The current study combined IPA with narrative research, life histories. The researcher hypothesised that the individual’s experiences and sense making of their shunning experience would differ depending on the individual’s upbringing and life experiences prior to being excommunicated. Therefore, the combination of life history interviews and IPA allowed the researcher to gain a better understanding of how the shunning experience is embedded in the individuals’ life story.

The narrative approach focuses on the individuals’ life histories and is thus biographic in nature. While narrative research has traditionally focused on oral or written accounts, researchers in recent years have come to define the scope of narrative research more broadly by including various forms of visual humanistic expression, paintings, photos, etc. Howard Becker (2009, p.7) compared the life history approach to crafting a ‘mosaic’, each piece increases our understanding of the total picture and only after a certain number of pieces have been added, are we able to identify what the mosaic portrays. The metaphor of the mosaic is particularly useful to this study as by focusing exclusively on the interpretive stance and neglecting the narrative; we may be missing vital ‘mosaic’ pieces that hinder or blur our understanding of the total human experience. Furthermore, conducting life history interviews with all respondents allows us to get a better understanding of how similar or different the individual respondents and the environments in which they grew up are.

While these are distinct research methods, they still share a set of commonalities. The main similarity lies in the way they view research respondents. While other research methodologies view research respondents more passively, studying ‘them’, the narrative and interpretive approach both place the research respondent at the centre of the study. The respondent is the expert in his/her life story and is given the utmost flexibility and space to recount his/her story. The respondent is empowered by giving him/her the opportunity to raise his/her voice and recount a specific episode in his/her life that was of significance to him/her. Moreover, both approaches are not interested in participants’ subjective experiences. The difference between the two methods lies in their ‘state of information’ – the narrative approach can be seen as yielding ‘raw data’, relatively untouched by outside influences, recounted as the individual remembers it in that very moment. The interpretive approach, on the other hand, goes one step further, as it ‘processes’ the ‘raw data’ obtained in the ‘natural state’ of the individual.

EVALUATION OF QUALITATIVE RESEARCH

Research inquiries and researchers are guided by worldviews and paradigms. Paradigms inform us about how researchers view and think about the external world and what methods they use to investigate and study it. Besides debates over the accessibility of the external world, debates around how to evaluate qualitative research have existed for decades. With some researchers arguing that qualitative research should be evaluated using the same criteria as quantitative researchers and others proposing criteria unique to qualitative research. Lucy Yardley (2007) proposes four criteria to assess the quality and validity of qualitative research, that have been used to guide the current study:

  • Sensitivity to context; this is demonstrated by showing empathy to the respondents, putting them at ease and being sensitive to power balances (research expert versus experiential expert) as well as being non-judgemental so as not to influence respondents’ answers or data analysis. Another way of displaying sensitivity to context is by including verbatim quotes so that readers can get as close as possible to the respondents’ world. This also allows readers of the paper to critically agree or disagree with interpretations the researcher made.
  • Commitment and rigour; commitment is shown by paying close attention to the respondents throughout data collection as well as careful analysis. Rigour, on the other hand, refers to how thorough the research is. This can be demonstrated by selecting a homogenous sample and by conducting a comprehensive and in-depth interview. IPA research, in particular, needs to be in-depth and this requires the researcher to empathise with the respondent, as well as remain separate to critically examine respondents’ answers.
  • Transparency and coherence; transparency is demonstrated by detailing research stages – selection and interview – in order to allow the reader to follow the process closely. Coherence, as it relates to IPA, is demonstrated by a commitment to its principles phenomenology, idiography and hermeneutics.
  • Impact and importance; Good qualitative research must have an impact on the reader and tell him something new.

RESEARCH DESIGN

STUDY POPULATION

Inclusion Criteria

IPA involves purposive sampling in order to obtain a homogeneous sample (Pietkiewicz & Smith, 2014, p. 3) and to allow the researcher to search for similarities and differences between people who have experienced similar events. For the current study, the researcher decided on a sample size of six participants, as this is the maximum number of participants recommended for student projects (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009, p. 51). The following criteria for inclusion were handled: participants were required to have either been born to a family/ or parent who were/was an active Jehovah Witness(es). Participants whose families or parent had not been active Jehovah’s Witness(es), but joined before the participants reached an age where they formed lasting memories they were able to recall, were considered too. Participants who fell into the latter group were asked before the interview whether they had any recollection of their childhood prior to their family/parent joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Only prospective participants who answered this question in the negative were considered eligible for inclusion. This criterion was handled to ensure homogeneity between the two groups (born in/ vs. raised in).

As IPA aims to study the characteristics of an individual’s experience in-depth, it is indispensable to have a verbatim transcript of the interview, as note taking would limit the amount of information that can be captured. Therefore, only respondents who agreed to an audio-record of the interview were selected.

Recruitment

Participants were recruited via a pre-existing online peer support group for former Jehovah’s Witnesses on the social media platform ‘Facebook®’. The researcher contacted the group’s administrators, who posted the request on the group’s Facebook® page. Originally, the request was directed towards people living in Scotland because of convenient access to the researcher. However, due to few responses, the area was expanded to include the whole of UK. The request that was posted by the group’s administrators included the researcher’s contact details, to allow participants to ask further questions regarding the study. Interested parties received an invitation to join the interview (see appendix 7.1). Interviews were conducted after respondents had provided written informed consent.

DATA COLLECTION AND STORAGE

Recording and Situation/Place

Respondents were interviewed twice. The first interview took the form of a life story interview. Participants were instructed on what life story interviews are and were informed that they were able to choose in which form or order they wanted to tell their life story. This interview was unstructured, and questions were only asked for clarification purposes.

The second interview was aimed at exploring participants sense-making of their excommunication, as well as events leading up to it and the aftermath of it. The second interview was conducted using a semi-structured interview schedule. Smith, Flowers, & Larkin (2009, p. 79) provide a detailed guide in the handbook ‘Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Theory, Method and Research’, which provided the foundation for the construction of the interview schedule of this study. Respondents were asked five questions in the second interview (see interview schedule in appendix 7.2). Jehovah’s Witnesses are trained to respond to questions asked by non-Jehovah’s Witnesses in a set way, either repeating Bible verse or other Jehovah’s Witness literature. The first two questions were formulated with the intention of observing whether their explanation of the terms ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ and ‘shunning’ to a non-Jehovah’s Witness (the researcher) had undergone a shift. The third question was formulated to gain an insight into how shunning affected participants on a practical everyday level. The coping questions were formulated to understand the coping mechanisms used by Jehovah’s Witness and if possible apply it within the broader research area of coping strategies surrounding ostracism. The last question ‘How would your life be different now, if you would not have been disfellowshipped?’ was formulated with the intent to allow participants to put their discrete experience of being shunned into the perspective of their overarching life story.

To allow respondents to feel more comfortable, the researcher asked the respondents who were living close enough for face-to-face visits to choose a location of their liking. Respondents who lived too far away for face-to-face interviews were offered to be interviewed via Skype™. Four respondents were interviewed via Skype™, while two were interviewed face-to-face. One interview took place at the participant’s house, the second one in a café the respondent chose. The other interviews took place via Skype™, using a webcam. The interviews took anywhere between thirty minutes to six hours in length. All life story interviews took longer than the semi-structured IPA interviews.

The researcher took precautionary steps when conducting the face-to face interviews by making her partner aware of the location of the interview and the approximate time it would take Interview schedules can be found in appendix 7.2.

Storage

Verbatim transcriptions of the interviews were completed by the researcher, using ‘inqscribe’ a digital media transcription software. Respondents names were replaced with pseudonyms, chosen by the researcher at random, and pseudonyms were used to identify audio recordings and transcripts. Pseudonyms were culturally sensitive, to reflect the origin of participants. The researcher created a separate file, that connected pseudonyms and the respondents’ real names as well as any other identifiable information, such as contact details or the names of small towns, names of relatives or friends, work place, etc. The file containing identifiable information was stored on an encrypted and password protected partition of a removable (external) hard-drive in a locked filing cabinet, to which only the researcher had access to. No third party had access to the data used in this study.

ANALYSIS

During the analysis stage, the researcher transcribed all interviews and studied each transcript individually. While there is no strict guideline for analysis in IPA, the process of working and analysing the data is considered to be iterative (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009, p. 28). Transcripts were read multiple times to gain familiarity with the text. Margins on both sides of the document were added, the left margin was used to note interesting and significant comments, and the right margin was used to make notes of emergent topics and themes that are characteristic of the experience (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009, p. 87). Themes that occurred in at least half of the transcripts were categorised as recurrent themes. This was done to counterbalance the idiosyncratic aspect of IPA and to allow the emergence of a broader understanding of the phenomenon being investigated. Recurrent themes were organised in a table and structured using themes and subthemes.

The findings or analysis section for IPA research projects is generally done without making references to literature, and instead, presents a narrative account of what has been learnt from the participant and his/her experience. For clarification purposes, the current study does include some references in the analysis section. IPA is a joint product of the researcher and the participant, due to IPA ‘double hermeneutics’. Therefore, both the researcher’s and the participants’ voice is present in the analysis of the IPA research projects. In order to ensure that readers are able to follow the interpretations, researchers using IPA, make use of participants extracts.

LIMITATIONS

While IPA is an innovative approach in qualitative research, there are, as with any other methodology, certain limitations.

As IPA relies heavily upon interpretation and a person’s sense making of his/her own experience and then the researcher’s interpretation of a third-person’s data, this can lead to misinterpretations. The researcher is not merely re-telling the individuals’ accounts, but also interpreting, thus creating the risk that research results may be misinterpreted and too ‘researcher heavy’.

Another factor that may be interpreted as a disadvantage is the fact that IPA does not lend itself to generalizations, due to using small sample sizes. However, the depth that can be achieved through IPA analysis can add certain values that other methodologies cannot.

Furthermore, the quality of an IPA research relies heavily on the researcher’s experience of conducting interviews. A researcher using IPA must be empathic and critical at the same time. He must be an attentive listener to ask the right probing questions and flexible enough to let the respondent shape the interview process, while at the same time making sure that the interview stays on track (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009, p. 4). During the analysing stages, the researcher must be aware of his/her preconceptions and try to ‘put aside’ his/her own opinions and pre-existing knowledge to fully immerse himself/herself in the data. This is referred to as ‘emic perspective’, gaining an ‘insiders’ understanding (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009). The current study used a sample of six participants, to keep the study manageable. The researcher had previous knowledge of qualitative research from her undergraduate studies. The researcher joined the ‘Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis Research Interest Group’, an online e-mail based research interest group, that allows members to gain an in-depth knowledge of the methodology and to allow interactions between researchers with the possibility to ask and answer questions. The researcher took advantage of the interactive functions (e-mailing other group members) on numerous occasions.

Due to the study’s methodology, the research questions and the researcher’s background and training in psychotherapy, the dissertation has taken a psychological focus. This may be regarded as a limitation of the present study, as it has been conducted as part of a Criminology Master’s degree.

The fact that participants for the current study have been recruited via an online group that was specifically aimed at peer support may have skewed some of the findings of this study. This may suggest that participants involved in this study, had been more adversely affected than other former Jehovah’s Witnesses who do not join these groups.

A limitation in regard to the interview schedule used was the heavy focus on retrospective sense making. In hindsight, it may have proved valuable to ask one or two future orientated questions.

Another limitation of the current research was the use of Skype™ to conduct four interviews. While the software enabled the research to take place in the first instance, it brought limitations such as cutting off during conversation due to poor internet connection, difficulty in establishing a relationship with the participant and one participant stated that she felt it was ‘weird’ for her to conduct the interview via Skype™ as she normally uses it for work purposes, thus participants use of Skype™ in everyday life may have impacted their perception of the interview process. Another aspect of conducting the interviews via Skype™ was that they were much more focused on the topic and there was little deviation from the central topic discussed. While this meant that time was optimally used and the interview process itself could be regarded as efficient, it was more difficult to build a positive relationship with participants, as the interview process felt more like a ‘tick-box’ exercise.

REFLEXION

Reflexivity in qualitative research is concerned with the motivations and preconceptions researchers have about their chosen topic. These affect researchers’ decision making throughout the research process, and it is thus vital to be openly reflexive. A starting point is the motivation behind the research topic. I had started this research project based on curiosity that was evoked when I was a child, and two Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my childhood home for their proselytising work. During this visit, my family’s adverse reaction to the two women took me by surprise and instiled a mix of fear and curiosity. Only several years later, when I was a student in secondary school, I learnt who the women were, and my interest resurfaced. Since then, I regularly read their magazines when I came across them. Growing up in a Catholic family without personally identifying myself as a religious person, caused conflict with my family and within myself on numerous occasions. My family would regularly tell me that non-believers were not afforded salvation after death and prayed that I would eventually start practising, so that I too, could be saved. Even though I never identified myself as a religious person, I always had a keen interest in religion and spirituality, and the people practising it.

When I started researching the Jehovah’s Witnesses more closely, there was one main aspect I found intriguing about the group, which was the ‘delayed’ baptism. As I had been raised as a Catholic, I had been baptised a few weeks after birth and thus was unable to consent to my baptism. I found it liberating to learn that in theory, members need to have studied the Bible (Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society’s version) carefully and lived by its rules before being eligible to baptism. Only after meeting several participants, did I start to understand the subtle control mechanisms, such as social pressure from peers, family and the congregation, underlying baptism in the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Another preconception I had and struggled with until I spoke with several participants, was a sharp dichotomy between victims and perpetrators. I formerly regarded excommunicated members as victims and friends and family members who remained active Witnesses and actively shunned former members as perpetrators of a cruel act. It was only after I met with several former members, that I came to see both sides as victims. While generalisations cannot be made, it appeared to me that Jehovah’s Witnesses who shun former members, truly believe that they are doing the right thing by ostracising them, as they believe that this would lead them to return to the group and be reunited with family and friends. Thus, over the course of this research, I have shifted this dichotomy to include a broader picture, namely that of institutional control. An institutional system that dictates strict rules or as the Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society proclaims, ‘the Truth’, that loyal members are taught to put before ties with family and friends.

During the research process, there were several occasions, where I experienced outrage and anger at the treatment that some of the participants experienced. One participant, in particular, was excommunicated and shunned by his family, friends and the wider congregation, at age thirteen. I found it difficult to listen to his story as he recalled it almost thirty years later, his voice, at times, still filled with sadness and disappointment about the isolation he experienced as a young teenager. Another participant, a victim of sexual assault, was told by Elders of the congregation that she had provoked the assault by entering a friendship with a non-Jehovah’s Witness and was subsequently excommunicated. It was moments like these during the process of this research, that I felt sad, outraged or angry, and sometimes all three emotions simultaneously. Even though the process of interviewing and analysing transcripts had a strong emotional impact on me and sometimes left me feeling overwhelmed, it also reaffirmed the need for this research, as little knowledge exists among the general population.

Part of a researchers’ skills is the ability to enter and understand the participants lived world, with language forming an integral part of their lived world and to convey this lived world to other outsiders through the use of language. Even though I had completed a fair amount of research on Jehovah’s Witnesses prior to interviewing participants, I struggled, particularly during the initial interviews with the participant’s sociolect, also referred to as ‘loaded language’ (Hassan, 2013). Although participants explained insider terms, it still remained a ‘learnt vocabulary’ to me, learnt in an environment that was ‘unnatural’ for the particular setting. This was especially interesting from my perspective, as I speak several languages and the process of familiarising myself with this loaded language, was indeed very similar to learning new vocabulary – hearing or reading a word that I did not understand and that carried no meaning for me, to a word that I could understand and then use myself. Even when the theoretical understanding, the knowing what the word stood for, surfaced, the word still did not carry the same meaning for me, as an outsider, as it did for someone who grew up hearing, learning, using and experiencing that vocabulary.

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