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  • Writer's pictureSarah Zawacki

All the best-laid plans...

In the UK, PhD students have three years to complete their research projects. This means three years to do all the background reading, design a plan for data collection and analysis, collect said data, and then write it all up in a book-length work, complete with detailed appendices. Perhaps this is feasible for desk- or lab-based researchers (I wouldn’t know), but I work with people at the hectic intersection of ethnic minority and migrants’ rights. It’s a chaotic field.

My interviews were not going to plan. People were going off-topic, telling rich, detailed and sometimes harrowing stories from their lives. It was fascinating, yet I was beginning to see how the details and the nuance of the stories they were telling weren’t going to fit into that neat, orderly, scientific analysis strategy I’d devised. Still, I pushed forward: this had been my plan since the very start of the PhD, and I saw no time to abandon and reformulate.

I did manage to produce a (supposedly) complete version of my thesis within the three-year window, though I’ll be the first to admit that it wasn’t very good.

My first pass at analysis produced an overwhelming focus on barriers to accessing health care, all the while obscuring the real meat of my research – the individual’s sense of injustice in running up against a system that didn’t work for them. I’d adopted a grounded theory analysis strategy – meaning that I divided the text into segments, assigned meaning to the segments and then tried to order those assigned meanings into a coherent theory of the social world – and I feared that it was sucking all the life from interviewees’ stories. The text felt limp, basically informative, but there was no power behind the words.

I went back to the drawing board; I didn’t want to but saw no other choice. I re-analysed my interviews, looking this time not at discrete segments of text, but rather at the stories people were telling. And suddenly everything made sense. I began to see that my research wasn’t about barriers to health care, that it was really about injustice, racism and migrants’ constant struggles to be recognised, to have their voices heard.

If I’ve learned anything about social research, it’s that you have to take a step back and reflect on the world you’ve entered. Sometimes, perhaps, you have to let go of an image of yourself as a serious scientist and let the chaos of real life take you in.

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