In this post, Heather Michael shares insight from an OHMA Workshop Series presentation by Dr. Mindy Fullilove on her work on situation analysis. Heather explores how Dr. Fullilove’s work illustrates what it means to research through interdisciplinary approaches and raises questions for future researchers to consider.
I am a teacher. Recently, I added qualitative researcher onto the labels I use when describing myself and am now trying to figure out what that means—not literally, but in terms of how I engage the world.
I have never been a purist with much of anything, and now find that as I think about research methodologies and ideas, I do not fall into one category. This makes some part of my work as a researcher easy. For example, I can think expansively. Other parts are challenging, particularly when I cannot seem to hone my ideas with ease when I want to.
And so I was attracted to the theme of the Spring 2017 OHMA Workshop Series, Oral History and the Social Sciences, because I hoped it would give me a new way to think about my own work, through the lenses of others’.
On February 16, Dr. Mindy Fullilove presented “How the Community Research Group Discovered Situation Analysis and What We Did About It,” and we learned about how she and her team looked outside of psychology to take on a “situation analysis” framework. Her stories illustrated how combining and expanding ideas as a collaborative research team helped communities that were struggling with epidemics.
As someone trying to figure out how to complicate my own conceptual thinking, what was most valuable was hearing about how her ability to arrive at a methodology—in this case, “situation analysis”—began with her desire to know more about the concept of “place.”
At the outset of her presentation and in her book The House of Joshua: Meditations on Family and Place, Dr. Fullilove takes up ideas of “place” to underpin her body of work. “Place,” in this sense, is a concept, not everyone’s concept, but useful as an example of how the work is done. Dr. Fullilove writes, “In the first sense of the word, place is a geographic spot that has a boundary defining its outer edge and an ordered plan to its interior. Synonyms would be site or location.” (1999, p. 5).
She wanted to complicate her understanding of this concept, so she read the work of other researchers in other fields. She cites geographers, anthropologists, psychologists and urbanists as informants of her own notions of what it means to think about “place.” What is important to note is that as a research move, exploring a concept across disciplines is not only a way to engage in a conceptual exploration, but is also a way to understand how one’s own conceptual understanding informs one’s understanding.
For example, Dr. Fullilove positions herself as a psychiatrist studying “place,” and found herself drawn to Passi’s concept of “place,” “as the personal assimilation of “location… [and] events” (1999, p. 4). She chose to engage with a definition of “place” that resonated with her worldview as a psychiatrist, arriving at the conclusion that, for her, “What is required is that place be understood from the perspective of the person’s life story” (1999, p. 5). This is a particular way of thinking about the concept, one that probably does not equally draw on all of the definitions she explored.
There are strengths and limits to this: we do not come to new ideas forgetting our past; instead we bring those to the interaction we have. So, on one side, we expand our original ideas by looking at how other disciplines explore them. On the other side, as in all research, we engage in a process of selective inclusion that helps us to make decisions about which ideas to engage and which to dismiss.
For all of us seeking to do work that draws on other disciplines, this is an important consideration. It could be easy to fall into a trap of finding self-affirming conceptual understandings and deliberately excluding ones that don’t align with our own thinking. Though perhaps not specifically problematic, it could lead to a misguided sense of broadening ones worldview, when in fact it is an act of reframing it.
So, where does this leave me and other researchers looking for ways to engage in interdisciplinary work? Firstly, it is important to recognize that this is only one approach; it would be counter to the intention of interdisciplinary work to say that there is a single way to do it. As I think about Dr. Fullilove’s process of exploring “place” from multiple perspectives, I see the value in beginning with a concept and using it as a pivot point for exploration. I also appreciate how exploring a concept, through the lenses of other disciplines, opened up Dr. Fullilove to be conceptually ready to take on situation analysis as a methodology.
There is a lesson in this: interdisciplinary work is iterative and subsequently unpredictable. However, at the same time, the degree of unpredictability is limited by our own point of view and associated willingness to venture into disciplines that pull us so far away from our first understanding of a concept or method. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to self-check our own point of view limitations. It might be working in community, or the way the research gets documented, or the types of data it generates.
For me, for now, I imagine that the process will continue to be a series of different types of questioning, which seems to be the only certainty that exists in the research process.
Heather Michael is a doctorate student in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Columbia Teachers College. Her research interests include critical literacy, spatial theory and adolescent identity. She is currently grappling with how to take on multiple methodologies and concepts in rigorous and innovative ways.