Purpose of the Research
The purpose of this study is to learn of the seminal experiences in the development of social justice advocacy practitioners. This study endeavors to learn of the possible experiences, relationships, and life encounters that create a desire in people to feel compelled to engage in social justice activities. Through learning of the characteristics and features of social justice advocates, and specifically the influential experiences that led them to their social justice interests and beliefs, schools of social work will become better informed to target, recruit, and engage the next generation of social justice advocacy practitioners.
This study employs a qualitative phenomenological methodology and the findings of this study will ensure that oppression can be fought by people eminently qualified to take on the challenge – those with a social work education. This will also assist the profession of social work to stay connected to its social justice roots rather than continue on a potential path toward a psychotherapeutic vacuum that often abandons the principles of social justice. Schools of social work being able to better ensure student congruence with social work values secures the future of the profession.
Social work emphasizes the notion of person(s) in their environment. This study seeks to understand how individuals become influenced by events, people, experiences within their environments in a manner that led them to practice social justice advocacy through political means. Although altruism can be connected to self-interest, even if only to sleep well at night, the question ultimately is – why are some people invested in working for a more just society? What is the personal draw to make a positive difference in the world? Qualitative methods provide a unique opportunity to conduct an in-depth inquiry about the turning points and pivotal events in the lives of individuals who have chosen to be advocates for social justice. The question is not just “why do you do this work?” but rather “what influenced your life’s path to include this work?”
People are people in context; therefore, individuals respond differently to different data collection inquiries. This truth sheds light on one of the many benefits to a qualitative research approach: it represents greater inclusiveness to the distinct attributes of all research participants. Research is more just when it incorporates the special uniqueness of all people. Effective qualitative research necessitates the use of rigor, art, creativity and science (Watts, 2014). The combination of these skills provides the researcher a prism with which to view participants and the data they provide.
Kozleski (2017) identifies the importance of matching questions with methodologies. Advocates for social justice endeavor to change the world, and qualitative research presents “new ways of seeing the world” (De la Cuesta Benjumea, 2015, p. 889). In this manner, investigating the development of social justice advocates with a qualitative methodology provides a unique opportunity to capture the nuances of social justice advocacy through the use an anti-oppressive, phenomenological approach.
The current study invited participants to elaborate about events that, in some cases, have occurred many years in the past. The meaning which people assign to their lived experiences is dynamic and can fluctuate over time. A premise of qualitative research is its flexibility (De la Cuesta Benjumea, 2015; Padgett, 2004). This flexibility is supported by its intentionally nontechnical approach (Watts, 2014). In qualitative research the participant is positioned as a storyteller able to make “new discoveries in the moment” (Kozleski, 2017, p. 24). This is a form of research, which maintains participants’ descriptions of their experiences at its heart (Glesne, 2016). Versatility is needed for this interpretive synthesis to occur. The flexibility and non-oppressive nature of this research style is well suited for the information that this study endeavors to attain.
Effective research is not limited to conventional views that restrict it to traditional methods, but is, in reality, much more expansive (Lorenzetti, 2013; Potts & Brown, 2005). Zarate and Quezada (2012) caution that even research focused upon social psychology can be limiting because it is often detached from social realities. Traditional research methods – including those used in social work – that are based in Anglo-European, male-centric thought is rooted in dominance (Danso, 2015; Lorenzetti, 2013). A social justice practitioner who maintains a fixed definition of social justice is also inherently practicing oppression. In doing so, this practitioner is exerting his/her will upon others’ values (Gasker & Fisher, 2014).
Modern research methods can be utilized to preserve oppressive social work practice by combining both power and knowledge (Reisch & Jani, 2012). Historically, social work has maintained a focus on aiding marginalized and oppressed populations (Mullaly, 2001; Murdach, 2010). But those who subscribe to conventional research methods are implicitly following Speer and Hughey’s (1995) aforementioned third axiom of power differentials by maintaining existing paradigms. Therefore, social work researchers who limit their scholarship to the confines of dominant protocol are working in opposition to notions of social justice.
Jane Addams (1912) wrote that “the responsibility of tolerance lies with those of the widest vision” (p. 163). Persevering to gain this vision includes utilizing an anti-oppressive research approach. The definition of anti-oppressive research includes “the art of asking questions, building relationships, seeking answers, and coming up with more questions” (Potts & Brown, 2005, p. 257 – 258). A goal of anti-oppressive research is to endeavor towards social change, social justice and emancipation of those who are oppressed (Potts & Brown, 2005). Strier (2006) recognizes that social work research must not be infected by oppressive practices. Research can be performed as an apparatus to protect the maintenance of structural inequalities within social systems (Danso, 2015). Even social justice research can have a result of fortifying societal inequalities (Fietzer & Ponterotto, 2015). This includes research practices that reproduce and solidify forms of institutional oppression (Strier, 2006). Danso (2009) concurs, explaining that anti-oppressive practice takes care not to replicate oppressive social associations. One way this can be prevented is by the researcher recognizing the inherent power differential between his/herself and research participants. Utilizing anti-oppressive research means eschewing any single, favored, socially accepted research as a dominant methodology (Lorenzetti, 2013). Strier (2006) warns that social work researchers can promulgate oppression if they do not recognize the inherent and nuanced forms of oppression that are found in dominant research conventions.
Supporting Addams (1912) assertion that a vast social vision is an ingredient of tolerance, or as I prefer acceptance, Lorenzetti (2013) summarizes that a “social justice researcher is an activist who has discovered a new set of lenses (p. 456).” While embarking upon this research project, I have gained a new view of social justice and those who advocate for it. Social justice researchers, such as myself, have innovative opportunities as a result of wearing a new set of anti-oppressive research lenses that widens society’s viewable landscape.
Within the world of qualitative research is an avenue known as phenomenology. Grossoehme (2014) summarizes phenomenology as a research methodology that centers upon the search for meaning. It was founded by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) (Patton, 2002; Titchen & Hobson, 2005). Husserl believed that human understanding is derived from sensory understanding of experienced phenomena (Patton, 2002). Husserl’s caveat was that all experience required description, analysis, and interpretation (Patton, 2002). This proviso is phenomenology’s foundation: it is the study of how people recount their experience through their own senses (Patton, 2002). Butina, Campbell and Miller (2015) emphasize that phenomenological research focuses on how participants experience events – in other words, the multiple meanings that individuals assign to their own experiences. Phenomenological research, therefore, transpires through the distinct lens of each research participant.
Titchen and Hobbs (2005) describe phenomenology as “the study of lived, human phenomena within the everyday social context in which the phenomena occur from the perspective of those who experienced them” (p. 121). The path in which a phenomenon enters an individual’s consciousness is filtered through his/her unique interpretation (Patton, 2002). Individuals can have multiple interpretations of their own lived experiences; therefore, the study of such is best suited for a qualitative phenomenological approach (Dowling & Cooney, 2012).
Earlier, Swank (2012) identified that there are people who maintain a world view that it is necessary to question authority. Reisch and Andrews (2001) stated that an activist world view is vital to execute social work’s mission. Patton (2002) identifies that a phenomenological researcher’s work centers on the development of participants’ world views. “Phenomenologists focus on how we put together the phenomena we experience in such a way as to make sense of the world and, in doing so, develop a worldview” (Patton, 2002, p. 106). This research aims to discover defining moments in the lives of the participants’ and how they derived meaning out of their experiences which led them to the practice of social justice advocacy. They are reported based upon that individual’s own description of the actual events and interpretation of its meaning. The stories from each participant were examined and gleaned for themes. This gave needed light to the development of participants’ world views which compels them to advocate for social justice – a light that can shine from this study into the halls of social work education.
Purposive sampling was used to recruit participants in this study as the investigator was interested in learning from those who had a particular experience. De la Cuesta Benjumea (2015), Gentles et al. (2015), and Nichols (2009) identify that participant selection should be based upon what the researcher desires to learn. As this study endeavors to learn of the development of social justice advocates, participants in this study were selected based upon their experience as advocators for social justice. The fact is “qualitative research is about what and not about whom. Therefore, the choice of the participants was based on their experience instead of some demographic or social variables” (De la Cuesta Benjumea, 2015, p. 887). Those sought for this study were individuals who have incorporated social justice activism into their life.
Potential participants were first reached by phone or email. Inclusion criteria: In order to qualify for this study potential participants were screened to determine that they have been involved in at least one of the four arenas of social activism identified by Mizrahi and Dodd (2013): political activism; electoral activism; community focused activism; social action. Exclusion criteria: Individuals who do not meet the aforementioned benchmarks, minors, or people currently incarcerated, were not eligible to participate in the study. If a potential participant qualified for this study, I asked him/her to participate in this study. Following potential participant approval, informed consent forms were emailed or mailed. The data collection process did not transpire until I received signed consent forms either through email or mail.
I have a decades-long history of participating in all four of these activist components. I have realized in my own life the self-actualization that Fiorito et al. (2010) identify as a byproduct of this work. Through the many years that I have ventured in this practice I have, not surprisingly, come into contact with many champions of social justice. From these interactions I have gained an exhaustive list of personal contacts; the initial recruitment was based upon a convenience sample which occurred among these individuals. Through the years of school and study I have not actively maintained relationships with many of these contacts; therefore, when approached for this study its purpose was unfamiliar to them. Through convenience sampling mentioned above, these contacts, snowball sampling also ensued. Snowball sampling is a purposive sampling in which individuals within the target audience are identified and then they assist the inquirer in finding others who share distinct characteristics (Royse, Thyer & Padgett, 2016). Snowball sampling may be employed in cases when there is no formal list of those who might qualify for a particular study (Royse et al, 2016).
Interviews are a common means of qualitative data collection and this study used interviews as its predominant research instrument (Butina, et al., 2015; Grossoehme, 2014). Interview questions should ask participants to share about the special meaning of their histories (De la Cuesta Benjumea, 2015). Rapley (2004) states that “interviews are, by their nature, social encounters” (p. 16). McIntosh and Morse (2009) report that unstructured interviewing is the most frequently utilized form of qualitative data collection. The value of unstructured interviewing is that this “allows participants the freedom to tell their stories without the researcher’s control of a framework of questions to guide the interviews” (McIntosh & Morse, 2009, ch. 3, para 2). Utilizing this form of investigation, the researcher is a collaborator in the construction of knowledge – in this way the researcher his/herself becomes a research instrument (Xu & Storr, 2012). As an instrument of the research, the researcher’s decisions affect both data collection and data deliberations, thus playing a pivotal and purposeful role (Barrett, 2007; Xu & Storr, 2012).
Participant stories are shared through the lexicon of emotion (McIntosh & Morse, 2009). Through the use of a flexible, unstructured interview, I assisted participants as they weave through their minds and memories to find the key experience(s) that led them to social justice advocacy. This allowed for participants to engage in different directions of storytelling, without researcher-directed confinement. Through this process, participants were able to gain comfort with me, which allowed for deep, robust, and informative responses.
Per the Barry University Institutional Review Board requirements, all participants were asked to sign informed consent forms prior to interviews taking place. This informed consent detailed the procedures the participant would undergo along with the measures that would be taken to protect their confidentiality. The interview question was designed to ascertain the self-identified seminal experience(s) in each participant’s life that that led them to their social justice advocacy practices. A primary question was used to initiate the interview and additional probing questions were generated as the interviews progressed. I stated: please describe a key event, or events, that you experienced which influenced your life’s path to include advocating for social justice. It was accurately anticipated that the response to this question led to the sharing of additional valuable data by research participants.
Interviews were audio recorded; though if a participant was not comfortable with this it was not required and I would take extensive notes during the interview. I transcribed each recorded interview. Transcripts of each interview were offered to the participant for member checking where they would have the opportunity to review and clarify their data that was shared during the interview. Following this audio recordings of each interview were erased. The initial interviews were approximately one hour in length. There is no known risk for participants in this study as it is designed.
Plan for Data Analysis
I utilized NVivo, as made available by Barry University, to create a systematic multilayered coding process in order to examine the data and discover the nuanced underlying themes and meanings (Watts, 2014). The coding process also helped me to uncover commonalities among data that may not be evident on its surface (Rabinovich & Kacen, 2010). A three-step coding process was utilized to ensure systematic treatment of the data collected. First, open coding identified the meaning assigned to key experiences by the participants. Second, axial coding built upon the open coding to identify themes. Lastly, selective coding was utilized to search for the true essence of the identified themes. This system of coding and analysis commenced with the first interview.
Researcher Bias and Limitations of the Research
In his 2016 Nobel Prize Lecture in Literature, Bob Dylan describes the comprehension and interpretation process. While sharing a first-hand account of his exegesis process with literature, he also identifies why qualitative research is fraught with risks: “we see only the surface of things. We can interpret what lies below any way we see fit” (Dylan, 2017, Moby Dick section, para. 7). Part of how we “interpret what lies below” can be assigned to human nature – just as participants are influenced by their lived experiences, so, too, are researchers. Gringeri, Barusch and Cambron (2013) describe that “all findings and interpretations are molded by biographies and perspectives that researchers and participants bring to the project” (p. 763). This is something that I must be mindful of during the data collection and analysis process. In addition, when applying this to qualitative research, another element is the power differential that is an inherent part of this method of research (Grossoehme, 2014).
Due to the subjective nature of qualitative analysis, researchers “affect and are affected by their data” (Grossoehme, 2014, p. 110; Kozleski, 2017). Tuohy et al. (2013) question whether it is possible for one to set aside biases. Watts (2014) identifies that it is simply not possible for the researcher to possess a completely neutral approach to data. Gringeri et al. (2013) emphasize the value of the researcher being aware of this natural power differential. “In the same way that practitioners must consider and account for their roles vis-à-vis clients, being aware of the ways power and privilege shape the interactions, social work researchers need to sharpen our awareness of relationship dynamics woven throughout our projects” (Gringeri et al., 2013, p. 770).
Based on factors identified by Gringeri et al (2013), Grossoehme (2014), Kozleski (2017), Tuhoy et al. (2013) and Watts (2014) the data interpretation process can be easily influenced by the researcher’s side of this power differential – the side where the data interpreter holds the authority to explicate the data itself. Bracketing can be used to counteract this as it is an essential tool in limiting researcher bias because it restricts opportunities for the researcher’s own knowledge of a phenomenon to influence the participant’s report of his/her own experiences with that same phenomenon (Hamill & Sinclair, 2010). Within the phenomenological research process bracketing aids the researcher to curtail his/her own personal views when examining data. To curb researcher bias that can invade the data interpretation process, I included bracketing as part of data analysis.
Qualitative research is based upon the researcher’s intellectual interpretation of data (Watts, 2014). Due to these considerations, quality of research is partly dependent upon the researcher dedicating time for ethical reflection (De la Cuesta Benjumea, 2015). Another means to imbed reflection into the qualitative research process is through memoing. I used a memo system to reflect on my own thoughts, feelings and ideas throughout the research process. Both bracketing and memoing aided in lessening bias in data interpretation. In addition, memoing was utilized to further explore and refine emerging ideas.
A distinctive attribute of qualitative research is that the researchers are simultaneously “judges and stakeholders” (De la Cuesta Benjumea, 2015, p. 886). Because the qualitative researcher wields his/her own data collecting gavel, and is personally invested in the research itself, there are near-infinite opportunities for researcher bias. Similar to other qualitative researchers, I am influenced by my own life experiences which make me predisposed to certain beliefs and related biases. Allowing these beliefs to influence my research would be a disservice to the research participants. It would also limit the value of this research’s findings. One challenge is that at the outset of this study I did not know how my beliefs would interfere with the research process. Furthermore, I did not know at that time how my beliefs may be influenced and changed through this endeavor. The application of a qualitative memo system both lent rigor to this study and helped identify, and limit, researcher bias. By consistently memoing throughout the data collection and data analysis process, it is my hope that I was able to successfully disentangle my own beliefs – and their associated biases – from the research and its analysis.
Another potential limitation is that I have known many of the participants in this study prior to the commencement of research. While this can increase the level of comfort for each participant, and correspondingly add depth to the data they share, this could also open the interview process to the effects of social desirability. This possibility is counteracted by strictly following the Barry University Institutional Review Board’s guidelines for confidentiality and anonymity; thereby, all participants can have confidence that their participation in this study, and the corresponding information they shared, would remain anonymous.
Humphries (2008) states that ethics in research and social justice are interwoven. Supporting Humphries (2008), I hold ethics as the utmost priority. This is a confidential study. As designed, this study does not pose any known risks to human subjects. Any information has been held in confidence to the extent permitted by law. Each participant’s responses, and all data analysis notes, were kept in a password-protected computer and/or in a locked cabinet. Participants were assigned a pseudonym. Published results will emphasize central themes found among the data collected from the participants. Specific information that is published, such as participant experiences and quotations, has been reported in such a way as to protect the identity of its source.
This study has positive implications for social work research, education and practice. I believe that it will fill a gap in social work literature by identifying the key developmental factors that lead people to social justice advocacy practice. In doing so, schools of social work will then be better able to identify and recruit future generations of likeminded people. As a result of adding social justice advocates into the rooms for social work education, schools of social work will be preserving the profession’s long history of social justice advocates.