Taking pluralism further: A pluralistic family case study
When it came to writing up for publication, I decided to focus on the experiential themes in the first journal article coming out of this research (Steffen & Coyle, 2011), as the main research aim had been to better understand sense of presence from the perspective of those who have experienced it. To do full justice to the subjective meanings of perceivers, I felt I needed to give undivided attention and space to the participants’ voices as a priority, while considering a separate paper with a focus on the discursive themes. This highlights a particular challenge of pluralistic research, namely that of fitting a multi-perspectival analysis into a journal-length article, something I aimed to do with my second empirical project in which I tried to take the pluralistic stance a little bit further.
My second inquiry concerned family meaning-making around sense of presence experiences, and I conducted my research in a bereaved family in which at least one member had had such an experience (Steffen & Coyle, in press). I spent over six months regularly visiting the family, conducting two family interviews and a number of individual interviews, and I used participant observation as I joined in with family activities that were of significance with regard to the deceased. The interview data constituted the primary data source, and within a broader thematic analysis framework, I used first a phenomenological perspective to analyse the entire data set, followed by a social constructionist reading of the interview data. The two perspectives could complement each other as well as point to different aspects of the phenomenon. For example, one of the family members, who had had sense of presence experiences, said about one such incident:
‘He said clearly my name, and it was, it’s his voice.’
From a phenomenological perspective, the emphasis on the veridicality of the experience can be noted and how perceptually strong and genuine this must have felt, the sense of recognition, indicating the unmistakable voice of the deceased, and the interpersonal import of this experience when the deceased loved one addresses the grieving person by name. Looking at the same sentence discursively, we may note a curious shift from the past tense to the present tense (‘it was, it’s his voice’), not just suggesting an ongoing reality of the voice but emphasising its facticity, which serves to enhance the credibility of the account. Furthermore, the reality of the voice in the present furnishes evidence for the ongoing existence of the deceased more globally, and considering that this sentence was stated within the context of a family interview, the presence of the deceased is also constructed as potentially available to all members of the family, including those members of the family who are doubtful about this reported experience.
Another example of how the two perspectives could be employed in both complementary and conflictual ways is highlighted in two excerpts from another family member, who expressed feeling sceptical about the possibility of sensing the presence of the deceased:
‘It doesn’t work in my mind [ ] cause I sort of like to think of things as very clear and it follows some sort of rule.’
Phenomenologically, we gain some insight into the person’s psychological reasons for struggling with sense of presence, suggesting a need for clarity that does not provide room for the ‘in-betweenness’ or liminality of this phenomenon. Interestingly, this family member consistently drew on scientific discourses in the interviews:
‘I don’t know if it is possible or isn’t possible but I’m tending towards thinking it probably isn’t.’
By acknowledging the possibility of sense of presence experience and constructing it as a hypothesis that could be either true or false, the speaker becomes positioned within a scientific discourse, strengthening the position from which the meaning that the experiencing family member had ascribed to the experiences can be dismissed, not on account of personal belief or disposition (such as a need for clarity and rules) but on account of what is rendered as objectively-considered probabilities. This can be seen to give weight to the speaker’s position as it aligns the speaker with a societally privileged discourse.
Trying to integrate these diverse findings, we could, for example, construct an overarching motivational account, suggesting there is a psychological need for clarity (as in the first quotation) which then gives rise to the dismissing behaviour at a discursive level (in the second quotation). However, we could also arrive at yet another different reading. Reversing the perspectives applied above, we could also view the first quotation from a discursive perspective, employing a hermeneutic of suspicion, and view it in terms of being an utterance made to the interviewer, known to the family as a psychologist, thus possibly constituting an attempt to gain the researcher’s sympathies. Similarly, if we look at the second quotation from a hermeneutic of empathy, we can view this as an open-minded consideration of different possibilities and a genuine statement of personal belief. It might be more difficult to construct an overarching account of these interpretations, thus contradictions and tensions remain.
Balancing or prioritising interpretative stances
Depending on our position, we can see the different interpretative perspectives as complementing each other, as being in conflict with each other or as disconnected and unrelated. It seems that trying to construct an account of complementarity may sometimes require an additional overarching theoretical framework within which both phenomenological and discursive interpretations can be made sense of (as in the motivational explanation above). Synthesising the findings in this way may, however, backfire, as it can eliminate what was pluralistic in the first place. Rather than appealing to a third theoretical meta-level, it may be more relevant to foreground one of the two interpretative or theoretical stances and then merely bring in a second stance to add nuance, depth and complexity to the analysis (Dewe & Coyle, 2014). In our family case study, however, we attempted not to prioritise one perspective over another but to allow for a ‘both/and epistemological and analytic stance’ (Coyle, 2010, p. 81). We felt that a balance was important in order to do justice to the different perspectives; in particular, we did not want to allow for a social constructionist reading to overshadow the phenomenological understanding. This would be a particularly important concern in studies of sensitive and/or controversial experiences (see Coyle, 2010). As Frost (2011) has suggested, pluralism is ‘especially useful when inquiring into topics where reality is not universally agreed’ (p. 148). Although prioritising either a phenomenological or a discursive stance would not have meant that the researchers therefore lean towards one specific version of reality, taking a balanced ‘both-and’ approach seemed to suggest a form of ontological pluralism rather than the life-or-death, reality-or-fantasy binaries so often invoked in both practice and research around such controversial phenomena.
We thus found that the pluralistic stance we took enabled us to attend to contextual factors at the level of individual meaning-making and also at a more interactional level in terms of how family members established credible accounts within the interviews. Although some tensions remained, meaningfulness within this pluralistic approach was not defined as needing to be generated through interpretations that are located within a unitary theoretical framework in which tensions and contradictions are smoothed over but, in line with a postmodern outlook, as allowing ‘ambiguities, contradictions, disruptions and tensions of the lived experience’ (Frost, 2011, p. 123). In this case pluralism enabled a multi-perspectival view of the family’s situation that was potentially more faithful to the family’s diversity than a narrower lens of investigation could have been.
Having once taken a pluralistic approach to qualitative analysis, it now seems difficult not to look at data from more than one interpretative perspective. As Nollaig Frost (2015) said in a recent workshop on pluralism in qualitative research: ‘Rather than asking why look at things from many different perspectives, we can ask why would we not look at our data from as many different perspectives as we can?’ Some exciting studies have been conducted and published in recent years. Of particular interest to counselling psychologists is Daphne Josselin’s pluralistic investigation of self-injury (2013; Josselin & Willig, 2015). For me, pluralism is also expanding into the clinical field, as I enjoy and encourage ‘pluralistic case formulation’ in the context of counselling psychology training (see also my blog on this topic: https://medium.com/@EdithSurrey/taking-collaboration-to-a-deeper-level-a-counselling-psychology-stance-to-psychological-c87c61aeaf04#.xvz47c1vw). Clinical case formulation and qualitative analysis of clients’ accounts are overlapping in many ways, and I would love to see more pluralistic explorations of clinical issues added to the ever-growing corpus of pluralistic research.
Lecturer, PsychD Counselling Psychology Department of Psychology University of Roehampton. firstname.lastname@example.org
With special thanks to Adrian Coyle, Professor of Psychology, Kingston University
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