Wisdom//

Working as a Researcher Taught Me That Every Story Counts

A conversation with my supervisor gave me a new perspective on the value of words and numbers.

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In my third year of undergrad, I began working in a Health Psychology research lab. The study I worked on involved collecting data from children with asthma and their parents. During a two and a half hour visit, I would interview them about their relationships with family members and friends, their school or work life, and their home life. The interviews were then assigned numbers using a five point scale. These numbers reflected the level of stress that these families were experiencing, one being low, and five being a high level of chronic stress. Each segment of the interview was coded, resulting in a sequence of four numbers.

The families we interviewed varied widely with respect to their educational background and financial situation. What they had in common were unique life experiences that we were interested in studying. After getting to know these families, two and a half hours at a time, I started to question my role as a research assistant and the purpose of doing these interviews. What did it mean? Were we being exploitative somehow, asking them to share personal experiences for a research study? The families would receive an honorarium to reimburse them for their time and travel costs. But how could we put a value on their stories? What’s more, how could a person’s story be boiled down to just four numbers?

Every now and then, I would meet with my supervisor, the lead investigator of the study, to discuss how things were going and my goals for the upcoming months. I remember, during one of these check-ins, feeling like I had something gnawing at me. I had been reticent to bring up the topic, unsure of how she might react. In one sense, I was grappling with a philosophical dilemma about the nature of doing research with human subjects. In another, I was questioning the very premise of my supervisor’s work, the objective of which was to understand and improve the lives of vulnerable children and their families. Really, I was struggling with the methods we were using and what I would later learn was my understanding of knowledge — what counts as knowledge and how I come to know things about people and the world around me.

After going back and forth about this in my head, I decided to bring it up with her. I explained to her how I felt witnessing the emotional toil of their stories. No one would hear these stories outside of our research team, only the four numbers, and not even these individual numbers. It would just be a combination of data, presented using percentages and decimal numbers. Even if I had offended her with my question, she didn’t let on. Instead, in own her gentle way, she spoke about what it’s like to be a researcher, being there to listen, and helping someone else tell their story.

I learned from this brief encounter the value of telling a story in and of itself. We can record a story on tape or film, and we can document it in writing. These might be our ultimate aims, but we would be wise not to overlook the experience of telling a story and having someone else bear witness to this act. Her words helped to shift my perspective on researching people’s experiences. People don’t talk in terms of episodic events and chronic stressors. They tell stories. As I went on to do my own research on the human-animal bond, I kept this perspective close by, reminding myself that the act of storytelling matters.

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