Mobile methodologies have attracted and gained significant attraction within geographic academia (Sheller and Urry, 2006; Sheller and Urray, 2016). This has led to mobile paradigms increasingly emerging to facilitate new ways of studying different aspects of this phenomena, most notably and commonly applied within research involving qualitative research on interaction and narratives with place (Evans and Jones, 2011).
Whilst geography and place go hand in hand, mobile methodologies offer the potential for obtaining high quality rich data by attaching primary first hand meaning and connections to place (Reed, 2002; Anderson, 2004; Evans and Jones, 2007).
This essay aims to effectively analyse and assess the qualitative research methodologies applied within Inwood and Martin’s (2008) paper; ‘Whitewash: white privilege and racialized landscapes at the University of Georgia’.
This essay will firstly establish an overview of the seminal paper, outlining the contextual importance and aims of the research, moving on to analyse the underlying themes and philosophy which grounds and drives the research. Subsequently moving on to examine and evaluate the effectiveness alongside limitations of using ‘set route’ mobile methods, focusing specially on the impact location has on the walking interview.
Before concluding on the advantages and disadvantages of mobile methods in general and how the seminal paper opens doors within the discipline to further research involving minority narratives and interaction with place through the application of mobile methodologies, whilst simultaneously ensuring participatory safeguarding.
The paper seeks to examine student perspectives and interaction, through the application of mobile methodologies, with the established complex political landscape embedded within the University of Georgia (UGA) (Inwood and Martin, 2008).
The paper investigated the experience of both current and former African American students of UGA through volunteer participation, exploring the group’s physical and emotional responses and relationships within the UGA landscape. Inwood and Martin (2008) add significant context to the research by outlining the universities abundant and controversial conflicts regarding racial identity.
Numerous debates within the campus have arisen regarding the application of affirmative action to increase diversity to be representative of the state (which was ultimately dismissed) alongside crucially the universities ties and prominent memorials to key confederate (and slave owner) leaders (Inwood and Martin, 2008) which just deepens and reinforces tensions on campus.
This context and current climate relevance provide the ideal opportunity for qualitative research regarding the experiences of those affected, allowing their personal narratives to be shared within an academic perspective.
This paper is seminal in its research as universities are established prominent locations at which cultural values are produced, influencing students’ political thoughts, attitudes and ethos.
This privileged unchallenged perspective runs the risk of furthering discrimination and racial inequality becoming the norm if only a limited visibility of African American experiences are visible throughout the landscape. Inwood and Martin (2008) draw attention to the diverse range of opinions within the University, extending previous established research investigating the extent of white privilege within landscape and American identity (Dwyer and Jones, 2000; Kobayashi and Peake, 2000).
The central themes to this paper involves minority (African American) narratives, racial identity and interactions with place (Inwood and Martin, 2008), and of which there are few studies which apply mobile methods to these experiences within landscape (Till, 1999 p.254; Evans and Jones, 2011).
Underlying Philosophy & Approach
Throughout the research design in both methodology and analysis, Inwood and Martin (2008) apply an interpretivist ontological approach, whilst also a strong grounding within the philosophy of feminist geography. These two underlying philosophies strengthen and support each other, one being directly geographical in its approach the other being applied across numerous strands of research.
Feminist geographies focuses on interconnections between the individual, time and space and how these interact with dominant assumed forms of knowledge. Feminist geographies is often associated with research involving minorities, aiming to broaden knowledge whilst adding differing perspectives to the assumed white, heterosexual male gaze (Sharp, 2009). This is heavily interconnected with interpretivist approaches, which aims to expand upon existing research by investigating and analysing experiences within differing contexts (Denzin, 2001; Saunders et al, 2009 p. 140-141).
Throughout the paper, Inwood and Martin (2008) successfully conjoin these two philosophies focusing on obtaining rich personalised narratives from African American minorities, whilst then reflecting on their obtained qualitative and subjective data within the cultural and physical contexts.
The research design obtains subjective qualitative data, derived from a small sample size whilst obtaining rich data. This data will be subjective in its entirety allowing the researcher to interpretively analysis through the application of grounded theory.
The use of qualitative data based on narratives also disqualifies the availability to make larger generalisations, opinionated narratives in its entirety is subjective rather than objective (Davidson, 2001). Opinion can apply to the sharing of a viewpoints and biases constructed of feelings, thoughts or objective information, it relies on these dominators to differentiate between objectivity and subjectivity. Making of a sweeping generalization would make that statement objective, rather than subjective despite being based upon feelings as generalizations portray themselves as representational statements of fact.
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Subjective studies require the researcher to acknowledge this, which their research relies upon individualistic narratives that, even if there is consensus among the small selected sample, it is not representational in its entirety. Subjective data can be applied to form proposals and hypotheses or to portray narratives that are often ignored among wider society. This concept amongst the difference between subjectivity and objectivity is arguably what underpins grounded theory.
Methodology, Approach & Analysis
Inwood and Martin’s (2008) attain their data initially through semi-structured interviews then expanding to include ethnographic mobile studies. Both of these methodologies focus and emphasise on the lived walking experience of African American present and past students regarding racial bias and white privilege. The research interviews were conducted between the summer of 2003 till the summer of 2005, and involved 16 mixed gendered, present geography students from UGA and then expanding to encompass previous students recently graduated, both of whom were identified and chosen through word and mouth participation.
The balance between acquiring rich data sets and having it be accurately representational is arguably less crucial for research seeking to further insight into minority narratives and emotional responses (Alvesson and Ashcraft, 2012; Bryman and Becker, 2012; Bryman, Becker and Ferguson, 2012).
Whilst the data gained will not be exclusively or completely representational of minority narratives that is not the purpose nor aim of Inwood and Martin’s (2008) study. The small sample size is appropriate within the context of Inwood and Martin’s (2008) research, the aims of which are to merely express and interpret experiences of a small minority group within a relatively small space, not quantify or making sweeping generalizations.
Crucially, the number of participants is enough to gain subjectively adequate and richly detailed data for the researchers to interpret regarding their established research aims (Saunders and Townsend, 2016; Townsend and Wallace, 2016). The obtained research sample has the added advantage of gathering both current perspectives as well as utilising data obtained from past students who can reflect with hindsight on their experiences.
The research was initially conducted through open ended interviews lasting roughly, each lasting for an hour and a half. However, as similar themes and consensus began to emerge throughout these subjective individual interviews, Inwood and Martin (2008) decided to expand the research methodology to greater explore the relationship of space and experiences. This was achieved by incorporating methods of involving mobile group interviews.
Inwood and Martin (2008) divided the participants into sets of two focus groups walking along a set path. The set route was derived from a collaborated effort, incorporating the researchers own existing and established background knowledge of campus alongside the remarks and notable comments raised in the initial interviews (Inwood and Martin, 2008).
The research therefore undertook a more formalised and arguably more structured approach, specifically ensuring identified prominent landmarks were incorporated in the derived route to provoke the initiation of debate within the participants.
Both reach methodologies employed by Inwood and Martin (2008) utilise grounded theory in their approach to interpreting and analysing data. This provides further insight and enriching the researchers understanding from the attained data.
Grounded theory lacks the ability to make sweeping generalisations as the qualitative theory embodies a subjective ‘ground up’ technique of acquiring data (El Hussein et al, 2014). This supports the ontological approach of feminist geographies, emphasising the importance of gaining individual narratives, in direct contrast to the grand generalisation techniques amongst other ontological research approaches who take objective stances in their research (Denzin, 2001; Sharp, 2008).
In this way grounded theory strengthens the underlying philosophy of Inwood and Martin’s (2008) research, obtaining rich, meaningful and personalised data (Morse et al, 2016 p. 13-15; Charmaz and Keller, 2016; Charmaz, 2017 p.34-45). The strengthening of personalised meaningful data is then giving greater meaning by binding subjective narratives obtained within the research it to localised bounded space. Binding the data to a specified space makes it problematic to attempt to apply the obtained data to wider regions, thus increasing the subjectivity of the qualitative research.
This is despite Inwood and Martin’s (2008) study delivering rich and detailed collections of data through both static and mobile interviews incorporating mobile participant observation.
The initial semi-structured interview approach applied by Inwood and Martin (2008) adds depth and helps steer the direction of topics of discussion, whilst allowing partially ‘natural’ conversation to develop (Denzin, 2001; Caulfield and Hill, 2014 p.111). Allowing the interviews to evolve and progress naturally in the eyes of the participant, with steering to keep the conversation continually developing research topics does create unnatural subtle power dynamics. Power resides solely with the interviewer being able to dictate which experiences, narratives become validated and incorporated within the research (Caulfield and Hill, 2014 p.111-113).
This power dynamic becomes even more complex within the context of Inwood and Martin’s (2008) research, focusing on minority experiences and interaction with white privilege and bias. Unseen implications can emerge from directing conversation, especially when it involves validating different experiences, cultures and identity, to that of the researcher (Denzin, 2001).
Directing what is deemed as appropriate and relevant to the research, denying flexibility (Caulfield and Hill, 2014:113), when discussing sensitive and personalised topics has the potential to become highly controversial. Inwood and Martin (2008) fail to acknowledge their own reflexivity, bias’s or outline any of their own potential privileges. Research themes and their supposed importance are highly subjective with the consequences and underlying implications of directing conversational flows causing the participants to not be fully able to express their narratives, suppressing and limiting their voice, ironically which is what the research is investigating.
Mobile walking interviews allows the participants to explore perceptions, feelings and emotions which would overwise be supressed in stationary interviews (Anderson, 2004). For geographical studies involving narratives associated with space this is a crucial aspect to explore, opening up new avenues of dialogue through body posture and language, which in turn continually enriches the data acquired (Anderson, 2004 p.258). Inwood and Martin (2008) apply this to prompt supressed emotional reactions in the participants as they walked along the set route, reconstituting group and individual response (Anderson, 2016 p.258).
Observing these ‘real-life’ performative responses provides further depth to the data acquired by allowing the researcher to account for body language and how participants react, which was previously unobtainable as primary research, only available through participant reflection during the interviews (Reeves et al, 2008; Mohahan and Fisher, 2010).
A singular researcher (Inwood) was present during all the mobile group sessions to try and mitigate the influence of two researchers within a small group dynamic (Inwood and Martin, 2008). This then allowed Inwood greater opportunity to naturally observe and discuss with the participants, asking questions and initiating group discourse when Inwood deemed it appropriate. Though the decision of taking an active and overt form of observation, Inwood would encounter differing philosophical issues affecting the participants to those encountered by taking a covert method of research collection and observation. It is well established that having the researcher present and attending mobile settings will affect participants behaviours and thought processes (Reeves et al, 2008; Mohahan and Fisher, 2010). However, the presence of covert observation can also hinder research, making participants feel unnerved and on edge as their actions, responses and behaviours are observed from the side-lines.
For these reasons it is impossible for researchers to completely alleviate the overarching pretext amongst the participants, with the researchers only able to mitigate the extent to which overt or covert methods will influence the research (Wilson, 1977; Wilson, 1997; Anderson, 2004).
The benefits of mobile and research focused group interviews are well documented, especially within geographical context connecting people and spaces, with Morgan (1997), Wilson (1977), Wilson (1997) and Anderson (2004) further noting that mobile focus groups encapsulate wider group discourse, broaden topics of discussion whilst opening new avenues of debate. The group dynamic has advantages of allowing participants to compare contrasting experiences, allowing the researcher further insight into the reasoning behind narratives and emotional responses (Wilson, 1997; Anderson, 2004).
Alongside this, group dynamics have the added benefits of making participants naturally feel more at ease and reassured through collective consensus, with others who generally have similar opinions to them. This will also increase the likelihood that the presence of the researcher within the dynamic of the group will be as unnoticeable as possible, enriching the data (Caulfield and Hill, 2014 p. 121-123).
Inwood and Martin’s (2008) paper encounters numerous significant ethical considerations which need to be accounted for and successfully addressed regarding this sensitive line of research topic. Specifically due to the involvement of the publishing of minority group narratives and experiences within a designated bounded region. Overall Inwood and Martin (2008) partially address the majority of ethical concerns surrounding ethnic minority narratives, with varying degrees of success.
When discussing lived experiences, feelings and racial narratives of minorities involving the subtle everyday experiences of prejudice and discrimination, the participants may undergo significant emotional distress during the mobile interviews (Oliver, 2010 p.68). For this reason, Inwood and Martin’s (2008) ethical consideration and research consent should have directly addressed this once the methodology was altered. Regaining informed consent once the research practises diverted from semi structured interview process to a mobile interview. Within the discourse surrounding mobile methodologies, there stands an argument of withholding informed consent regarding aspects of the research, such as the proposed set route, so as to not alter participants’ natural behaviours and how they would naturally express themselves within space (Caulfield and Hill, 2014 p.29). However, within Inwood and Martin’s (2008) research this does not excuse the lack of consent regarding the changing methodologies, only the way in which they are performed, requiring the provision of detailed information on the research changes for the participants as possible (Oliver, 2010 p.28).
Due to sensitivity of the study confidentiality alongside safeguarding of the participants is of paramount importance, to minimise potential opportunity to identify individual participants. This would therefore reduce and mitigate any potential physical or emotional harm which would occur after the research publication (Caulfield and Hill, 2014 p.29). There is an increased potential within smaller sample sizes for participants to unintentionally share personalised identifiable memories or details, despite studies attempting to keep participants anonymous, increasing participatory risk after publication.
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Within the published study, Inwood and Martin (2008) do well to alleviate these safeguarding issues by referring to participants merely in the group setting, not allowing for an individual to be identified or singled out. Reflecting and analysing the data solely through a group perspective creates a compromising balance, maintaining the confidentiality of participants whilst however not being able to directly portray individual narratives and emotions.
Minority narratives, experiences and safeguarding of participants are at the core of the papers qualitative research aims. Inwood and Martin achieve their aims with relative success. Throughout the research paper, the advantages of applying mobile methodologies are continually reinforced; ability to prompt responses, engaging with the environment, group dynamic opening up new perspectives. However, Inwood and Martin failed to discuss the limitations and possible implications drawn from the application of mobile methodologies.
The unnaturally drawn attention to the group as they move across campus, the dismissal of voices that don’t comply to the group consensus, as well as the researchers observations causing participants potentially anxiety (Wilson, 1977; Wilson, 1997; Anderson, 2004). Arguably the dismissal of voice differing to the group consensus was counteracted within the initial semi structured interviews. However, the semi structured interviews were directed by the researchers directly conforming the participants to what they deemed as relevant.
Despite the lack of acknowledgement of the potential disadvantages, Inwood and Martin successfully justify their positionality and reasoning for changing the methodology. Focusing on the identified themes and joint opinions held within the group settings, derived from the information gained from the initial interviews.
The seminal paper grants the opportunity for further research within minority perspectives on campuses across the US. Within Inwood and Martin’s study, the participants are all within a similar age range from similar backgrounds (current or past geography students). Expanding the study to incorporate larger groups of participants has the added bonus of it less subjective and more inclusive allowing a larger inclusion of narratives and thought.
Due to the researches interpretivist philosophy future studies will remain subjective rather than objective, no matter the sample size. This allows the research to continually be refuted, with grounded theory emphasising the interpretation of the obtained data, there lies two levels of subjectivity the participants responses and the researcher’s individual understanding. Subsequently there is the potential likelihood that emotional responses or biases influence the research, with the researcher trying to form a preconceived hypothesis and disregarding all other differing obtained data which challenges this narrative.
If Inwood and Martin (2008) had simply outlined their own biases during the ethics or introduction then the argument of preconceived narratives could be dismissed. However, if this is addressed within any subsequent studies arising and expanding from this initial research, it will allow for increased hypotheses to arise from the data, granting increased insight into the connectivity of minorities and place.
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