Symposium Charts Advances in Qualitative Health Research

By M. Rossi – On May 2, stakeholders from academia, state agencies, health systems, and the community at large convened at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing for the fourth UC Davis Qualitative Health Research Symposium. Their goal? To explore how qualitative methods fuel health-related research.

Qualitative research enables scholars to investigate the nexus between health and illness and the institutional contexts wherein they reside. Motivated by an increasingly aging and diverse nation, qualitative studies can illuminate processes that maintain and perpetuate challenges, can contribute to national discourse, and have potential to inform solution-oriented policy.

The free day-long event hosted its most diverse audience yet in terms of both disciplinary background and levels of training. The morning began with introduction to the Keynote speaker, Kathy Charmaz, author and emerita professor of sociology at Sonoma State University. Dr. Charmaz studies chronic illness primarily through the Grounded Theory methodology. Prior to her keynote, she facilitated a two-hour hands-on workshop in how to conduct Grounded Theory. She guided both qualitative and quantitative faculty and students through introductory exercises in coding, clustering, and memo-writing.

Having laid the foundation for those nascent but eager-to-learn qualitative researchers, she moved beyond process and unveiled some of the content of her own research on chronic illness. In so doing, she situated the historical evolution of grounded theory, unpacked processes of “experiencing illness,” and shared how she constructed the concepts of “loss of self”, the “moral status of suffering”, and “liminal injustice.” Throughout both the workshop and keynote, Dr. Charmaz explicitly described some of her own metacognitive processes and provided suggestions on using the method in the field with our own projects.

Research in practice

The next segment of the day highlighted qualitative research in practice with a series of three paper presentations by a recent PhD and two PhD candidates. In the first paper, Anne White of UC Davis presented her research “Surgeon Noticings of Additional Concerns: A Conversation Analysis Examination.” White shared findings of the particular dilemmas that surgeons had to navigate during office visits when discussing potential bad medical news.

In the second talk, titled “Reconciling Informed Choice and Reproductive Autonomy within Prenatal Testing: An Ethnographic Examination,” Eleni Skaperdas of UCLA explained the process by which she observationally studied doctor-patient interactions. Drawn from genetic prenatal screenings and diagnoses, her data illustrated the tension between “informed choice” and “reproductive autonomy.”

Lastly, Claire Valderama-Wallace of UC Davis discussed some of her own dissertation research in a presentation entitled, “Nurse Educators’ Conceptualizations of and Pedagogical Approaches to Social Justice.” Implementing grounded theory, she found that nurses conceptualize justice to include “equity, equality, self-awareness, and action.” She explained how nurse educators’ family and educational background, coupled with institutional and curricular factors, impact their pedagogy.

Essential interdisciplinarity

The symposium format shifted yet again into a panel discussion. Panelists included Cristiana Giordano from UC Davis, Xochitl Castaneda from UC Berkeley, and Ladson Hinton from UC Davis. This panel served to highlight the ways in which qualitative methods collectively contribute to understanding mental health in varied cultural contexts. Giordano shed light specifically on systems in Italy, Castaneda on Latino immigrants, and Hinton on caregivers in Vietnam. While their projects and methods varied, all panelists stressed the importance of interdisciplinary teams. 

In her closing keynote, Carol Estes of UC San Francisco called for social policy makers, researchers, and practitioners to attend to issues of structure and agency, of power and inequality. 

In addition to providing an incredible opportunity for networking, the event demonstrated the overlap between the health professions and the fields of sociology and education. The seamless organization of the day’s activities can serve as a local model for engaged scholarship.