Meet the Qualitative Researcher: Gargie Ahmad

Bio: Gargie is carrying out a social epidemiology PhD on mental health inequalities in people from ethnic minority backgrounds in the UK, with a focus on common mental health problems like depression or anxiety. Gargie is using interviews to explore people’s perceptions and experiences of mental health problems, and their care or treatment, as well as interviewing mental health researchers and practitioners working in this area of inequalities.

Sohail: So what got you into mental health research and why the mental health of ethnic minorities?

Gargie: I was interested in migration because of my own heritage, as a migrant background, South Asian, Bangladeshi British background. My childhood is a sort of tale of three parts. I grew up in different parts of the UK, where I was born after my parents came here for my dad, who’s a dentist, to study a Masters degree. In his 40s, he began the process of starting again as some of his professional experience wasn’t recognised, and he needed to re-qualify to practice at the right level in the UK after he and my mum decided to stay here for a better life, for me and my future. We found we had to leave and either go back to Bangladesh or go anywhere else in the world that would have us when he hadn’t quite finished this process when I was 7, so we ended up moving to Saudi Arabia instead. After a few years when my dad successfully requalified, we came back to the UK where we’ve been ever since.

The sexism and racism in Saudi Arabia is acute. So from a young age I’ve been aware of the experience of, you know, growing up here and seeing that as a Bangladeshi British kid, and then moving to Saudi Arabia, seeing how South Asian migrants are treated there. All these experiences, and the huge stress and strains that were put on my family, really opened my eyes to so many issues. So that's why I've always been motivated to engage in social research. I wanted to learn social research skills so that I could work effectively in the humanitarian or development sector.

I later started working for international development and migration organsiations, while also doing a Masters in demography and health. While I was doing that masters, I wanted to focus in on migration, and actually I ended up in mental health research by accident. I was going to be working with Dr Chesmal Siriwardhana on my dissertation project, he was a psychiatric epidemiologist and worked a lot with Sri Lankan civil war survivors, many other global health projects, and he supported a lot of students. He was killed in a road traffic accident, and after he died, as a legacy thing I said I would like to research mental health, because that where his expertise was. And then, because I was looking at migration anyway, I wanted to incorporate both these things into my research. Looking at mental health inequalities for young people from ethnic minority backgrounds in the UK for my MSc project really cemented my interest in working on the inequalities that we have on our doorstep. After starting to work in mental health research – I started my PhD in 2018, when the Mental Health Act review was ongoing, looking at the extraordinary, stark inequalities that we see for Black people in the UK in particular, people of colour, and migrant backgrounds as well – I realised that the contribution that someone with my migrant and social research background could make here on inequalities on our doorstep was more relevant than me trying unsuccessfully to work in the international sector.

Sohail: Do you bring your personal experiences into your qualitative research?

Gargie: Yeah, absolutely. Particularly the anthropology, which is, you know, it's about ethnography. It's about thick description. It's about noticing everything, noticing the social fabric and the tapestry of life that we see in front of us, that I really try and draw on. Because I’m not doing ethnography at the moment, I can’t really bring all those principles forward – I’m doing semi-structured interviews, so I find that kind of frustrating, actually. Anthropology can be more, kind of, ground up, working with the people that you're studying, really, to figure out what's going on, rather than a kind of short artificial semi-structured interview, asking questions trying to remove bias. I don’t think that method necessarily grasps that nothing about the conversation you’re having is natural, there are all these power dynamics that you can’t absolve by trying to reduce bias in a topic guide. But I’m learning, I appreciate the differences in these methods and appreciate why they are necessary in social epidemiology, and I try to channel my experiences into what I’m doing as much as possible, within the limitations of the method I’m using now. There's times when I struggle not to empathize more there on the spot with participants when they say something and if I’ve had a very similar experience. But it means that, with reflexivity in particular, it enhances the research, and anthropology is a very self reflexive discipline considering its , colonial, supremacist origins. So I always want to reflect on the interaction and what that has meant to both of us. But I also really want to keep the talk with the participant going, which is not the way things are done in this field.

Sohail: Why can't you share your stories if you want to empathise with someone?

Gargie: I think that it's a balance of being sensitive to people that you're working with while also not centering your own voice. Because we want to hear as much as possible from from that person and their experiences rather than it being a conversation about something different. So it's I think it's a tricky balance that only gets better with practice. There’s no escaping that.

Sohail: Isn't having a very structured set up, you know, “neutral” interview position imposing a set of values which is value laden and biased?

Gargie: Absolutely. And coming back to the frustration with the way that this kind of methodology is supposed to address those problems, considering that we set up this very, kind of, artificial encounter, I think we have to acknowledge that we don't remove the bias and the fact that it’s value laden, the fact that some questions are inevitably leading. I think recognising this comes back to that reflexivity point, which I think is important for us as social researchers. We all have to recognize that these these processes are value laden and it doesn't just apply to qualitative research, it absolutely applies to quantitive research as well. I think qualitative researchers who have skill in quantitative research methods as well can and are doing a lot of work to point this out, and recognizing the fact that all research is complicated on that point, and we need to figure out that politics is infused throughout the whole thing. And to try and tackle this mythology that quantitative is objective truth and other ways of knowing aren't.

Sohail: What would you say your top tips are for doing this kind of research?

Gargie: Practice practice, practice. Practice makes perfect I guess. I cringe so hard listening to my interview recordings, and think, oh why didn't you ask this here? And why didn't you ask that there? But yeah, I remember that it is quite complicated, you’re jumping around a lot, trying to be present in the interview and be sensitive to someone who's disclosing quite distressing experiences, and then also thinking about the next question. Thinking three steps ahead and monitoring time…It's a complicated process and so practice is the only way that you're gonna get better at it. So it's not the end of the world if you cringe when you hear yourself!