Meet the Qualitative Researchers: Rebecca Kuykendall
Rebecca is a PhD Student at the Social Sciences and Public Policy faculty, in the African Leadership Centre at King’s College London. She is interested in challenging the discourse of public health in African countries by examining the role of leadership and using qualitative methods such as semi-structured interviews and participatory approaches. She also works as a research assistant for an online course covering research methods for issues of mental health in war and conflict affiliated with the Global Challenges Research Fund. Here, she talks with the QUAHRC's Sohail Jannesari about her pathway into qualitative health research.
Sohail: Why did you choose to conduct your research in Rwanda?
Rebecca: It took a full year to decide which location in Africa I thought would be most appropriate for my research. Kenya, which I spent six and a half years living and working in, is very known for their technology industry. At the same time Nigeria, South Africa, and Ethiopia carry heavy influence in political and global spheres. Then we have places like Ghana and Rwanda, with smaller surface areas and populations, who have boasted expansive 5G networks and laptops and mobile phones exclusively ‘made in Africa’, which tend to serve as new technology pilot locations. The West’s failure to intervene in the 1994 genocide has arguably led to a modern day political relationship between the US and Rwanda whereby the latter receives good publicity and a lot of funding. I ended up choosing Rwanda’s cervical cancer vaccination campaigns in 2011 as a case study, partly due to the 93% coverage rate and partly due to the negative rhetoric emphasised by the Millennium Development Goal report published in 2015.
Sohail: You mentioned you were in Kenya for six and a half years, what were you working on there?
Rebecca: I had recently graduated with my MA in international non-governmental organisations and I was after what I saw as a “real job” in the international development sector. I started by directing an orphanage, then moved on to a slum-based education start-up programme, and eventually ended up at the United Nations Development programme. I made the decision to go to Kenya in my early 20s because I wanted to see how differently things were happening in the field. I think we’re very much creatures of our environment. That’s why I’m interested in social science and qualitative research as a whole - people are a very important part of whether or not policies are a success. And often policies are written at a very disconnected high-level space where they lack context and do not understand everyday challenges or needs. I think my fascination with understanding people individually is at the heart of my fascination with qualitative research.
Sohail: So what was it that made you want to leave development and get into qualitative research?
Rebecca: A lot. There was a terrorist attack at a shopping mall very close to where I lived. We spent four days watching the same footage on repeat. It was very sobering. I also worked for UNDP and as staff members we were targeted by terrorist groups who opposed government solidarity. Our office had relocated to Mogadishu from its headquarters in Nairobi and in less than six months, 22 people were killed by suicide bombers and we stood outside for hours waiting to hear which of our colleagues were announced dead. You get affected by these things. After that I went back home to California to digest everything that happened and to figure out if this was something I wanted to continue. At the end of the day, you feel really helpless, and you have to come to terms with the fact that there’s not much you can do. To someone with ideals, that reality can be deeply upsetting.
Sohail: How did you make the transition back into qualitative research?
Rebecca: When I left Kenya I realised to my core that I did not have the answers. I didn’t know how to fix the mess and I had seen how my own existence was a part of it. I didn’t know what I could do to make any substantial improvements in development, and that led be back to academia. Development workers, especially at the grassroots level, wear many different professional hats, however, research is only conducted in relation to programme funding. While working in development, I found that no funder was interested in historical, political or cultural dimensions. So, there were often very important gaps in historical and political dimensions that go unaddressed. That’s where academia comes in - to question things like discourse, mutuality and the quality of relationships between key players. I suspect I will re-enter development work at some point. But academia has given me the time and space to question underpinnings and develop ideas.
Sohail: Is there something about qualitative research in particular that gives you this space?
Rebecca: Yes, 100%. Health programmes rely heavily on statistics, and that is great—but there is not always an understanding of context. Health literature doesn’t do much in terms of understanding historical or political dynamics and the result is a lack of ongoing narrative in most health literature. Also, the approaches of health workers tends to be quite prescriptive: “here is a developing country, it is lower-middle income status, lacking these specific forms of infrastructure and it failed to meet its global targets. Now, here is the solution”. That kind of thinking is incredibly paternalistic! It doesn’t give ordinary people a voice, perspective or outlet. But what would a place like Rwanda be, without its distinct history? Colonialism, religious beliefs, and traditions are as much a part of Rwanda’s history as its legacy. And this is what health research doesn’t tend to see.
Sohail: How did you decide to focus on qualitative health research?
Rebecca: I did quite a bit of work volunteering when I was younger, at a hospice, the Downs Syndrome Association, and a Children’s Hospital, so interest in health was always there. Although my social science training was a bit varied I think the uniting theme was that I was trying to find a mechanism to provide a platform for certain kinds of people to be heard. Because voices are often silenced. I knew I didn’t want to live for a pay check, that I wanted to live a life that actually meant something. So I guess you could say there is an idealistic component to my interest in health research. And the further you get into your career journey, the more you realise you have to be willing to accept things for the horrible state they are in and keep pushing for even the smallest form of change. But that’s the beauty of being in academia.