Meet the Qualitative Researchers: Sergio Silverio

Sergio A. Silverio is a Psychologist and qualitative researcher who currently works in the School of Life Course Sciences, with a portfolio of work focused on women’s mental health during pregnancy, childbirth, and after pregnancy loss and perinatal death. He runs a Qualitative Research Advice Service, consulting on qualitative research within King’s, nationally, and internationally. Here, he discusses the role of lifecourse analysis and critical approaches in qualitative research, and his determination for better cross-disciplinary health collaborations.
Q: How would you characterise your approach to qualitative research?

Sergio: I’ll explain… When I first started in qualitative, I was trained in a research group who used a lifecourse approach to mental health and psychological wellbeing. Adopting a lifecourse approach allows the analyst to see transitions over the lifespan as ruptures, where we leave one identity and assume the next (e.g. into parenthood; or from spouse to widow). These shifts in identity… these ruptures… offer sites of empirical enquiry for us to study, but we cannot simply be descriptive in our analyses or write-up. So much of the published qualitative work, especially in health services research, is purely descriptive, and whilst descriptive analyses are sometimes important to set the scene for more in-depth and nuanced analyses that follow, the best qualitative research I read is critical. We can be critical by investigating the population and phenomenon of interest in the context within which these data were collected, and accepting data we garner from participants might not necessarily be true, but are, in fact, the participants’ lived reality or ‘truth’. When we adopt this stance, we can assume the complexity of participants’ experiences and can account for the context in which these realities are lived. I have often found that encouraging participants to focus on their experiences and journey, as an event positioned within a wider socio-cultural context rather than simply in relation to the system or organization in which these experiences were enacted, helps to challenge the imbalances of power that exist within such institutions. To be critical therefore, is to not accept the surface discussion. Instead, being critical enables us to encourage participants, safely, to a point of introspection, where both the basic psychological and socio-emotional processes which underlie experiences are explored non-judgementally, but in relation to differentials of power, and as being situated within a (dis)continuous lifecourse.

Q: Hot topics in qualitative research in the moment?

Sergio: It’s been interesting to see how qualitative research has changed even in the time I have been working with qualitative methodologies. In just the last five years, qualitative research has been taken more seriously – there are certainly more qualitative Editors and Reviewers in journals, or at least those who are qualitatively inclined. This has been helped by many funders now making qualitative pilot work an essential criterion of grant applications. However, the most noticeable renaissance in qualitative research I have seen at the moment is positionality, which can often be contentious. New writings seem to go beyond those traditional writings of reflexivity or reflective practice, to in-depth analyses of where we position ourselves within our data, amongst our participants, and throughout or analyses and write-up. They are often independent pieces of contemporaneous research, which are honest and present detailed self-interrogation – not before seen in reflexive practice which was often relegated to a sentence or two in methods sections, if they even made it into the final version of the manuscript at all. This recognition of where we place ourselves in data and how we protect ourselves as researchers when addressing difficult, challenging, and sensitive topics of empirical enquiry, is essential to good qualitative praxis. I for one, am incredibly excited to see how these lines of personal inquiry and interrogation shape into a body of evidence addressing positionality as a research endeavour.

Q: Most annoying misconception about qualitative research?

Sergio: I’m not sure I can stick to one, but so this doesn’t turn into a soapbox rant, I will only list them without great expansion. The top three misconceptions which gripe me are:

  1. Good quality qualitative work can be done with little-to-no time or financial resource.
  2. Qualitative data collection methods and analytical methodologies can be conducted in the absence of any formalised training.
  3. Qualitative researchers have no interest in quantitative research.
What do you think are some of the most important lessons you’ve learnt in doing qualitative research?

Sergio: I have one lesson which I live by and teach: Think less and read more! This is something I often tell my students or people who come to me for qualitative advice. It may well sound counter-intuitive, but allow me to explain. Frequently, I find people who are new to qualitative believe if they have been shown how to analyse using a particular methodology, or have been given a step-by-step guide on how to code, they will be able to do qualitative analysis just by thinking about their data and their methodology. In actual fact – as many of us who have been doing qualitative research for a while will know – it takes time to develop a particular style which you are comfortable putting out into the world. This style often comes from reading great analytic examples and noticing how they have journeyed from raw data to codes, codes to themes, and themes to whatever final analytic result you require. Reading other people’s work – the good and the bad examples – helps you see the best process and also helps with how to write-up qualitative work for different audiences and journals. Reading therefore, rather than simply sitting and thinking can be the catalyst for great success in qualitative work.

Q: Whose work have you found helpful or inspiring?

Sergio: There are phenomenal qualitative researchers writing all over the world, but having been trained in the UK, it feels only correct I acknowledge some British academics who have shaped my thinking about qualitative approaches and research.

Firstly, Dr. Kayleigh Sheen (Liverpool John Moores University): There is a clarity about Kayleigh’s writing which I both envy and immensely enjoy. The attention to detail in her qualitative work, reassures you as a reader that no stone has been left unturned in the analytical process and you are, in fact, reading the very best version of the analysis there could be. Her technical ability to conduct qualitative analysis and craft qualitative interpretation is one of the closest to perfection I have seen. Her work is practical and pragmatic which makes it so easily translatable across disciplinary boundaries (especially to clinical settings).

Next, Dr. Sharron Hinchliff (The University of Sheffield): Sharron writes with an immense sense of purpose. When I read her work, I feel like she very generously leads you through an important – but often taboo – topic, explaining exactly why it is an issue needing to be raised, deconstructs the issue, and reconstructs the issue with a much better outcome proposed. It is also refreshing to see work on the boundary of Psychology and Health to maintain a level of criticality, which Sharron wonderfully weaves into all aspects of her work.

Finally, Em. Prof. Paula Nicolson (Royal Holloway, University of London): Paula’s work has been so pioneering and influential to both me and the field it is hard to know where to begin. I suppose, there are elements of Paula’s style in the authors I mention above. Paula’s work is powerful and addressed controversial topics, but the rigour and technical ability is evident. Though this empirical brilliance doesn’t detract from her criticality, nor does it render her analyses inflexible. When I read Paula’s work, I feel like I am reading a piece of important history – she was path-laying, change-making, standard-setting – and just like when you hear her speak in public, her writing commands your attention.

Sergio is based within the Department of Women & Children’s Health, School of Life Course Sciences. He is especially interested in how cross-disciplinary qualitative health collaborations can be used to contribute new theoretical bases for research, whilst also influencing, adapting, and transforming public health policy. You can read more about his work on Grounded Theory for Cross-Disciplinary Health Research, Women’s Public Mental Health, and the different studies he is working on, in the links below.