Blog: We Said It’d be Meaningful Not Easy: Navigating the (Unexpected) Hardships of Qualitative Research

Figure 1. Photograph by Christina Morillo: CCO.

Written by Taina Quiles and Seanna Leath

This piece was originally published in The Community Psychologist (TCP) Spring 2023 Volume 56 Number 2. Past TCP columns are available online, at

Note from the editor, Sindhia Colburn: Taina Quiles and Seanna Leath were 2020-2021 recipients of a Racial and Social Justice mini-grant through CERA for their project entitled, “Hope, resilience, and action: A qualitative exploration of critical consciousness and sociopolitical development among Black and Latinx adolescent girls.”

Over the past few years, Afro Latina/Caribbean, Black, and Latina girls in the United States of America (USA) witnessed presidential shifts, a global pandemic, and heightened racial violence (e.g., police brutality and family separation). To capture how Afro Latina/Caribbean, Black, and Latina girls reflected and responded to these events, we launched a mixed methods study in 2021 on girls’ sociopolitical development and resilience and coping processes. Two years later, we are wrapping up the qualitative data collection and planning the first papers from this project, which will focus on the girls’ interracial solidarity, self-definitions, and hopes for themselves and their communities (how exciting!). We also recognize the importance of pausing to reflect on what we might do differently in the future – because when you know better, you do better. Below, we share about some unexpected challenges we encountered in our study’s recruitment and data collection, with the hope that our lessons learned will help future scholars.

What is the Hope Resilience Action Study?
The Hope Resilience Action (HRA) Study was developed by Black and Latina women scholars to amplify the lived experiences of Afro Latina/Caribbean, Black, and Latina girls. HRA is a mixed methods investigation of adolescent girls’ critical consciousness, sociopolitical development, and resilience and coping processes. The study includes cross-sectional survey data from 315 girls (13-17 years) in the Southeastern USA and semistructured interview data from 24 girls (13-21 years) across the USA. Our work was guided by three major questions: 1) how do Afro Latina/Caribbean, Black, and Latina girls discuss messages related to their race and ethnicity?; 2) how does simultaneous exposure to racial violence and social movements relate to girls’ sociopolitical development and visions for their future?; and 3) how do girls discuss the relationships between direct and vicarious violence, activism, and their academic goals?

Navigating Institutional Barriers to Research
After receiving grant award notices from the Council on Cultural, Ethnic and Racial Affairs and American Psychological Association Division 56 (Trauma Psychology), we were excited to obtain Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval and launch the HRA study. However, we experienced significant challenges with the IRB process that delayed our recruitment for almost a year. During the process, we learned that the challenges we experienced were similar to other scholars who tried to conduct research on issues related to racism and sexism. We want to spotlight one issue that reveals how biased reviewing practices can delay the research process. Specifically, the IRB reviewers were concerned about the options we included on gender identity and sexual orientation in the demographic section of our survey. Compared to more traditional and binary demographic options related to gender (e.g., girl or boy), we included expansive options to try and capture identities along the spectrum of ‘girlhood,’ including butch, femme, genderqueer, girl, nonbinary, and trans. In relation to sexual orientation, we included bisexual, heterosexual/straight, lesbian, questioning, do not know yet, and do not want to answer.

The IRB reviewers shared concerns that (1) the collection of these variables could pose a risk to girls who participated (i.e., harm from caregivers), and (2) that girls would not understand or recognize the gender identities and sexual orientation options. While some of these reviewer concerns were legitimate and were under consideration (i.e., how do we minimize or prevent harm for gender expansive adolescents in the study), we pushed back against the suggestion that we change, eliminate, and or revert back to binary items related to gender and sexual orientation. We knew that the mainstream options would make some participants feel confined to boxes they did not fit in, and we wanted all participants to feel seen. After engaging in a laborious process to ‘prove’ the legitimacy of our items, including receiving support from other scholars in the department, we were eventually allowed to include these demographic options. As expected, we had a gender expansive and sexually diverse quantitative sample (10.1% gender expansive; 43.2% bisexual, lesbian, questioning, or unsure). You can’t capture what you don’t measure.

Lesson Learned: IRB reviewers may not value intersectional and justice-oriented work.
We found that university IRB reviewers may evaluate work on racial and LGBTQ inequity with different standards than other studies. While we were thankful that an administrator at the IRB informed us about the safety concerns so that we could address them, we were upset about the feedback instructing us to modify our demographic items to adhere to cissexist and heteronormative norms. It is unlikely that our experience is an isolated case. Instead, this likely occurs at universities across the USA, resulting in more intellectual and emotional labor and delaying research progress for scholars doing intersectional and justice-oriented work. We had to reach out to multiple faculty at the university (including senior, white women scholars) to validate our choices, compile cited evidence about why these variables were important, and document each email exchange with the IRB. In the future, universities need to ensure that IRB reviewers are prepared to evaluate justice-oriented research, and implement procedures that prevent delays for scholars conducting research that reviewers do not understand or support.

By Us and For Us: Leading a Study on Racism, Violence, and Social Action in a Red State
Once our study was (finally) approved, we entered our initial recruitment phase during a politically tense time in Virginia. Governor Glenn Youngkin had run his campaign and won the election on an anti-Critical Race Theory (CRT) platform. He argued that all parents should have the power to choose when and how to expose their children to different beliefs, and he sought to ban historically accurate discussions on race and racism in schools to ‘protect families’ and halt ‘racial division.’ As a result, many teachers and schools expressed fear around discussing race or racism in their classrooms and did not want to endorse a study where we asked adolescent girls about their experiences with these topics. Similarly, some community members we contacted expressed the feeling that discussing race and racial violence was inappropriate or “too much” for the girls they knew and worked with. Despite assuring them that youth are already engaging in conversations about race, they chose not to share our flyers with their network. After months of struggling to recruit in Virginia, we expanded our search and recruited girls across the USA. This helped strengthen our findings by highlighting Afro Latina/Caribbean, Black, and Latina girls’ experiences in different geographic locations; however, it required additional IRB modifications and conversations among the research team about  the overall goals of the study.

Lesson Learned: Community partnerships are invaluable – but they take time.
We cannot emphasize how important it is to have community partnerships and multiple recruitment strategies to help mitigate data collection hiccups for community-based studies. As scholars, it is common for us to travel away from our home communities to access graduate school or university jobs; in doing so, we may not have established the necessary relationships to launch a project that will be more successful when you have trusting relationships with those who live and work there. As we know, transparent and mutually beneficial partnerships can be essential to facilitate successful recruitment and data collection; yet, these take time (as they should). We believe that part of the difficulty we had in reaching and recruiting girls for this study was that we had just moved to Charlottesville, and many people did not know or trust us. The Black and Latine community members in Charlottesville have had harmful relationships with scholars and scientists in the past, and thus we needed to take more time to set roots and work with community organizations here. We also found that the connections we did have were overburdened with community relief work for COVID. As scholars consider community-based work, it will be important to think about our relationships with the communities we are trying to reach and how we can connect with individuals and organizations in the area. In retrospect, we wish we would have had more time to attend local festivals or events geared towards youth, and been able to set aside funds to compensate youth organizations to be co-creators in this work.

Being Trolled: Complications with Social Media and Online Recruitment
Finally, another unforeseen barrier we faced involved the large number of fake interviewees that signed up for our study after we posted recruitment flyers on Twitter and Facebook. We believed that recruiting on social media would be helpful in reaching audiences beyond our immediate scholarly and social networks. However, we could not control or filter the vast exposure that our flyers received after we hit ‘post.’ After only a day on Twitter, we received over 100 sign-ups. While initially excited, we were soon shocked to find out that many of them were older women living on different continents who were not eligible for the study. Some even showed up to interviews and tried to tell us fake stories about their experiences in the USA! After recognizing trends among the fraudulent interviewees (e.g., unable to verify demographic information or inconsistent responses to questions), we created a new recruitment link and a standardized script for the research team to use when we needed to end an interview and verify eligibility. We also stopped using Twitter as a recruitment platform and used targeted ads on Instagram by posting reels. Instagram allows businesses to use filters for their ads (e.g., parameters for race, gender, and age) to ensure that ads reach an intended audience.

Lesson Learned: Social media is a complicated recruitment tool. There are so many benefits to social media recruitment. When it works, it feels great to reach individuals from communities across the country or even around the globe. After I started talking with colleagues and scholar friends about the fraudulent sign-ups, I realized this issue was not specific to our study. It can be disheartening to spend hours trying to sift through ‘fake sign-ups’ or show up for interviews and realize you are talking to someone who is ineligible for your study. We also realized that if there is one fake interviewee, there will likely be more! Here are some ways that may help you protect your data integrity when using online recruitment strategies: First, use social media platforms that ask for your population(s) of interest to limit some unnecessary online exposure. Caveat: these ads often require payment, which may not be an option depending on your funding support. Second, use online screening tools that can help you catch discrepancies and confirm eligibility as much as possible (e.g., IP address verification and names that do not match email accounts or have long strings of numbers at the end).

Looking Forward
Here we are, a few years and obstacles later, and truthfully….it was totally worth it! So many of the girls told us how affirming it was to see researchers who looked like them, engaging in racial and social justice work, and asking them about their experiences. Many girls shared that they do not have other spaces to talk openly about their experiences with discrimination and the ways they engage in critical action. The plactica approach to interviewing made our data richer and allowed us to build connections with these girls, even if for a brief moment. We are excited about one of the first papers, which will focus on exploring the girls’ reflections on the Black Lives Matter and immigrants’ rights movements in 2020. There is so much variation and nuance in what they learned from the movement, particularly around interracial solidarity and collective action. Stay tuned – we’re just getting started!


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