The form of qualitative research employed in Cathy: Wrong Side of the Tank by Juanita Johnson-Bailey, takes a narrative form, and thus is significantly different than forms of research that rely almost exclusively on strict data interpretation to draw assumptions. For this narrative, the author takes what the preface material states as a “Black feminist perspective" to analyze the “intersection of race, class, and gender" (Johnson-Bailey, 2002, p. 288). Unlike in other articles contained within the series of examples the text presents on qualitative, this research is founded distinctly and almost exclusively upon Cathy’s story as she tells it. For her part, Johnson-Bailey offers interjections that describe and analyze Cathy’s experiences, but aside from this, the component of analysis is, in many ways, also in the hands of the subjective reader. What remains is a narrative-based examination of how culture and personal history influence perception and in the case, how they might alter perception.
For research such as that presented in Cathy’s narrative, the problem is not immediately or explicitly defined in any complete, thesis statement-like manner. Instead, the author presents the facts of Cathy’s situation as a sort of guiding preface to the story to come, while only touching lightly upon what some of the key themes are. At this beginning point, Johnson-Bailey only describes her in a manner that at first seems simply objective (such as talking about how her subject is dressed, her mannerisms and movements, and her overall demeanor) but that broadens out with the presentation of an outline of her story. She positions her subject in a more theoretical context by suggesting in the second paragraph, “She has residual feelings of inadequacy that she attributes to those traumatic times" (Johnson-Bailey, 2002, p. 314). By defining this interpretation of Cathy at this early point, Johnson-Bailey is defining the problem in a manner that is suitable and in line with the narrative form of qualitative research. Since this narrative description of “data" (which is in the form of text) there is no requirement to place Cathy’s experiences in the context of literature or extensive prior research. Interestingly though, there are few ways to define the context in this narrative at all as the researcher’s associations with the subject are not made clear. For instance, the reader wonders how the researcher knows Cathy and what circumstances led to her being a subject of this study. While these are not essential elements to understanding the broader theoretical assumptions, it might establish more credibility for the author and provide a better view of what the biases might be. The argument she makes as implicitly as a narrative form allows, which is how personal history and greater culture influence and also bend one’s contemporary perspective, is valuable to understanding intersections of race, class, and gender although it is only through Cathy’s story (rather than through literature review) that the reader understands this.
The concept of applying more traditional notions of research methodology is rather complicated when the narrative form is the main mode of research. The author of this article uses Cathy’s words to form the majority of the text and although she does offer some transitional material along with relative assumptions she makes about the nature of Cathy’s story and what motivates her individually, the brunt of the research rests simply in the context of Cathy’s own words. To make the reader aware of the transitions between what Cathy states and what the author interjects, the use of italics versus normal type is used although with a separating space. These serve as visual cues for the reader to recognize the division between narrative and analysis. Again, one slightly unsettling aspect of the methodology as used in narrative form is that there is little presentation from the author about the process of selection for this study. Having the ability to place this narrative in personal context (author’s relationship to subject) seems to be an important component of qualitative research—no matter what format is used. The data in narrative form is managed using a chronological structure that walks the reader through Cathy’s early experience with school, right up to her present positions, and makes suggestions and offers analysis in short form following the major “epochs" of her life. These elements of the narrative provide more meaning to her assertions, although unlike with other forms of more direct presentation of findings, some of the meaning is up to reader interpretation as well.
As a result of the narrative format, the “findings" generated by the research are just as subjective as many of the interpretations offered in the summation of the various “epochs" the author comments upon. The findings are not offered in a neat summary at the end of the article that tie together all of the existing commentaries she has made throughout the text, nor are they offered in a manner that is direct with claims of being exactly true. Her findings instead are scattered throughout the narratives at the many points in which she stops the italicized word-for-word text that Cathy presents in the first person, and merely highlight assertions Cathy herself makes. What is notable about this narrative form of research is that even without the explicit connections made between any raw data from multiple sources, it is not at all difficult for the reader to see the host of complex issues at play in Cathy’s life. While the author does provide several analytical guides to cue readers into how Cathy reacts or has a tendency toward certain behavior, it one were to take their own Black feminist approach, the findings are likely to be roughly the same. In other words, the findings of this study, while subjective in nature and open to a great deal of variance in interpretation, are aligned with the goal of exploring the host issues of race, class, and gender as both Cathy and the author discuss these issues at length. In other words, the findings section is complicated because of the research status as being based in narrative.
Before concluding with some of the issues related to this research, it is necessary to define some of the problems that are inherent to this type of research, at least as they exist when compared to traditional data-collection methods that provide results that can be more easily verified. There seems to be a danger with this particular type of research as it is far too subjective, no matter how concise its operative thesis statement or purpose seems to be. This is especially a problem with this piece of narrative qualitative research because there was no frame of reference given to put the choice of this subject into any kind of context. It would be useful from the reader or analyst’s perspective to have a firmer grasp on the events leading up the narrative and what the positioning was between the researcher and the subject. Furthermore, it is worth noting that this is not a direct or unbroken narrative offered without any kind of interfacing from the researcher—one gets the sense, especially since large gaps of time in the chronology are not discussed, that there might have been aspects of the text that were omitted. What this would mean is that the results were contrived, even if not for deceitful purposes, to reflect the desires and aims of the researcher to explore only the conditions of her purpose—race, class, and gender. In other words, far from being a valid and completely reliable form of research, the narrative format lends itself to rather extensive questions from the reader about existing relationships and what might have been omitted. In short, while the narrative form of research can be extraordinarily helpful in understanding a particular topic, especially as it more directly involves the reader and his or her assumptions or analytical process for the text, it is flawed in terms of verification. This piece, while useful in exploring the broader issues of race, class, and gender, seems to be omitting something at best and at worst, might reflect only what the author wanted the reader to see as a result of these omissions. It is far too difficult to take data like this at complete face value but with that said, the topic begin in the social sciences and based on theoretical principles might not be easy to quantify.
Johnson-Bailey, Juanita. (2002). The Ethnography of an Electronic Bar. In Merriam, Sharan B. (Ed.), Qualitative Research in Practice: Examples for Discussion and Analysis. Newark, NJ: Jossey-Bass.