How many participants have you got?

It’s happened to me several times recently that when telling someone about my research project (I’m doing an ethnographic study on the emotional landscapes of autistic adults in the UK), I was confronted with: “oh cool… so how many participants have you got?” It’s a relevant question, of course, both fair and valid, which is exactly what makes it so difficult to address. Because it puts me in a position where I have to explain something that to me is very fundamental, but to others often sounds quite odd; that the number of my “research participants” is (a) undetermined and (b) not particularly important.

The simple answer is that social anthropology just doesn’t really work like that. We don’t normally count our participants (well alright, sometimes we do, but for different purposes such as getting grant money etc.) We don’t really even define the people contributing to our study as ‘participants’ in the first place – instead they would be our interlocutors, collaborators, informants. This is more than semantics – this represents a very different relationship between researcher and contributor than that which is imagined when we speak of ‘research participants’. Our interlocutors are those people who have very kindly agreed to let us in to their homes, to become part of their communities, and to join their activities so that we could understand them better. So to be honest, if anyone is ‘participating’ it’s not them; it’s us.

Also our research setting has no defined space or structure; you don’t get to invite someone to your lab at 4pm to do an experiment, or to get people to answer your questionnaires. Data is generated much more spontaneously than that, After all, every conversation we have, however short, is data. Being taught how to make a surfboard is data. Having a pint of beer is data. So in this highly unstructured research environment, who would even count as a research participant?

In my case, I suppose the answer would be anyone who has ever enlightened me in any way about my research topic. People I interviewed, of course, but also people I exchanged emails with, people I chatted with at social gatherings, people who wrote books, blogs, or information brochures… In other words, hundreds and hundreds of people. But I don’t think that’s what the person asking me about my study meant. I suppose she was thinking more in terms of an exact number. A sample size. An ‘n’.

But like I said, I don’t have a sample size. I can’t really even say I have a sample. I realize to some people this very statement is quite mind-blowing. “No sample? So how can you tell if your study is at all representative?”

And that’s just the thing: Representativity works differently in social anthropology. In general, we just don’t quite buy into that whole idea that the more people you talk to, the more likely you are to capture that big whole. I’ll try and explain. Let’s say I did a study on 1,000 people from – I don’t know – let’s say Crete. And I might have found that, for example, 68% of Cretans support, say, controlled immigration. That’s a useful finding in many ways. But as a social anthropologist, I’m not particularly interested in this figure. Instead, I’m much more interested in learning about the variety of opinions, the plurality of voices, the disagreement, the dilemmas, the change of heart. I want to understand how different people interpret the very meaning of the concept of immigration; what connotations and emotions does it raise in them? does it arouse fear? Uncertainty? Hope? When thinking about immigration, does one look back into the past, or forward into the future? Does one see immigration as a moral issue? An economic issue? An identity issue? And at what point, and under what conditions, can ‘one of them’ finally become ‘one of us’?

The thing is that there are hundreds of thousands of people living in Crete. And each person is unique. Each person has their own singular, complex, intricate and subtle reasons for doing what they do, saying what they say, and thinking what they think. In trying to capture all those differences, a sample of 1000 is just as inadequate as a sample of 3.

And yet there are similarities, of course; Cretans all live on the same island, speak the same language, are subjected to the same laws, and are governed by the same people and institutions. Understanding the delicate and complicated mechanism by which those similarities have affected each of them individually would provide the very best answers, I think, on who Cretans actually are as a group. And to understand this process, this mechanism, you don’t need to talk to 1000 people. Potentially, you could do that by only talking to 10, as long as you’re taking your good time and asking the right questions.

I’m not saying large scale studies are inevitably blind to nuance. I don’t mean to be making such an overarching generalization. What I am saying, however, is that when nuance is all what you care about, you tend to give much less regard to quantity, and much more attention to quality. When every new conversation I have with the same person consistently reveals new insights, new understandings, new knowledge; I’m absolutely in no rush to go looking for someone else to talk to.

Which leads me back to my own study. Studies on autism often have dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of participants. And yet there are millions of autistic people out there. Can a study that considers the genetic / brain imaging / social-economic data of 10,000 autistic people contribute to our understanding of what autism is? Of course it can. But can it help us understand what being autistic is like? Can it help us understand what autism means to the very people who are themselves autistic? Not really, no. However an extremely well-told, sensitive and nuanced study of even just one autistic person can do exactly that. Just think of Temple Grandin, Dawn Prince-Hughes, or any other autistic author who has written so beautifully about their own lives, expanding our understanding in ways that large studies never did.

As I go about my study, day in day out, trying to understand as much as I can about what being autistic is like, I find it most useful to focus on those highly specific incidences where the interplay of many different circumstances create meaningful and unique experiences. For that reason, yes, I do find it helpful to speak to people of different genders, age groups, physical ability, marital status etc. But that’s all that this is – helpful. It’s not crucial. After all, all I’m doing is looking for examples – elaborate examples – to would help me make sense of things. And there are only so many examples you really need, provided they’re good enough, before it’s just up to you to make of them what you can.

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4 thoughts on “How many participants have you got?

  1. Pingback: For the Love of Dogs: A Forthcoming Ethnography of Pet Dogs and Families of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder | The Autism Anthropologist

  2. Pingback: Conceptualizing autism around the globe: A special issue of Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry showcasing the anthropology of autism | The Autism Anthropologist

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