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Tomczuk | Revisiting and Revising Your Research Question, Approach, and Methods on the Fly: One Year in the Heart of Europe

March 2, 2016

Sara Tomczuk took a lot of questions from the audience and shared a lot of lessons learned from her preparation for field work including the IRB/HSR process at UW.

Revisiting the research question

In the summer of 2013, anti-Roma and neo-Nazi demonstrations across Europe became violent. Sara Tomczuk, UW Sociology graduate student, set off to study under what conditions interethnic conflict erupts into violence.

In a recent QUAL speaker series seminar, Tomczuk retraced her research steps – from defining her key concepts and variables, choosing a two-country comparative case study, to the literature review and prospectus preparation, through IRB approval process, a year of interviews in the field, and to her current task of analyzing the rich data collected.

Preparing for deductive field work

With her committee’s encouragement, Tomczuk dove into sociological literature on interethnic conflict and came up with her research question about conditions for violence. Then reluctantly she wrote three propositions – based on her review of the literature. Despite her resistance to writing these hypotheses, they proved useful in helping Tomczuk identify variables to focus on, formulate interview questions and to even come up with deductive codes for the analysis portion of her work. But when she set off for her year-long field work in the Czech Republic and Slovakia in June 2014, Tomczuk resolved to keep an open mind and expect her propositions to change based on what she discovered in the field.

technical preparations

Tomczuk shared a list of practical preparations she did for her year-long field work interviewing key stakeholders in the interethnic conflict involving Roma and majority populations in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Tomczuk’s full presentation is available online.

Surprises in the field

Despite her meticulous preparations, the field work was tough, especially because it was on a sensitive, emotionally taxing topic – the very unequal and marginalized minority of Roma. Tomczuk also found herself interested in an unexpected aspect of the topic – the national strategies of the two countries she focused on in regards to their respective Roma populations. This wasn’t part of her deductive research scope or her propositions, but she pursued the new thread and scheduled new interviews with government officials even though she didn’t have the literature review background.

Her planned interviews in the Czech Republic were fruitful. But once she got to Slovakia, she changed her approach – going far beyond the two planned cities and allowing herself to do a snowball sample of several interviews each in 10 towns and villages.

“I followed my instinct to investigate these diverse communities,” Tomczuk said. “It was scary and a painful experience but I’m glad I made that decision.”

Research updates

While she was in the field for a full year, one of the most helpful exercises, Tomczuk recalled, was writing three or four research updates. She would revisit her research prospectus, the research question and propositions, and she would also read and code her growing data transcripts – even though she did not use qualitative data analysis (QDA) software specifically – and identified key themes. The research updates allowed her to keep her committee up to speed on changes to her research scope in the field and to receive meaningful feedback. The feedback, in turn, allowed her to adjust her approach while still in the field.

Revising the research question

The ongoing research updates during her field work allowed Tomczuk to identify a new theme that wasn’t part of her original scope and deductive framework. Her committee was supportive of her expanding the inquiry. But it wasn’t until she returned from Europe and revisited her 68 interviews/hundreds of pages of transcripts in three different languages – that she was able to clearly express the addition to her research question: What contains violence between ethnic groups in conflict?

Sara Tomczuk taking questions from the audience

Sara Tomczuk took a lot of questions from the audience and shared lessons learned from her preparation for field work, including the IRB/HSR process at UW.