Performing Qualitative Cross-Cultural Research
reviewed by Robert Garot - September 07, 2010
One would be hard-pressed to find any qualitative research that is not in some sense cross-cultural. While articles and books on qualitative methodology abound, Liamputtongs effort stands out for its clear, consistent focus on how to develop an ethical, non-harmful, personally and culturally enriching cross-cultural understanding through qualitative research. Any qualitative researcher, from novice to expert, would benefit from her enlightening text, grounded as much in a principled humanism as it is in a thorough explanation of varied aspects of qualitative research.
In delineating the varieties of cross-cultural researchers, Liamputtong borrows from Banks (1998) to discuss four types: the indigenous insider, the indigenous outsider, the external outsider and the external insider. Then, on p. 111, she states, The precise reason that the present book was written was to prevent this type of researcher [the external outsider] taking part in cross-cultural research. This statement stands out as rather inconsistent in a volume in which many of the good practices mentioned were developed by external outsiders, for the benefit of external outsiders. Furthermore, if external outsiders were to be barred from conducting cross-cultural research, the need for books like Liamputtongs would markedly dwindle. I had to reread this statement a number of times, and continued to consider it as I read on, as it contradicts the seeming reason the book was written: to alert researchers to potential difficulties and pitfalls in the field, regardless of which type of researcher they might be. The book succeeds remarkably well in this task, despite Liamputtongs bewildering claim that the precise reason for the book was the contrary.
One of the strongest chapters of the book concerns moral and ethical perspectives on research. Notwithstanding the widespread adoption of codes of ethics to prevent research abuse, Liamputtong discusses how non-Western women continue to be used as guinea pigs in medical research, subjected to tests that researchers were not able to conduct in their own countries, on medicines which the research subjects would not be able to afford even if the medicines were to be approved. She then discusses the unintentional danger that may result if a research participants identity is somehow revealed, and, for example, ones employment becomes jeopardized, or one becomes the subject of scrutiny of the Communist Party. Furthermore, research may bring up painful memories, and hence, Liamputtong advocates (citing Denzin, et al., 2008, p. 14) for an ethnic of care that forcefully aligns the ethics of research with a politics of the oppressed in order to produce spiritual, social and psychological healing (p. 43). She then discusses how to make the informed consent process culturally appropriate, and how to assure the safety of the researcher as well as the researched, certainly important tips for external outsiders.
Each of Liamputtongs subsequent chapters builds on this central theme of an ethic of care. In her chapter on gaining access and reciprocity, she provides many examples of how researchers gained access to respondents through community leaders or stakeholders, or a culture broker. Some researchers, such as Preloran, et al. (2001), use cultural scripts to motivate potential respondents, appealing to women through comadrismo and appealing to men through poderismo. She then discusses the pros and cons of compensation, and the necessity for researchers to give back, and not simply leave the field and publish, never to return. For instance, when Liamputtong published her book on childbirth issues among Southeast Asian immigrant women, she invited many of the women in the project to attend the subsequent seminars she organized to inform community members and policy makers. As she states, It was a nice event [T]he women brought their children along. The children were running everywhere in the garden setting where I chose to have the launch (p. 226).
Liamputtongs chapter on cultural sensitivity also provides much-needed and wise counsel to the potential external outsider. First, citing Eun-Ok Im, et al. (2004, p. 895), she emphasizes how culturally competent knowledge must include sensitivity to structural conditions that contribute to participants responses including socioeconomic contexts and knowledge of kinship relations (pp. 87-88). The research team must include members of the local community, and one is well-advised to establish an advisory committee to assist the research team. One key to the process is developing a trusting relationship, out of which researchers and research participants may negotiate such issues as whether and how interviews should be recorded, and where the best setting might be to conduct an interview.
External outsiders surely must also be part of the target audience for Liamputtongs nuanced chapter on language issues. Why else would it be important to consider the importance of recruiting, training, and supporting bicultural research assistants, and considering the many thorny issues involving translation and interpretation? The external outsider may well wish to consider forward translation and back-translation issues (pp. 151-154), in order to discern those vital terms that are language-specific and resist practical equivalents. It is especially important that one is careful not to impose a Western framework on a non-Western society, potentially interpreting research participants in terms of an alien set of principles. Optimally, the researcher should have a working knowledge of the language of the respondents, and interviews should be initially transcribed in their original language.
Liamputtongs chapters on the importance of considering personal and collective testimony, collective action, and the eventual public performance of research are the most generalizable of her book, applying to qualitative research in general. Her chapter on personal and collective testimony, while acknowledging the importance of personal interviews, champions the effectiveness of focus groups, which may prove especially useful with groups of women who have historically used social circles as safe spaces for discussing painful and oppressive experiences. Her chapter on collective action discusses community based participatory research (CBPR), participatory action research (PAR), and the photovoice method, providing in-depth examples of what appear to be quite pleasurable and rewarding experiences for research participants. Her chapter on writing and disseminating research explores such innovative and fruitful avenues as short stories, poetry, theater, and photo exhibitions as powerful ways of distributing research results beyond the typically limited scope of academic publication.
In sum, Liamputtong provides a lovely qualitative methodology text that is as painstaking and thorough in its documentation as it is passionate in advocating for an ethics of care. I, for one, earnestly hope that all qualitative researchers might benefit from this discussion of cross-cultural research strategies, be they external outsiders or not.
Banks, J. (1998). The lives and values of researchers: Implications for educating citizens in a multicultural society. Educational Researcher, 27(7), 4-17.
Denzin, N.K., Lincoln, Y.S., & Smith, L.T. (2008). Introduction: Critical methodologies and indigenous inquiry. In N.K. Denzin & Y.S. Lincoln (Eds.). Handbook of critical and indigenous methodologies, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Im, E.-O., Page, R., Lin, L.-C., Tsai, H.-M., & Cheng, C.-Y. (2004). Rigor in cross-cultural nursing research. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 41, 891-899.
Preloran, H.M., Browner, C.H., & Lieber, E. (2001). Strategies for motivating Latino couples participation in qualitative health research and their effects on sample construction. American Journal of Public Health, 91(11), 1832-1841.