Specifying my research question - Identity

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julimoendchen
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Specifying my research question - Identity

Post by julimoendchen » Wed Sep 09, 2015 8:38 am

Hello,

I'm currently preparing my research proposal for my Criminology thesis. The reason why I'm posting my question here is two-fold 1) I think the topic is very relevant to psychology 2) I'm hoping to start a conversion Psychology course and become a Clinical Psychologist in the long run, so I'm trying to make my research projects relevant to that career path, while at the same time keeping it relevant from a criminological perspective.

My research focuses on people who have been born and grown up in a cult (I prefer not to specifiy this further) but have left the cult (for whatever reason that may be).
The research question itself focuses on their identity and would be something like this: How do ex-cult members who can not rely on a pre-(cult)-identity deal or overcome an identity crisis?

The method I'd be using is that of life stories, which entails that participants 'simply' tell me about their lives and their experiences related to the research question.

However, I have my doubts about the research question. 'Identity' is very vague, it encompasses very different aspects about a person and it might even confuse people - if someone were to ask me about my identity, I wouldn't really know what to say at first. Also from a research point of view it's important to operationalize term and I'm not sure how I would or even should operationalize the term identity.

Any suggestions on how I could improve this research question?

Thanks!

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sarahg
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Re: Specifying my research question - Identity

Post by sarahg » Wed Sep 09, 2015 8:52 am

Are you actually collecting data? Do you have access to cult members?
Also why are you not willing to specify 'cult', this could be crucial to your research.

julimoendchen
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Re: Specifying my research question - Identity

Post by julimoendchen » Wed Sep 09, 2015 9:20 am

Hi Sarah,

What I meant was that I don't want to say which cult I'm researching, as I'm afraid to upset people, or start a huge discussion. There will of course be more information on the cult and the way I define cult as part of my research in the actual proposal.

Yes, I'll be conducting interviews in the form of life stories and if participants are willing I hope to collect diary entries, maybe art projects they have made, letters, blog entries... (basically anything that somehow relates to the person will be taken into consideration). The goal of life story interviews/research is to get an understanding of how it must be like to be this kind of person. The method is not really used in psychology I think, it's mostly used in sociology.

There is also a self-help group in my area for victims, I yet have to get in touch with the person running the group but I'm hoping that I might be able to do some observations at one of their meetings.

Yes, I do have access to cult members. I am in touch with two organisations and one 'exit-counsellors' that help families and victims of cults and they are very happy to act as a 'gate-keeper' to access respondents.

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sarahg
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Re: Specifying my research question - Identity

Post by sarahg » Wed Sep 09, 2015 9:29 am

Hello,

Thanks for clearing up some of my questions. I think your project sounds very interesting, and having access to participants (especially such unique ones) is important. Whilst I think about it, I would definitely advocate seeking ethical approval asap as this may be a challenge.

Regarding type of data-collection, stick with just one-type i.e. interviews, diaries etc. This will help not only focus on your research question but also when analysing the data. I'd also think on one what type of technique you would like to use to analyse the data as they will determine to some extent your research question, i.e. thematic analysis, interpretative phenomenological analysis, grounded theory, discursive etc.

Regarding the concept of identify crisis, this may narrow your field down to much, as not only have you got to have cult members, but also an individual who has an identify crisis. Could you not expand your research question and explore how ex-cult members experience identify, or formulate their identify after leaving a cult?

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Geishawife
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Re: Specifying my research question - Identity

Post by Geishawife » Wed Sep 09, 2015 9:37 am

To be honest, I'm not sure if the problem lies with the vagueness of the term "identity" or if it's more to do with the vagueness of the term "cult" or reasons why your potential participants have left it!
julimoendchen wrote: How do ex-cult members who can not rely on a pre-(cult)-identity deal or overcome an identity crisis?
I'm not quite sure what this question is even asking! My initial interpretation of it was that all people who leave a cult they have been born into and brought up in will have no identity outside of that cult and will therefore experience an identity crisis on leaving. Is that essentially what you are saying? If so, I think you might be making a huge assumption. Is it not possible that the reason they are motivated to leave is precisely because the DO have an identity outside of that cult and therefore will not necessarily experience such a crisis? If that's possible, where has that outside identity come from? In asking that, the nature and activities of the cult are crucial and I think you need to be a bit more specific about these things (although I do understand you might not want to name it on a public forum!).

You mention people leaving "for whatever reason". Again, I think the reason why people leave could be vitally important to any outcome data. If people leave because they were thrown out they might have a very different view of themselves than if they leave voluntarily due to not accepting the cult's position on things. Similarly, it could be a strong sense of "other" identity that leads to them leaving, rather than leaving causing an identity crisis. I do feel reasons why people leave would HAVE to be controlled for in some way.

I'm afraid that all looks very critical and as if I'm picking your proposal apart! I'm not knocking the general idea, as it could be a very interesting area. But I think you need to be more precise about the nature of your participants and think about some of the variables involved rather than asking a precise research question at this point. Thinking about these issues will help determine if valid conclusions can be drawn and then your question might well develop itself.

Good luck!

julimoendchen
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Re: Specifying my research question - Identity

Post by julimoendchen » Wed Sep 09, 2015 10:04 am

Thanks for your feedback Geishawife,

I'm conducting the study in Belgium and the Belgian government set up an organsation called study and advisory group of harmful cultic associations. The way they define these harmful cultic associations is based on their criminal actions, so if a group has a spiritual/religious dimension and has broken the national law - they are considered harmful cults. This will also be the definition I'm using to define (harmful) cults - which the one I'm researching is part of.

I do agree that the reason why the participants have left is important, but I'm not sure how I should control for that? The reason why they have left, might be very important to understand their (transformed) identity, so by controlling for that (excluding vs including participants due to reason for leaving) I'd be neglecting that part. Does that make sense?

Yes, the way you understandd the research question is precisely what I'm saying. The cult I'm researching does not allow for any contact with people outside of the cult, apart from doing missionary work to recruit other people and once the people leave the cult they are not allowed to stay in contact with any members of the cult and in case contact remains those members are being excluded from the cult as punishment for interacting with non-cult members. So, I do believe that a person who has grown up in such a controlling cult, will have a very difficult time figuring out who they are after leaving such a cult - also because they have previously identified with a group of people and all of a sudden they are 'just' an individual person without the group they have been brought up in.

Now, as I come to think about - it sounds very much like I'm actually interested in finding out how they adjust to their life outside the cult, rather than their identity.

What a confusing topic!

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Geishawife
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Re: Specifying my research question - Identity

Post by Geishawife » Wed Sep 09, 2015 10:52 am

julimoendchen wrote:I do agree that the reason why the participants have left is important, but I'm not sure how I should control for that? The reason why they have left, might be very important to understand their (transformed) identity, so by controlling for that (excluding vs including participants due to reason for leaving) I'd be neglecting that part. Does that make sense?
Yes, that makes total sense. When I say control for it I don't mean excluding people, perhaps I should have been clearer. What I meant was making sure that you factor the reason why someone left the group into your data analysis. Maybe by doing a within-group comparison to see if people who left because of reason X differ fundamentally along certain measures or criteria from those who left because of reason Y.
julimoendchen wrote:Now, as I come to think about - it sounds very much like I'm actually interested in finding out how they adjust to their life outside the cult, rather than their identity.
Like I said, asking a few more questions sometimes means the question presents itself! This would also be a very interesting study.
julimoendchen wrote:if a group has a spiritual/religious dimension and has broken the national law - they are considered harmful cults
Completely aside from the research, I found that a really interesting definition! I've never stopped to think about how cults are defined,

Charlie
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Re: Specifying my research question - Identity

Post by Charlie » Wed Sep 09, 2015 11:13 am

I have no knowledge of the literature, but if little is known about this specific area / group you are interesting in researching, I would be inclined to take an exploratory approach - e.g. to explore the experiences of people leaving a cult, and how they adjust to life outside of the cult. That way, you are open to the unexpected, and indeed, identity crisis' may (or may not) emerge as an important theme. Unless there is a clear rationale for focussing on identity, i.e. if this has already been identified in the literature, and you wanting to elaborate understanding of identity of ex cult members.

lingua_franca
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Re: Specifying my research question - Identity

Post by lingua_franca » Wed Sep 09, 2015 12:26 pm

As Sarah says, you need to get ethical approval ASAP. It may not be easy to obtain, especially if you're an undergraduate. Try to have a backup plan in place. If you don't get approval to conduct face-to-face interviews, you may find yourself working exclusively with ex-cult members' published testimonies, blog posts, and other material already in the public domain (as you're doing criminology, think also of court transcripts - I am not sure what the rules are on accessing those, but it may be easier to see them than to meet former cult members). This would probably affect both your research question and the methodology you use.

Assuming you can get access to participants, I think you need to narrow down the question. Currently it's too broad. I would be tempted to examine personal perception and construction of identity within a set window of time, say around the time of the exit from the cult. You could look at how participants retroactively view their identity just before departure and immediately after exiting, and then analyse if and how their self-concept has altered in the years following. Another possibility, and yet more specific, would be to formulate your question around identity factors that precipitated the decision to depart.

Life story work and other forms of narrative analysis are used in psychology too. Are you familiar with Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA)? This might be an interesting approach for you to look at, as you would not need a large sample size (maybe only half a dozen people) and it is well suited for analysis of in-depth interviews. There are a range of other narrative tools that you could use for blog posts, etc. Finally, have a look at the literature on narrative in psychology and community psychology - this is a good jumping-off point when planning any research using life story work. Good luck. :)
"Suppose a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?"
"Suppose it didn't," said Pooh, after careful thought.
Piglet was comforted by this.
- A.A. Milne.

julimoendchen
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Re: Specifying my research question - Identity

Post by julimoendchen » Wed Sep 09, 2015 7:23 pm

Thank you so much Geishawife! Your comments were really really helpful!

julimoendchen
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Re: Specifying my research question - Identity

Post by julimoendchen » Wed Sep 09, 2015 7:26 pm

Charlie wrote:I would be inclined to take an exploratory approach - e.g. to explore the experiences of people leaving a cult, and how they adjust to life outside of the cult.
Indeed, that was actually what I came to think of after Geishawife's questions pointed me into that direction. I think I'll be pursuing this direction. Thanks :)

julimoendchen
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Re: Specifying my research question - Identity

Post by julimoendchen » Wed Sep 09, 2015 7:40 pm

Thank you so much for your suggestions!
lingua_franca wrote:As Sarah says, you need to get ethical approval ASAP. It may not be easy to obtain, especially if you're an undergraduate.

I'm a postgrad, doing a MSc in Criminology - but you are both right ethical approval is definitely needed, however I first need to hand in my proposal and after the proposal the professors will decide whether or not the study will be accepted and who will be my promoter.

Court documents are an excellent idea - I'm not sure myself actually on how easily they can be accessed, will definitely need to look further into that.
Life story work and other forms of narrative analysis are used in psychology too. Are you familiar with Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA)? This might be an interesting approach for you to look at, as you would not need a large sample size (maybe only half a dozen people) and it is well suited for analysis of in-depth interviews. There are a range of other narrative tools that you could use for blog posts, etc. Finally, have a look at the literature on narrative in psychology and community psychology - this is a good jumping-off point when planning any research using life story work. Good luck. :)
IPA does ring a bell in my mind, I must have read about it somewhere. I will definitely have a look into that!! Thank you so, so much! You can't believe how much I appreciate it!

alexh
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Re: Specifying my research question - Identity

Post by alexh » Wed Sep 09, 2015 8:36 pm

It can be a mistake to try to make your undergraduate thesis define your career. Don't overcomplicate it.

julimoendchen
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Re: Specifying my research question - Identity

Post by julimoendchen » Wed Sep 09, 2015 8:54 pm

alexh wrote:It can be a mistake to try to make your undergraduate thesis define your career. Don't overcomplicate it.
I'm a little confused - is a MSc regarded as a undergraduate study in the UK? I thought BSc was undergraduate and MSc was graduate? I am genuinely interested in the topic, so I'm not attempting to make it more complicated just for career's purposes and I am the kind of person that gets easily bored, so I need something challenging otherwise I'll be so bored half way through :)

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Geishawife
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Re: Specifying my research question - Identity

Post by Geishawife » Wed Sep 09, 2015 9:03 pm

An MSc is usually a post-grad qualification. Scottish universities sometimes offer MScs at undergrad level after a 4 year course, but most institutions offer MScs as post-grad. I don't want to talk for alexh, but I'm guessing he thought you were an undergrad because your initial post doesn't actually state which level of degree you're studying for, just the subject. (alexh, please correct me if I'm wrong!!)

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