Episode 28: Episode 28. Book Award Winner, Jori Hall

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In this episode, Dr. Travis Marn interviews Dr. Jori Hall, winner of the 2021 Qualitative Research SIG's Outstanding Book Award. The conversation revolves around Dr. Hall's book "Focus Groups: Culturally Responsive Approaches for Qualitative Inquiry and Program Evaluations." The following text is a transcript of the conversation.
Travis Marn 00:11

Hello everyone and welcome to qualitative conversations, a podcast series hosted by the Qualitative Research Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. I am Travis Marn, the current chair of the Qualitative Research Special Interest Groups Outstanding Book Award Committee. I'm excited to be joined today by Dr. Jori Hall, who was the recipient of the 2021 outstanding Book Award for her book, "Focus Groups: Culturally Responsive Approaches for Qualitative Inquiry and Program Evaluations" published by Meyer Education Press in 2020. Dr. Jori Hall is a multidisciplinary researcher, evaluator, and professor at the University of Georgia. Her work focuses on social inequalities and addresses issues of evaluation and research methodology, cultural responsiveness, and the role of values in privilege within the fields of education and health. She has contributed to numerous peer-reviewed journals and other publications like the "Handbook of Mixed Methods Research" and the "Oxford Handbook of Multi- and Mixed-Methods Research." She has evaluated programs funded by the National Science Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the International Baccalaureate Foundation. In recognition of her evaluation scholarship, Dr. Hall was selected as the Leaders of Equitable Evaluation and Diversity Fellow by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Thank you for joining me here today, Dr. Hall. It's a privilege to have you with us.

Jori Hall 01:32

Hey, Travis, it's an honor to be here. Thank you for having me.

Travis Marn 01:36

So we had a highly competitive field last cycle and your book stood out immediately to members of the committee. The committee was very impressed with how you evolved a common qualitative method like the focus group, and innovatively lensed through cultural responsiveness. Considering the rapidly changing context of what it means to conduct qualitative research with and in marginalized communities, your book is exceptionally timely and innovative. The committee was impressed with how welcoming your book was to new researchers, while not losing any of the depth and complexity of your topic. The feeling of the committee about your book can best be summed up by the very first sentence a member of the committee sent after they read your book, quote, "this book is a must read text for any qualitative researcher and program evaluator who is considering working with focus groups, or already doing so." Your book richly deserved our 2021 Outstanding Book Award.

Jori Hall 02:27

Well, that is humbling to hear. I appreciate you sharing that I don't think I heard that quote. So again, thank you so much. And I will say, if it is something that is digestible it is because I have spent years teaching courses on qualitative inquiry and I don't lose sight of the fact that I am constantly trying to communicate to novice and even seasoned researchers alike, how it is to think about qualitative research and how to use it in ways that are responsive. And so I'm glad that that came across in the book, because it's something that I'm always challenged by always thinking about how to best describe any particular method. But in this case, focus groups. I do think that focus groups, as you said, is something that is underutilized. It's a common method, people heard of it before, but in some respects, it is underutilized. And given today's climate, with everything being online due to COVID, there are ways to think about it that can be creative, that can be culturally responsive. And that can even bring some rich information to any research project. So I hope people can see that as they encounter the book and take it up.

Travis Marn 03:52

I think the accessibility and how easy to read and how well structured the book just lends itself to being a work that anyone can use any kind of researcher, whether you're just starting out, or whether like you said they're seasoned researcher, like I appreciate it, you have whole chapters on like online focus groups, and how to do indigenous focus, focus groups, and all the way from design to analysis, your book, it's really kind of an all in one for anyone looking to conduct high quality focus groups. So we definitely with the committee, we really appreciated that about your book. So why don't you just tell us about your book?

Jori Hall 04:31

Wow, that's a big question, but I appreciate it. So the book tried to do different things. And I'm glad that it was executed well, because it was it was quite a challenge. I wanted to tackle some topics that don't get a lot of light or when they do get light. It's within the context of a larger methodological handbook, for example, and one chapter or one section is devoted to focus groups. So I'm very excited that we have an entire book dedicated to focus group and highlights how to do those were different types of folks. And so that's what the book is about. That's what I aim to do is to say, "Okay, here's a relatively common method that's underutilized. How can we think about that with respect to different types of groups," and I thought about which groups that I wanted to focus on. And there's so many more groups that deserve attention. But again, the book had limits, I have limits. And so these were the ones that rose to the top based on my experience. And I also wanted to have examples, right? I feel like oftentimes, you could share information. But to make it more concrete, give folks an example. Let them see how it was done in practice. And so the reason why those particular groups got selected the older adults is a group I looked at, I looked at indigenous folk, I look at Black women, like you were saying, and I had really strong examples, from practice taken from former students, current evaluators, current researchers that are in the field trying to make this work happen. And I wanted to be also very transparent, and very realistic about how it is this methodology gets implemented. And that's to say, it is challenging work. It's not easy to make those connections in the context of research. So within the examples that are sprinkled throughout the book, there are lessons learned, what would you have done differently, so people reading the examples can benefit from that those lessons learned? I think they're highly instructive. And I'll just say too, one of the things that's unique about focus groups, and I try to convey this in the book is that different from individual interviews, the most fascinating thing is, you get what I call a twofer trap. And a twofer is you get the interview data, but you also get observational data. And so you get to witness how it is people construct meaning. And I think in real time, and it's very dynamic. And I think that that's really fascinating. So they have a method where you get interview data, and observational data is something that is unique to focus groups, I think and, again, that's that's what I wanted to put in the book. To get across that we need to take advantage more so of the observational data that focus groups can provide the dynamics between the participants themselves. And lastly, I'll say, there is a social justice component that I tried to weave through as well. And this is hugely important given the culturally responsive orientation that I have Travis, because one thing I'm trying to say in the book is this focus groups in and of themselves, do not require you to do anything with the data beyond you know, collected from the focus group, moderate all of it. But the the lens that I'm coming from the perspective that I'm coming from is saying to be culturally responsive also includes being active action about data, right, doing something with the data, that's a benefit to the particular community. And so to think carefully about those things, how can it benefit the community? So there's lots of other things in the book, but those are some of the main things that I set out to accomplish with the book, Travis.

Travis Marn 08:25

And I think the examples that you were talking about the chapter on indigenous focus groups, to me was just so insightful, even someone I've never done, focus group before. And reading it really kind of showed me how much goes into kind of that social justice focused focus group. And so I'm wondering, how did you pick which groups that you wanted to kind of highlight in the book?

Jori Hall 08:50

Yeah, and I was alluded to this a little bit before, but again, it came out because these are the kinds of groups that I personally worked with. And then also, for the case examples, I wanted to make sure for whatever groups I decided to put in the book that I had strong case examples. And so those happen to be the ones that I have strong case examples for I have been working, teaching, conducting research at UGA University of Georgia for over a decade. And because of that, Travis, I've worked with a lot of students, a lot of graduate students, and I called on some of those former graduate students to help me think about the cases in the book. So all of these things to have is what I'm saying is all these things kind of work together to make the decisions about which ones rose to the top. And you know, even within each group, there are there is so much diversity, right? There's no one indigenous group. And so, and I just wanted to celebrate that and and I hope that comes across that I'm not suggesting that there is one type of anything, but that and that there's diversity within the groups that I'm talking about. So I hope that that comes across,

Travis Marn 10:09

I think it definitely does in your work and through your examples. So I'm gonna ask you a really this is a really small question. So I hope you can answer this one, what makes for a culturally responsive focus group?

Jori Hall 10:21

Right. So this is something that I talked about when I did a webinar for the CDC recently, and as part of that webinar, I tried to make this very point clear, and I had a slide. And I had on one side of the slide, traditional focus group, what that is, it was a definition. And then on the other side, I had culturally responsive focus group. And you can see side by side, we don't have that now, nobody can see my slides, because this is a podcast, right? But the point I was making is that a traditional focus group is defined as a group discussion that you have, with particular people about a certain topic, nothing about that definition suggests anything about being culturally responsive, or social justice, or empowerment or anything like this. So there's no commitment to those kinds of things in a traditional focus group, and actually some of the history of focus group, how did the methodology itself come about, it's through marketing. And so it has its own history. And what I'm saying is, okay, focus group has a unique history, it comes out of marketing techniques, when people trying to get information about different things different I don't know, you can think of different items in the store or different interventions, and people want it to have groups come together and give their opinion about those things. And then it moves into social science. And now what I'm saying is, we can enhance the traditional focus group from how it was previously done to be squarely focused on social justice kinds of aims and orientations. And I was just gonna say this as well. That's what makes it different. But also, when we say social justice, that means so many different things. And we have to even clarify what that means, given the people that we're working with. So it's just a real, intentional approach around actionable data, working with the community, thinking better about them in terms of the protocol, the questions we're asking and having them participate to some extent in that in terms of giving their feedback about what they want to, you know, share, and how could it be beneficial to them?


And so you suggest that multicultural validity and inquirer reflexivity as criteria for establishing qualitative rigor and focus groups. Can you tell us more about that?


Sure, it's kind of hard to do in a little bit of time. But I will refer people to the person that I drew from in those discussions, Travis, and that is the work of Karen Kirkhart. And Karen Kirkhart is a very wonderful, thoughtful, culturally responsive inquirer. And I drew on her word to explain those things primarily, and Hazel Symonette as well in terms of reflexivity. But Karen Kirkhart has articles and things about multicultural validity, as she says a lot of things about that, that folks can go and look at later. But one point that I tried to make in the book and for the purposes of the podcast, I'll say is consequential validity is part of that. And what that means is thinking about the consequences of our focus groups for the people that are participating. We don't want to put people in harm's way. We don't want to put people in jeopardy. And so what are the consequences of these people, whoever they are participating in your focus group. And that's one of the aspects of multicultural validity. The other thing that Karen Kerr cart makes very clear that I appreciate is that this isn't some other kind of validity. This actually is part of regular validity, if you will, and does do a lot to enhance the credibility quality of the work. And you also mentioned reflexivity. I drew on the work of Hazel Symonette and she does a very good job of speaking on this, but I won't do it justice but I will say the main point with reflexivity is to as researchers evaluators, is to not just think about what's happening, but create an action plan in response to things so it's not just reflection as an "Oh, I sit and think about what happened that was horrible or that was great." But what are you now going to to do and that's reflexivity, how are you now going to adopt the design if the protocol isn't working? Now what? So that's what I'll say about those two things. I won't do them justice in the podcast, but certainly both can, you know, go back and follow up on that.

Travis Marn 15:18

And they can read your book for even more insights. And that's something reflexivity is definitely something just so vital to all qualitative researchers. One thing that I'm interested in is novice researchers who are kind of looking to bring social justice into focus their focus group method, where do novice researchers were can they start to kind of go down this path of social justice in focus groups?

Jori Hall 15:43

That is a great question, where to begin? I think a great philosopher Winnie the Pooh said, "start at the beginning." I don't know if it was Winnie the Pooh, but I always like that, um, anyway, I think that one of the things to do is to learn about the strengths and the limitations of focus groups. So when I work with graduate students, which I tend to do a lot, I tried to suggest to them very strongly that whatever method you're interested in, you want to know the ins and outs of the method, what can it afford? And what are the limitations? And I think that's a good starting place, and really understanding that so then before you decide where it could fit into a design, you already know that it may be more appropriate here and less appropriate there. Beyond that, I think once you figure out the strengths and limitations of focus groups, I think you need to think about if you know who your participants are, how might they respond to a focus group discussion, and getting feedback about that, before any final decisions are made about where it fits in your design, culturally responsive approach would implore you to get feedback on that. And you can get feedback on that from, you know, another expert in the field, or someone in the community that you intend to work with or working with. But those are the two places that I would encourage folks to begin,

Travis Marn 17:16

I think there's no substitute for just knowing the method in and out. And your book, I think provides such a great set of tools for our novice researchers to really engage with the focus group. So shifting topics a little bit. A lot of people who listen to this podcast are people who are writing books or want to write books. So I'd be very curious. So can you describe your process for writing and publishing this book?

Jori Hall 17:39

Travis, it was bananas. Writing a book is more than a notion, right? Like, let's just be honest. So but in all seriousness, one of the first things is to write a proposal, and usually publishers out there, if you intend to go with a publisher, they have a template for you. And they will tell you exactly the things to include in our proposal. One of the key things, there's a lot of key things, but one of the key things that you want to think about is if you're writing your book, what are the books that are related to the kind of book you want to write about? So for me, it was what's already out there in terms of books on focus groups, and I wanted to pitch how my book is different from those books, right? Like, what is it that my book is doing that those other books aren't doing or aren't doing as well, or that I will do differently. And so I would encourage people who are interested in writing a book to survey what books are out there that are related to the kind of book that they would like to write, and you need a sample of let's say, like, you know, a handful or so and then from there, carefully begin to articulate how your book is going to do something different or stand out above those books, right? And how is it going to contribute to whatever literature you're trying to contribute to?

Travis Marn 19:00

And so the actual writing of the book, how can you describe the writing process?

Jori Hall 19:05

Sure, well, that was bananas, too. But what helped is that I talked to people who, who wrote books, to get feedback from them how they went through the process. But ultimately, Travis, you know how it is, is, you have to come to your own way of doing something, you have to adapt it for yourself, you have to figure out what works for you. And what worked for me was plotting out my writing time and sticking to it. So what that means is we're on semesters, so I had goals for each semester about where I wanted to go with the book. And I will plot that out for myself and then weekly goals, I will play that out for myself. Of course you negotiate with the publishers the timeline for the book, but you still have to figure out if the book is due two years from now. How do you write so that it is done, and we have benchmarks for yourself. The other thing I did for myself was I took myself on my own writing retreat. So I kind of eliminated distractions from just typical everyday life. And I said, Okay, I rented an Airbnb, for example, and plop myself in front of the laptop and plugged away and took breaks. And lastly, I will say, with the brakes, rest this, this may not seem important, but it is, rest is important. And health is important. Because what I've come to find out, you have to have a sound mind, and healthy body in order to be thoughtful, right. So all of these things play a role. If you're stressed out, if you're tired, that doesn't really produce your best writing. It's not your best self. So take care of yourself. Taking care of yourself along the way, is really, really important, given the stressors of everyday life in the stress of writing a book. So those are the things that come to mind straight away.

Travis Marn 21:06

It's very interesting to take care of yourself while trying to produce this work. I think that's a such a good thing, just to have researchers remember that they're human, and not robots producing this work? Did you write the book sequentially? Or did you jump around in the writing process?

Jori Hall 21:24

Yeah, so I explained this to students like research itself, it's dynamic, I jumped all over the place, because what would happen is I would get into a chapter, and I would be inspired by something which would then trigger a thought for another chapter. So I would create little notes for myself to incorporate it in another chapter. And I will come back to it. And so it evolved, I learned different ways of saying things. And as I read more, I was simultaneously reading a little bit as I wrote the book, and I think reading to me, is so helpful with writing is so helpful. So although I had goals to complete certain chapters, certain sections, believe me, I did have to go back into a section from time to time to beef it up, or to streamline it, to say it in a way that I felt like was more clear, more coherent. And then in the end, I had other people as much as I could provide feedback to make sure that the points that I were trying to, you know, trying to make came across.

Travis Marn 22:34

Was there any part of the book that was especially meaningful for you?

Jori Hall 22:37

Hmm, that's another good question. Wow you just come in with all these awesome questions, Travis.

Travis Marn 22:42

Um, I try.

Jori Hall 22:46

I think, for me, it wasn't so much a particular section. It's just I wanted to contribute, work that would support people that are vulnerable, that are put in these situations. And I wanted to contribute research and thinking about research that would give other researchers permission to tailor their work in a way that would not just benefit the literature, but would actually help somebody would actually be meaningful, and not give up on rigor, because I think there is this undercurrent, and maybe it's not an undercurrent, maybe it's this explicit thing that if you're culturally responsive, somehow you're giving up on rigor and objectivity or something like this. And I just wanted to contribute something that suggests no, actually doing these things enhances rigor. And you can also help someone along the way how, and to what extent, sure, that varies, and we could, you know, talk about that. But I think that that's what drove me to do it. And like with anything I see where you can be improved now. And, you know, I hope to continue this conversation about focus groups and being culturally responsive. So it's just a humble attempt to do that, Travis.

Travis Marn 24:15

A humble attempt and an outstanding outcome I think in that process, the book's just fantastic. So where can people access your ongoing work?


Sure. So Wow, that's awesome question, too. I the book is on Amazon and all the other things and then I'm still trying to crank out different articles, most of my articles, land in evaluation journals. And so the American Journal of Evaluation is where some of my articles are, that's the home for many of them. But what's also fun and interesting is you might find my name in some health journals. And that's because I also work with people in health disciplines and to think about, you know, methods and analyzing focus group data. So I'm sprinkled throughout different disciplines in different journals and things like this because I truly believe in collaboration, Travis, I truly believe in interdisciplinary work. I think it strengthens whatever we're trying to accomplish. And so yeah, I enjoy working with others.

Travis Marn 25:21

And I believe people can follow you on Twitter as well.

Jori Hall 25:24

Oh yeah

Travis Marn 25:25

Your hour by hour thoughts as well.

Jori Hall 25:27

That's right, that's right Travis.

Travis Marn 25:29

It was an honor to read your book as a committee member. And it's been a privilege to have you here and I want to offer the committee's congratulations again, your book very much deserved our 2021 Outstanding Book Award. Thank you again.

Jori Hall 25:42

Thank you. This was a treat to talk to you today. Thanks for having me.

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