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 Table of Contents  
DEBATE/PERSPECTIVE/VIEWPOINT
Year : 2020  |  Volume : 36  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 172-179

Use of the life grid in qualitative data collection with adolescents in India: Researcher reflections


1 Department of Psychiatric Social Work, NIMHANS, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India
2 Department of Psychiatry, NIMHANS, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India

Date of Submission25-Dec-2019
Date of Decision01-Apr-2020
Date of Acceptance30-Jun-2020
Date of Web Publication28-Sep-2020

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Janardhana Navaneetham
Department of Psychiatric Social Work, NIMHANS, Bengaluru, Karnataka
India
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None


DOI: 10.4103/ijsp.ijsp_130_19

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  Abstract 


Literature describing methodologies for qualitative research with children and young people suggests that traditional data collection methods can be strengthened through the use of creative and task-based methods. This article discusses the use of a task-based method called the life grid, in the Indian context, in a study exploring the experiences of adolescent children of parents with mental illness. A life grid was formulated for use in a study with 28 adolescents, aged 15–19 years, to explore their experiences of living with a parent with mental illness. The process of the interviews and researcher reflections were noted down as field notes. The life grid was useful in the majority of the interviews and facilitated the collection of rich qualitative data. It provided a holistic perspective of the participants' lives, helped establish rapport and set the pace, provided structure, and served as a visual and temporal guide for the interviews. However, the use of the life grid was also time-consuming. It was less engaging for participants who were not comfortable with writing or reading, and posed particular challenges in the diverse linguistic context of India. Despite its limitations, the life grid can be said to be appropriate and useful in qualitative research with adolescents in India. The article contributes to ongoing discussions over culturally relevant methodologies and issues among child and adolescent researchers in India.

Keywords: Adolescent research, India, life grid, qualitative interviewing


How to cite this article:
Ballal D, Navaneetham J, Chandra P. Use of the life grid in qualitative data collection with adolescents in India: Researcher reflections. Indian J Soc Psychiatry 2020;36:172-9

How to cite this URL:
Ballal D, Navaneetham J, Chandra P. Use of the life grid in qualitative data collection with adolescents in India: Researcher reflections. Indian J Soc Psychiatry [serial online] 2020 [cited 2023 Feb 7];36:172-9. Available from: https://www.indjsp.org/text.asp?2020/36/3/172/296376




  Introduction Top


In recent years, there has been a shift in the nature of children's participation in social and behavioral science research. Conventionally, children were viewed as passive in their circumstances, and research was aimed at studying the impact of these circumstances on them.[1] It was believed that children are not competent to provide information and data pertaining to their lives were often collected from their parents or other adults. This dominant conceptualization of children has been challenged by a social-constructionist view which argues that while children are influenced and constrained by their sociocultural contexts and the adults surrounding them, they are still active agents in creating and determining their lives.[2],[3] In other words, there is a shift from research “on” children to research “with” children.[4]

The growing interest in capturing children's experiences and perspectives in their own voices has led to new challenges for researchers. There have been wide discussions on the inherent methodological challenges in research with children and young people and consequently, on innovative methodologies suitable for use with them.[5] Many best practice models for social science research with them recommend the use of creative, visual or task-centered activities such as drawing and other art forms, maps, photography, guided tours, grouping and ranking activities, stories and vignettes, role plays and dramas, and journals and diaries. A combination of methods can help researchers better engage children and adolescents than relying solely on traditional data collection method such as interviews or focus group discussions.[6]

There is a need for researchers to critically reflect on the methodologies they use and to report their experiences of what worked and did not work, which can guide further innovative models of data collection to emerge.[6] There is a dearth of such literature relevant to the Indian context. This article describes the experience of using interviews along with life grids, in qualitative data collection with adolescents in India. It is based on an exploratory study of the experiences of adolescents with a parent with severe mental illness. Using a grounded theory approach, the larger study aimed to develop an understanding of how adolescents understand and cope with parental mental illness. This article specifically focuses on the use of the life grid as an aid to in-depth interviews with adolescents. The process of formulating the life grid procedures for this study, followed by the researcher's process-based observations, reflections, and challenges, is presented.


  Study Setting and Participants Top


The study was carried out in a tertiary psychiatric hospital in southern India, and was approved by the ethics committee of the institute. Persons with mental illness were identified through the outpatient and inpatient psychiatry departments, and their children in the late adolescence age group (15–19 years)[7] were recruited through purposive sampling. In the present study, parental mental illness was limited to a diagnosis of schizophrenia or psychosis not otherwise specified, as per the 10th revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems.[8]

Parental consent and adolescent assent (or consent, when the adolescent was over 18 years) was obtained. The interviews were carried out in interview/consultation rooms in the hospital. When the adolescent was under 18 years, a parent or guardian stayed in the vicinity during the interview, but without being able to see or hear the participant, so as to ensure privacy. The interviews were carried out by the first author, a doctoral scholar in mental health, with training and previous experience in qualitative research, and under the supervision of the doctoral guides.

Twenty-eight adolescents, 15 females and the rest males, participated in the interviews. Their education ranged from Class V to graduation; the majority of them were still going to school or college, but five of them had dropped out, and all of them were from urban or semi-urban areas.


  Selection of the Life Grid Method Top


In order to identify the most suitable procedures for data collection, published studies and methodological guidelines [1],[5],[9],[10] for research with adolescents were reviewed. Art-based methods, while suitable for younger children, can appear patronizing for older adolescents [11] and therefore were not considered. In-depth interviews, using a life grid approach, were decided to be the most appropriate as it required verbal and written expression, which is age appropriate for older adolescents. A study reporting the use of the approach with adolescents described several advantages including helping to build rapport and improving the recall of events.[12] It also seemed relevant to the research questions of the present study, as it would help to create a narrative across the course of the participants' life and trace changes in their life around the parental mental illness [Appendix 1].

A life grid can be described as a grid with several rows and columns, with the rows showing significant age groups (stages of development) in a participant's life and the columns representing the different domains of their life, for example, family, school, health, and work, which the researcher wishes to study and are central to the research questions.[13],[14] In short, it can be used as a visual tool to create a chronological framework of a person's life.[15] During or after the interview, important information from the interview is condensed into a few words and written on the life grid, either by the participant or by the interviewer. Therefore, the life grid allows the researcher and the participant to co-create a narrative of the participant's life and visualize changes in several aspects of their life over a period of time.

The life grid was first used in retrospective health research with older adults to facilitate the accurate recall of information spanning several years.[16] However, subsequent studies have adapted the method for use with diverse populations and topics, extending its usefulness beyond improving recall accuracy. This method has been reported to have increased participation from the respondents during the process of data collection.[13] and this also acts as temporally and visually “anchor” for participants' to describe their stories, and helps in generating a more holistic understandings of their lives.[14]


  Formulation of the Life Grid for This Study Top


An initial framework was developed based on a review of life grids used in previous studies with adolescents.[10],[12],[14] Specific topics relating to the area under study were added based on the extensive literature on children of parents with mental illness, and in consultation with the research team. A set of instructions were formulated so that the life grid could be introduced to all participants in a standard way. The life grid was then pilot tested with three adolescents and found to be feasible and useful. Minor modifications were made based on the pilot; some topics were added or re-worded, and the instructions were modified to include a description of the life grid as a “chart,” which was more familiar to Indian adolescents, than the term “grid.”

The final life grid included topics such as school/work, interests, home, and family, in addition to their experiences of the parent's illness and their ways of managing the experiences and the resources in their environment. [Figure 1] provides a template of the life grid used in the present study.
Figure 1: Template of the life grid used in the study

Click here to view


The life grid was accompanied by a topic guide, which provided specific subtopics and prompts for each domain. When required, adolescents were asked for examples/instances of the things they described. The instructions, topics, and probes used in this study are appended to the article.


  Life Grid Interview Procedures Top


Starting the life grid interview

In line with procedures employed by previous researchers, an A3 landscape sheet of paper was used for the life grid, with the columns and corresponding topics printed. The life grid was introduced at the beginning of the in-depth interview, and the adolescent was familiarized with each of the topics. They were told that they would be talking about their past, their current life, and the future; therefore, writing in the life grid would help with visualizing events and information from various time points. The interview began with the question: “When you think back, from what age in your life do you have some memories – it could be an incident from your childhood, or something about your school or friends, or about your family and home?” Most adolescents would start by recalling events from their early childhood. Some would report being able to recall only from their middle or late childhood, in which case, some space would be left blank at the top of the life grid, in case they recalled information from that time period later on in the interview.

Transitioning between topics

When the adolescent started talking about one aspect of his/her life from that time period, for example his/her school, the interviewer would follow up with specific probes such as “What did you like or dislike about your school? How well did you think you did in school at this age? Who were your friends? and What was your relationship with your teachers like?”. When he/she had finished describing this aspect of his/her life, the interview would move on to other topics with, “What else was going on in your life at this time, let's say, at home?” followed by “What were your interests? How did you spend your time?,” and so on, until all the topics were covered. When they described important events or experiences, particularly related to their parent's mental illness (which was the research topic in this study), and also other significant experiences, they were further asked about their thoughts and feelings during the time, how they managed the situation, who or what helped them and in what ways, etc., Toward the end, they were also asked if there was any other important information from that time period which did not fit any of the topics in the life grid, which could be written into the “other experiences” column. In keeping with the grounded theory approach of the study, the interviews were kept fairly open and if participants raised newer topics during the interview that they saw as relevant to the research topic, these were allowed to emerge. The interviewer did not impose a particular order with the topics, and the adolescents were free to decide the order and talk (or not talk) about any of the topics. If the participant did not spontaneously bring up the parent's illness, this was introduced by the researcher at an appropriate time in the interview with the questions “When did you first notice a change in your father/mother? What gave you the impression that something was different? How did you make sense of it?,” and so on.

Transitioning between time periods

When all the topics for one time period had been discussed, the interviewer would check if any important information was missed out from that period, before moving on to the next. The transition would be made with the questions, “How long did your life remain more or less the same as you just described? When did something change – it could be an important event that occurred or something that changed in your schooling or your family? What changed?,” and so on. Most adolescents used major events and changes in their life, such as changes in school or school performance, or significant changes in the family, including the onset of the parent's mental illness around which they defined the time periods. When the interview had covered most of their past and current life, they were also asked about the future with questions such as “When you look toward your future from this point in your life, what are some thoughts you have – it could be your goals or worries or changes you anticipate in your school/career, in your family, etc.?”

Although the overall direction in the interview was from their past to the present and then the future, there was the flexibility to move back and forth, in order to elicit richer information and to make connections across different time periods. For instance, if an adolescent described their family in much detail only in the later part of the interview, they would be asked, “And how was your family different in the past?,” thereby moving back and forth during the interview.

Filling in the life grid

The information was condensed into a few keywords and written in the life grid. Participants were given the choice to write in the life grid themselves or have the interviewer do the writing, and most participants preferred the latter. In cases where the adolescent was not comfortable writing/reading English, as far as possible, the life grid was filled up in a language that the adolescent could read. Where the interviewer had difficulty writing in the regional language or the adolescent had a general difficulty or discomfort in reading, the interviewer tried to keep the adolescent engaged by also verbalizing the content that was written in the life grid.

Ending the interview

After the life grid was completed, the researcher briefly summarized the life grid and then the adolescents were asked to pick the most negative and then the most positive experiences/events in their lives. Because the research was on a sensitive topic and often involved discussion of distressing experiences, care was taken to end the interview on a positive note; therefore, while summarizing the life grid, the interviewer emphasized the adolescent's achievements and acknowledged the ways in which they had contributed to the family and the ways in which they had managed or coped well with their experiences.

The interviews ranged from 25 to 115 min, with an average time of about 55 min. In most cases, the data were collected within one interview. With three of the participants, a second, follow-up interview was carried out to clarify and ask further questions. Each interview was digitally audio-recorded and later transcribed. The data collected from the adolescents were analyzed using grounded theory procedures to generate a theoretical perspective of their experiences of parental mental illness. Feedback about the life grid interview was also collected from the participants. These results will be published elsewhere. In this article, the researcher's descriptive and reflective field notes of the process of conducting life grid interviews were reviewed and summarized.


  Researcher's Reflections on Using the Life Grid Top


The life grid facilitated the process of the interview in several ways, as discussed in the following sections.


  A Holistic Understanding of the Participants' Lives Top


Although the topic of parental mental illness was introduced to the adolescents as the main focus of the study, the topics included under the life grid allowed them to talk about other important experiences in their lives, including diverse topics such as school/work, their home and family, their peers, and their interests, which allowed them to talk about both positive and negative experiences, achievements, and disappointments, thereby creating a more holistic description of their lives and their environments. This also prevented the researcher from having a too narrow focus and allowed the participant to decide what important experiences in his/her life were and how these were related to the parental mental illness.


  Building Rapport and Setting the Pace of the Interview Top


A holistic focus on their lives communicated to the participants that the researcher was not only interested in understanding them and their lives as a whole but also focused on the research topic; this allowed for a deeper relationship to develop between the researcher and the participant. In addition, because the focus was on a particular time period of their life, rather than on a particular topic, it allowed children to set the pace of the interview by talking about less-threatening topics first, moving in and out of discussions about sensitive topics. Talking about parental mental health issues can be quite threatening for children due to issues of fear, shame, secrecy and stigma, and loyalty to their parents.[17],[18] Although this information can be elicited through other forms of interviewing, the life grid was a less threatening approach and gave participants the flexibility to decide what topics they want to talk about, which phase of their life they want to talk about, and, therefore, to decide the pace of the interview and open up about sensitive topics of their own accord.


  Providing Uniformity and Structure to the Data Collection Process Top


In this sample, there was variation in the duration of parental mental illness across families, and often the course of the illness was fluctuating. Hence, while some adolescents had experienced chronic parental mental illness, others had a fluctuating course, or a relatively recent onset. Therefore, the life grid approach was particularly useful in providing a uniform structure and format for the interviews. It made it easier to maintain focus and cover each relevant topic at different time points in the participants' lives. There were also many disruptions and changes in the adolescents' lives, and the life grid helped create a timeline for these.

It was helpful to focus on broad life periods, rather than each year of their life, and asking “How long did things remain this way?” and “When did something change?” helped to transition from one life period to the next, without repetition of information.

There are advantages to using a nondirective, open-ended format, especially in research with children,[19],[20] but these need to be balanced with the need to cover the topics that the researcher wishes to cover,[21] and the broad topics and prompts within the life grid interview provided direction and structure to the process.


  Providing a Visual and Temporal Aid Top


The life grid provided the participants structure and time points to anchor their stories in and trigger memories of associated events. The focus in the interviews was not so much to establish that the events being recalled were accurate, but more to form a coherent narrative of the participant's life as they remembered it. Their recall of past experiences was fragmented and often not linear; the life grid helped go back and forth between time points and fill in information and provided a visual framework to connect and make patterns in the information. Other studies using the life grid have reported similar experiences with adolescents and young people.[12],[14] Stopping to summarize and write down the content on the life grid, helped consolidate each segment of the interview, before moving on to the next topic. The life grid also served as a visual reminder for the researcher to go back to events that needed further exploration and to summarize the interview in the end.


  Challenges in the Life Grid Interview Top


Despite these benefits, there were also several challenges in using the life grid. The life grid interviews were time-consuming. Other studies have used multiple interviews where the life grid was either used as an ice breaker in the first of a series of interviews, or introduced in a later interview after some information was already collected. However, several of the participants in this study were unable to come in for a second interview and therefore only a single interview was conducted with a majority of them, leaving little scope for asking follow-up questions. The use of life grids can be said to be most appropriate when there are no time constraints so that the interviews can continue until they reach a natural end, or where participants are available for multiple interviews.

While in most cases, it was possible to simultaneously fill up the life grid or do the writing during the natural pauses in the interview; sometimes, it was difficult to do so without interrupting the flow of the interview. Researchers planning to use the activity must ensure that the setting of the interview provides privacy and is appropriate and comfortable for the writing task. Many of the children preferred that the researcher write in the life grid, making the activity less participatory; only two participants chose to fill it up themselves. In addition to the adolescent's language proficiency and comfort, this required the researcher to be proficient in reading and writing in the language of the participant. For adolescents who were not proficient in reading, the life grid activity was not visually engaging. In such cases, the researcher had to verbalize the information in the life grid to the participant along with pointing out the corresponding points in the life grid. Other challenges related to the language that the participant was most comfortable in. In this study, while filling up the life grid, the researcher tried as far as possible to use the language that the adolescent was most comfortable in. However, within the multi-lingual context of India, where practitioners and researchers may not be proficient in writing multiple languages, this poses a unique challenge.


  Conclusion Top


Collecting rich data is one of the challenges in qualitative research, especially in research with children and adolescents. It requires finding out the best interview techniques for a specific age group, keeping in mind the developmental and cultural context. There is little literature from the Indian context that describes possible ways for researchers to engage with this population.

As part of researcher reflexivity, which is an important process, especially in qualitative research with children,[22],[23] this article discusses the experience of formulating and using life grids in in-depth interviews with adolescents in India. Future work with life grid interviews in India could explore the usefulness of this approach with other age groups and topics. Finally, it is hoped that this article encourages further discussions on culturally relevant issues in doing qualitative research in India.

Financial support and sponsorship

The first author's doctoral research was funded by the Junior Research Fellowship of the University Grants Commission, India (1266/NET. DEC-2012).

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


  Appendix Top


Appendix 1: Instructions for life grid interview and interview topics

Introducing the life grid:

This activity is called a life grid. It will help us talk about your experiences at various time points in your life. As you talk about your experiences, we will write them down here (indicating the columns in the blank life grid), so we have a visual representation of the things you talk about, or like a chart or map of your life.

The first column here is for your age so that when you are talking about your experiences from a particular time in your life, we know how old you were then. We could start talking from a point in your past that you remember, move on from there till the present. We could even talk about any thoughts you have about your future. In the second column, we will write down any important events in your life. We can talk about your school/work, your interests, and your home and family life at various points in your life. In addition, I would like to know about your experiences/understanding of your father's/mother's illness, your responses to it, and which people/things in your life you find helpful, including any experience you might have of meeting with doctors/mental health professionals. We have another column at the end (“Others”) where we could write down anything else you would like to talk about that doesn't fall under the other columns.

Some adolescents like to write in the chart themselves, whereas some prefer that I write as they speak. You can pick whichever of the two ways you are comfortable with.

Broad topics and supplementary probes:

  1. School/work


  2. Supplementary probes:

    • Overall experience; aspects about school liked or disliked
    • Academic/work performance
    • Relationship with teachers and peers/colleagues.


    Involvement in activities:

  3. Interests/hobbies


  4. Supplementary probes:

    • Nature of activities
    • Time spent on them.


  5. Home and family life


  6. Supplementary probes:

    • Living arrangement of the family
    • Relationships and overall environment in the family
    • Responsibilities at home
    • Things they do together as a family
    • Positive aspects of the family; worrying aspects of the family
    • Ways in which their family is similar to/different from other families.


  7. Experience and understanding of parent's illness


  8. Supplementary probes:

    • First time they noticed the illness/changes in your parent
    • Their understanding of the illness
    • Ways they leaned about the illness
    • Their thoughts and feelings about the illness
    • Its effects on their life: on how they feel about themselves, on what they do, on their schooling, and on their relationship with their family/friends.


    (examples/instances that characterize their experience of the illness)

  9. Responses/coping (what they do to manage these experiences)


  10. Supplementary probes:

    • What has worked well; how they know it worked
    • What has not worked so well; how they know it has not worked
    • Ways of learning how to respond.


    (examples/instances that characterize their way of responding)

  11. Resources (people/things they find helpful)


  12. Supplementary probes:

    • People in the family/outside the family whom they have talked to about these experiences; their responses to it
    • Reasons to decide to talk or not to talk
    • Experiences of stigma or bullying
    • Other things that help them handle these situations better
    • Meetings/conversations with health/mental health professionals (MHPs)
    • Additional resources they would need to help them manage better
    • How they hope MHPs will respond to their comments on this topic; things MHPs could do for them/their family that they would find useful
    • Advice they would give other adolescents in a similar situation as them, based on their experience.


  13. Other experiences and summary


  14. Supplementary probes:

    • Additional topics that they would like to talk about
    • (the researcher summarizes life grid and asks participants to indicate the most significant experiences in the life grid)
    • Most negative experiences/events/influences in their life
    • Most positive experiences/events/influences in their life.




 
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  In this article
Abstract
Introduction
Study Setting an...
Selection of the...
Formulation of t...
Life Grid Interv...
Researcher's...
A Holistic Under...
Building Rapport...
Providing Unifor...
Providing a Visu...
Challenges in th...
Conclusion
Appendix
References
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