My Story is Not Your Story

Ian Smith Blog 3

Ian Pshea-Smith

2nd Year, MPH Global Health Epidemiology Candidate

Empathy involves putting oneself in the shoes of another person. It is one of the
most important “soft skills” there are - in research fields, we need empathy to ascertain
the applicability of our results, and to ensure we are acting equitably when collecting

In the context of our recent trip to Grenada - I was employing a lot of empathy.
Performing qualitative research innately involves obtaining the perspectives of others.
We set out to hear others’ stories, so that we could use them to inform decisions based
on the lived experiences of those in the field. However, some of those stories required a
wealth of context I couldn’t grasp - as a white man from rural Michigan, I can never truly
understand the contexts of those we interviewed, who embodied stories wholly different
from my own.

I spent much of the trip trying to put on their shoes. Our task was to provide
information based on their stories - we were asked to put the results into context and
generate recommendations based on their lived experiences. My story, as a researcher
and a student, would never quite embody the stories of those we interviewed.
I think this was one of the more important lessons from this trip. We were asked
to help, and as students with a desire to make a difference, we were keen to assist. We
were challenged, however, with the fact that someone from Grenada would have been
perhaps better equipped to ask and interpret the questions - we were therefore
dependent on our collaborators to provide us with the necessary context. Our stories
were not the same, and the stories we told at the end of the day, were also likely
imperfect if compared with the ones we heard.

Qualitative research is not my strong suit - I find Likert scales, incidence rates
and quantifiable parameters much more enjoyable. But we were asked to elucidate
stories - and to do so, we needed to understand them. I learned so much about the
value of qualitative data, and about its difficulties on this trip. Its benefits are so plentiful,
and its capacity to tell stories is unrivalled.

My story is not the same after completing this trip - I hope that I can better tell the
stories of others, and that I can fit other shoes at least a little bit better because of this