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Getting to the truth: Doing research with teenagers

Randall F. Clemens

Credibility is the first (and most important) criteria for establishing trustworthiness in qualitative research. Credibility, like it’s step-sibling validity, is often the subject of much debate; scholars argue about what it can and cannot do and what strategies researchers should and should not use to ensure rigor in research (see “Varieties of Validity,” an article Yvonna Lincoln penned, or “Qualitative Research and Public Policy”, an article Bill and I wrote). Plainly speaking, however, credibility is truthfulness. How does a researcher know his or her data and interpretations approximate the truth? And, what strategies did he or she use? When it comes to research with teenagers, however, credibility is anything but a straightforward idea. Permit me to elaborate with an example. 

The Smallwood Recreation Complex, located in the northwest corner of a neighborhood in South Los Angeles, spans nine acres. The main feature of Smallwood is a multipurpose brick building, which houses a gymnasium, boxing ring, weight room, and dance studio. A playground, soccer field, baseball diamond, and tennis and basketball courts dot the landscape behind the building. Large eucalyptus trees line the outskirts of the park.

During the spring prior to my year-long ethnography, I conducted a pilot study of the neighborhood. I visited parks, schools, and businesses and interviewed residents, teachers, and workers. I conducted participant observations at Smallwood five times. During each visit, the setting was often the same. Cars filled the parking lot. Adults sat at benches watching children on the playground. Young men played basketball. Three or four men in their 20s and 30s congregated at the building’s main entrance. Children and teenagers walked in and out of the building. After each visit, I often left feeling upbeat. Los Angeles is one of the most park-poor metropolitan areas in the United States; however, the young residents of this neighborhood had a nice place to play and exercise.

Last month, I asked Matthew, one of my informants, to go to Smallwood with him. I knew the 18-year old often boxed and played basketball at the park. On the morning of the scheduled visit, he said, “Hey Randy, we can’t go. Not today.” Two days later, while driving Matt home, I reminded him that we still needed to visit the park. “What?” he responded, “You want to go at the worst time. Three gangs is battling.” A Latino gang member shot and killed someone from a rival gang. The park, he said, was the hotspot. Matt continued, “They shot up right where I live. I was pissed and grieving.” Later, I discussed Smallwood with Matt and his peers. To them, the park and the surrounding neighborhood represented a contested territory, a place where violence could occur suddenly. 

How does a researcher make sense of such divergent experiences? What is the truth? If, as Paul Rabinow says, fieldwork is a “cultural activity,” my experience highlights the dual process of interpretation. I was both making sense of the experiences of my participants as well as myself in the field. My understanding of the park diverged significantly from that of my subjects. 

So, which is it? Is Smallwood a family-friendly park or gang-controlled territory? I have embedded in my study multiple strategies to ensure credibility. In this instance, different methods provided different interpretations. The challenge of credibility is not to eliminate different interpretations like crossing items off of a grocery list. The challenge is to acknowledge that multiple truths exist, often simultaneously, and to understand what that means for the lives of those involved.