Reconsidering Rigor in Psychological Science: Lessons From a Brief Clinical Ethnography

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American psychologists have long defined their discipline by its methods, and ideas of rigor have been central to organizing its methodological boundaries. In pursuit of rigor, psychologists have emphasized carefully controlled experimental designs, highly scrutinized measurements, and sophisticated statistical analyses to produce generalized understandings of human behavior. The present study challenges the discipline to associate rigor with ethnographically informed inquiry contributing richly situated knowledge. The authors developed a 19-week clinical ethnography in partnership with a behavioral health clinic in a midwestern urban American Indian community health organization to understand how culture and culture concepts influenced clinical practice. Participants included 5 clinicians and 20 additional health organization administrators, staff, and volunteers involved with behavioral health services. Data collection entailed participant observation in all settings within the clinic (except client encounters), interviews with key personnel, and collection of clinic materials (e.g., clinical handouts). Data analysis was ongoing during data collection to identify patterns of interest. Following data collection, we conducted a thematic analysis of a semistructured interview with clinicians on culture and the clinic and then contextualized this interview analysis with reference to relevant patterns identified in the ethnographic data corpus. The findings highlighted a disjunction between how therapists thought about culture in the abstract during formal interviews (cultural reconnection) and how they described and demonstrated culture in day-to-day clinical practice (cultural reimagination). This contrast illustrates why a rigorous psychological science must embrace ethnographically informed modes of inquiry to represent, with specificity, contextualization, and vividness, the shared and divergent understandings and circumstances facilitating and constraining behavior in natural settings.

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