The bead method: a biographical approach to researching mothers and trust in post-war South Sudan

NCRM news
Kaisa Puustinen

Article by Rachel Ayrton, NCRM Hub. This article also appears in the Winter 2012 issue of MethodsNews newsletter (opens a .pdf file).

Although the use of the timelines method in biographical interviews can make the construction and analysis of data a more collaborative process, how can this be achieved in the context of cross-cultural research with a marginalised group where literacy is limited?

In my recent study of South Sudanese mothers’ trust in medical professionals, I wanted to use the timeline method as part of in-depth biographical interviews. Timelines are sometimes incorporated into qualitative interviews to encourage participants to represent their life graphically, marking key events or phases in their lives along a line. This enables data to be communicated visually as well as verbally, which was beneficial in this cross-cultural research project.

After around fifty years of civil war and a longer history of underdevelopment and exploitation, basic services including health care and education are starting from scratch in the new nation of South Sudan. Gender inequality continues to be a problem, and literacy is particularly low amongst women, so using pens and paper to produce timelines, ‘artefacts’ associated with education and literacy, was not the best option. Instead, I developed a method of beads strung on a leather cord to enable participants to construct their stories about their lives and experiences of health care. Each participant made a bracelet that they could keep as “a concrete reflective product”1.

Each participant was given a cord to act as the timeline, and they chose beads to represent things that have happened in their lives, and particularly their families’ health. During the interviews, the bead timeline provided a reference point for episodes in the story, enabling us both to isolate particular aspects of the data and enrich storytelling2, encouraging comparisons to be made by setting experiences alongside each other. In terms of the relative power of researcher, interpreter and participant in the interview, the bead timeline enabled my participants to direct how they would structure their story, using beads to represent sections in a continuous narrative, discrete episodes, or the key characters in their stories. Within their chosen framework each participant exercised agency in deciding where the subdivisions in her health story would occur, which episodes to choose and where they would start and finish, or who the most important characters are around whom to shape her health story.

Some participants used this agency to introduce a layer of symbolic meaning into the beads, which added significant depth.  Several participants gave a reason for their choice of a particular bead that related its appearance to the meaning they attached to it. One mother, nursing her newborn baby, vocalised how she expressed her pride in her child in her choice of bead:

“Rachel: So which one would you like for this little baby?”
“Patience: Mm, this little one, let me take this beautiful one.” (Patience, 04/08/12)

A silver bead was chosen to represent one participant’s bright hopes for the future for her children and her country:

“This one I took it I want to talk about the future, yeah. I felt after all these sufferings and I was able to cover with all these children of mine… I wanted God to give them a bright future, so they became children who are also to help build this country of ours.” (Praise, 08/08/12)

Other women chose to use the colour and texture of their beads to say something about how they felt during a period in their life or episode:

“During the war, this bead here represents her life. Her life was like, this bead. It’s not perfect, it’s like ups and downs. Just like this one here… She was thinking that maybe one time she is not going to stay in a white place like that, she was going to go into a dark spot like that.” (Anna, 06/08/12)

During its construction the bead timeline also became symbolically significant by giving a physical presence to the participant’s story. This enabled me to express empathy and make a physical connection with the story by touching the bead when asking a question, without acting invasively towards the participant, and participants often acted affectionately towards the object as they spoke. The bead timeline gave the participant, interviewer and interpreter ways to symbolically interact physically with the story.

The ‘bead method’ is an approach developed by Rachel Ayrton. Rachel is a research student attached to the NCRM Hub.

1 Guenette, F. & Marshall, A. (2009) ‘Time Line Drawings: Enhancing participant voice in narrative interviews on sensitive topics’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods 8 (1):85-92
2 Sheridan, J., Chamberlain, K. & Dupuis, A. (2011) ‘Timelining: visualizing experience’ Qualitative Research 11 (5): 552-569