Co-interviewing has been described as a method to bridge cultural and gendered divides [7, 23]. However, in sexual health research the interviewer explores highly sensitive topics such as relationships, sexual experiences and sexually transmitted infections. Nevertheless, it was the observation of both UA and MRM, as experienced researchers, that the research participants genuinely wanted us both to be there. In this professional context, where participants were employees of a faith-based organisation, having male and female interviewers as an audience of two from two different universities appeared desirable. Did the presence of both researchers further honour participants’ response to HIV in PNG, such as their personal experiences, the HIV prevention services, mainstreaming of HIV or attempts to address organisational impediments to undertake ‘culturally acceptable HIV activities’? In addition to discussing their professional response to HIV, some participants also talked about their own sexual health issues and measures taken to improve sexual health outcomes. Participants explicitly stated their desire to use results from the study as evidence to enhance service delivery and increase access to resources. As an example, a HIV program manager expressed concern that inadequate infrastructure was restricting the types of STI and HIV tests able to be provided at a clinic. This was included in the summary of results and presented to the faith-based organisation. Subsequent to this, infrastructure was improved and testing facilities are now available at the clinic. This exemplifies how power was understood and utilised by participants to achieve transformation within their realm of influence.
In the cultural context of PNG, co-interviewing increased the size and status of the ‘audience’, which correspondingly increased the status and possible outcomes of both the participant and their organisation (and by association the people they provide services for). It is also possible that co-interviewing involving two researchers was a mechanism to redistribute power away from a single interviewer who, when alone, had the power to influence what was reported. A strident criticism of some research, particularly in colonial or post-colonial situations, is that researchers have used ‘power-over’, rather than ‘power- with’ research participants or populations . Use of ‘power-over’ by researchers perpetuates unjust power imbalances in the research process . Co-interviewing provided a more culturally accountable process and diminished the power of an individual researcher to influence what was reported.
Our study used specific methods to devolve, share and enable the participant to have more power, consistent with our commitment to participative, decolonising research methods [6, 14, 18, 25, 26]. Methods employed included ensuring a private location for the interview and paying careful attention to the physical arrangements of the interview, including seating positions and room arrangement. Researchers also explicitly stated that the research participant was the expert in the interview and used open-ended qualitative questions to encourage the participant to discuss content that was most important to them . These discussions were facilitated in Tok Pisin (a lingua franca of PNG), English (the language of the ex-colonisers) or a mixture of the two . In PNG, there are three national languages Hiri Motu, Tok Pisin and English. Papuan peoples in the Southern region of PNG speak Hiri Motu, with Tok Pisin spoken throughout much of the remainder of the country. English is mostly used in formal education and for more official communication. Providing the option to discuss HIV in Tok Pisin, a language closer to the lived experience of most participants, provided another way to reduce potential power imbalances between researcher and participant.
In addition to physical surroundings and languages used, we also explained the reporting and feedback process and assured participant’s an opportunity to provide comments on preliminary findings prior to findings being reported publically (conducted in Lae during May 2013). Researchers and participants also discussed the potential to use results to advocate for greater resources. The risk was the presence of two researchers’ would inadvertently increase expectations about the study team’s ability to influence action based on information shared in the interview. Thus the onus was on the researchers to carefully and honestly explain the research process, who would receive the findings and who would be responsible for research-informed action.
Co-production of knowledge
As a result of our critical reflection, we realise the study was bringing assumptions about power imbalance in research to a group of people from PNG with an indigenous worldview who perhaps conceived of power differently. In decolonising and indigenous research methods, power is understood to be held by the non-indigenous researcher who has come into the indigenous cultural context. In fact, research itself is seen as one of the “dirtiest words”, due to the misuse of power by non-indigenous researchers . We have questions about the construction of researcher power in PNG, as described in some decolonising research theory.
Melanesian cultures are based on collective rather than individualist ideologies. Collectivist foundations inform practice, including how knowledge is produced/co-produced. It is therefore unusual for people to talk privately (one-on-one) unless they have a very close or intimate relationship. In fact, there are a number of risks inherent in agreeing to speak to someone privately. In a collectivist, oral tradition, if one speaks privately to another, there is no-one present to verify the truth of the assertions made. Talking privately may endanger the interviewee or interviewer if the partners or family members do not agree to the interview. In fact, as evidenced by the village courts in PNG, many witnesses to the evidence provided is often preferred - many people want to listen to, and verify, what is being said, including spouses, aunties, uncles and bubus (grandparents/grandchildren) . Applying this cultural understanding, we have learnt that the way a decolonising researcher might seek to ethically ‘do no harm’ by conducting a private interview with a person of the same gender may, on some occasions, need to be enacted differently in Melanesia. The different sites of power remain, including positional power, relational power between workers and supervisors and formal and informal power in the interview context. However, the way this power is conceptualized and experienced by the research participant may be different. More power may be given to a participant by increasing or changing the researcher ‘audience’, for example by having two interviewers. This is consistent with cultural approaches that utilise public forums rather than private or more individualist/formal processes (for example, written submissions) to raise issues. Knowledge production and transmission is a site of powered interaction and requires a nuanced understanding of the two-way, collective, culturally constructed process that has specific and different characteristics based on Melanesian worldviews . In the remainder of the paper, we reflect further on some key issues that have emerged as a result of critical reflection upon our research practice.
Legitimacy in the research process
In Melanesia, everyone has their place . Older people and senior leaders give legitimacy to the process of knowledge production and transmission. In this experience, the interviewers UA and MRM were afforded additional legitimacy by having MD, an esteemed senior church leader and HIV advocate, theologian and researcher help arrange the interviews. MD helped to organise the interviews and give his authority to the research project. UA and MRM were conducting the interviews, but people may have been more willing to participate in the study because MD was on location and supporting the research. The interviewers’ legitimacy arose from the respect afforded a more senior person in the social, cultural and religious context. It is our experience that when conducting research or training in PNG, it is important to have an older person and younger person together, so when the younger person conducts the interviews, or enacts their training (particularly in their village setting) they have a legitimacy to act. This is consistent with the experience of other researchers in PNG . A senior researcher provides authority and status to the younger researcher’s activity. This was certainly the case with UA and MRM working under the authority and status of MD.
Opportunity to speak
Melanesian culture has specific conditions that determine who can speak and who cannot . Opportunities to be listened to depend upon a person’s status in the community. This dynamic also occurs in religious communities in PNG, where leaders of the Christian churches typically preach to people, rather than ask questions of people. Interviewees may have seen the invitation to participate in research conducted by a Christian University as a new approach - that the church leaders from the church university have come to my door. Researchers act differently to some church leaders when they provide a safe and non-judgmental environment and really listen. By saying taem blong yu long toktok (this is your time to talk) and carefully listening to interviewee responses, researchers devolve positional (and in some cases gendered and/or cultural) power and enable participants to articulate their concerns and opinions.
There are a number of limitations to the analysis of our co-interviewing experience. Only a small number of interviews were conducted (n = 8) and of these only half (n = 4) requested to be co-interviewed. However, this dynamic was consistent enough for us to identify a pattern that we had not expected in the original qualitative research design. We responded with flexibility and cultural sensitivity. There are also questions about why the other four participants did not request to be co-interviewed. Two of these four participants were employees of the faith-based organisation while two were employees of the church. Were we as researchers seemingly less available to offer this option, or did the participants genuinely prefer to be interviewed by one researcher? Did the cultural status or organisational status of the participants influence this outcome? Despite not knowing the answer to these questions, this experience has expanded our sensitivity to culturally safe and appropriate ways of conducting research in PNG and across Melanesia.
As researchers, we are very committed to conducting research in an ethical manner and working in ways which are highly sensitive to the gender, social, and cultural values held by research participants [2, 33–36]. These values also reflect our understanding of power held by the researcher/s and the research participants. We know insider-outsider status can impact the research process. There are also cultural beliefs and practices that shape qualitative research and if deliberately employed, may help to address power imbalances. Culturally there may be more status provided to the participant when two researchers are present at the interview as greater import is placed on the content shared.
Reflexivity in research practice requires researcher/s to critically reflect upon the experience and position they bring, the methods they use and how they adapt research practice to incorporate learning . A reflexive and critical approach to professional research practice questions how knowledge is generated and, further, how relations of power influence the processes of knowledge generation . Qualitative research methods are constantly expanding as researchers with diverse worldviews participate in, lead and evolve culturally-relevant research practice . Our recent experience has taught us to critically reflect upon accepted qualitative research methods and to centralise the cultural context in which research is being conducted. Research methods that are gender sensitive, culturally situated and relevant to the research question are pivotal to successful research in Melanesia and may challenge accepted ethical notions of ‘do no harm’ . Successful research that is sensitive to gender and culture requires cultural knowledge, continuous critical reflection and researcher flexibility based upon respect.