Adjust your own oxygen mask before helping those around you: an autoethnography of participatory research

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Background There is a need to unpack the empirical, practical, and personal challenges within participatory approaches advocated to optimize implementation. The unpredictable, chaotic nature of participatory approaches complicates application of implementation theories, methods, and strategies which do not address researchers’ situatedness within participatory processes. As an implementation scientist, addressing one’s own situatedness through critical reflection is important to unearth how conscious and unconscious approaches, including ontological and epistemological underpinnings, influence the participatory context, process, and outcomes. Therefore, the aim of this exploratory work is to investigate the heretofore blind spot toward the lived experience of implementation researchers within the participatory process.

Methods We developed an integrated research-practice partnership (IRPP) to inform the implementation of a gestational weight gain (GWG) control program. Within this IRPP, one investigator conducted a 12-month autoethnography. Data collection and triangulation included field notes, cultural artifacts, and systematic timeline tracking. Data analysis included ethnographic-theoretical dialogue and restorying to synthesize key events and epiphanies into a narrative.

Results Analysis revealed the unpredicted evolution of the GWG program into a maternal health fair and three themes within the researchers’ lived experience: (1) permeable work boundaries, (2) individual and collective blind spots toward the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of implementation paradigms, and (3) maladaptive behaviors seemingly reinforced by the research culture. These themes contributed to the chaos of implementation and to researchers’ experience of inadequate recovery from cognitive, emotional, and practical demands. These themes also demonstrated the importance of contextual factors, subjectivity, and value-based judgments within implementation research.

Conclusion Building on extant qualitative research guidelines, we suggest that researchers anchor their approach to implementation in reflexivity, intentionally and iteratively reflecting on their own situatedness. Through this autoethnography, we have elucidated several strategies based on critical reflection including examining philosophical underpinnings of research, adopting restorative practices that align with one’s values, and embracing personal presence as a foundation of scientific productivity. Within the predominant (post-) positivism paradigms, autoethnography may be criticized as unscientifically subjective or self-indulgent. However, this work demonstrates that autoethnography is a vehicle for third-person observation and first-person critical reflection that is transformative in understanding and optimizing implementation contexts, processes, and outcomes.

Implementation Science. 2020 Sep 03;15(1):70