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When research speaks to you: A reflection

First article: 20 Health Psychology blog posts of 2020

After almost a year of undergraduate study dominated by behaviourism, neuroscience, cognitive and biological approaches, and a multitude of quantitative methodologies and analytic techniques I would be introduced to a paper that would change everything. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed learning about the aforementioned fields (yes, even statistics!), but none of them ‘spoke to me’. During an introductory lecture into qualitative methods, Dr Rachel Shaw demonstrated the power of what good qualitative research can achieve.

The paper, by Flowers, Smith, Sheeran, and Beail (1997) used Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) to better understand the occurrence of unprotected anal sex amongst gay men in relationships. For those unfamiliar, IPA is a qualitative methodology that is concerned with how individuals make sense of their lived experience of a phenomenon (Smith, 2011). In other words, IPA provides a deep dive into the richness, nuance, and messiness of lived experience. By conducting in-depth interviews with a purposive sample of men who have sex with men, Flowers and colleagues generated vivid and deeply intimate data. And, despite now having reread this article multiple times I remain struck by the sophistication and sensitivity of the analysis.

My relationship with this paper is complex, and the depth of what it has meant to me is difficult to articulate. The first thing to note, as I have alluded, is the immediate connection I had with the methodology – it ‘spoke to me’. Through more in depth reading during my undergraduate and masters degrees, and now into my PhD, I can transform the distinctly ‘unscientific’ assertion that it ‘spoke to me’ into far more academic phrasing, that IPA holds epistemological, ontological, and methodological positions that mirror my own fundamental beliefs. It also demonstrated the epistemological potential when one distances oneself from a priori assumptions, and that this may yield new insights to enhance and refine psychological theory. For me, from that day to this, positivism had had its day!

Secondly, this paper catapulted my interest in sex and sexuality, and acted as a springboard for my undergraduate dissertation. It challenged my understanding of sexual activity and intimacy among gay men; how this might be defined and negotiated; and what this means both for the individuals concerned, and for health promotion. I was particularly struck by the motivation to demonstrate and enjoy, ‘trust’, ‘commitment’, and ‘love by engaging in unprotected sex within a relationship, even when there is risk of HIV infection. A privileging of ‘romantic rationality’ over ‘health rationality’ that I had hitherto been unfamiliar. I went on to use IPA to explore students’ unprotected casual sex encounters for my undergraduate dissertation, which I later published in the QMiP Bulletin.

In conclusion, while my current research has moved away from sex and sexuality (for now!), I am indebted to Flowers and colleagues for introducing me to both qualitative research, and health psychology. It is here that I have expanded my understanding of the world, felt the true generosity of my participants, and connected with like-minded academics. I’m home.

Caity Roleston is a PhD Researcher in Sociology and Health Psychology, based at Aston University (Birmingham). Contact Caity by e-mail: OR Twitter: @CRoleston


Flowers, P., Smith, J. A., Sheeran, P., & Beail, N. (1997). Health and Romance: Understanding unprotected sex in relationships between gay men. British Journal of Health Psychology, 2(1), 73-86.

Roleston, C., & Shaw, R. L. (2017). Exploring students’ unprotected casual sex encounters using interpretative phenomenological analysis. QMiP Bulletin, 24.

Smith, J. A. (2011). Evaluating the contribution of interpretative phenomenological analysis. Health Psychology Review, 5(1), 9-27.

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