Nisha, please tell us about yourself and how you became involved with qualitative research?
I identify as a liberation psychologist and an arts-based phenomenological researcher— disseminating research findings about people’s lived experiences of oppression and empowerment through the media arts for the purposes of social advocacy and collective healing. My arts-based phenomenological research projects include: “ILLUMINATE” a phenomenological short film about the lived experience of being in the LGBTQ closet, for which I received the 2020 APA Division 5 Distinguished Dissertation Award in Qualitative Methods; and “DESIEROS,” a series of surrealist folk art paintings about the lived experience of reclaiming erotic power among women from the South Asian Diaspora, which was featured on the NPR-affiliated podcast and radio program “The Academic Minute.” At the University of West Georgia where I work as an assistant professor of psychology, I founded the Phenomenological Art Collective as a research and creative arts lab through which I teach students to disseminate phenomenological research to the public through the expressive arts.
Interestingly, my journey into qualitative inquiry began in the advertising industry in 2006; I worked in strategic planning divisions of New York advertising agencies conducting ethnographic research and focus groups for brands such as Trix, Lucky Charms, and JCPenney. I adored the research process—connecting deeply with human beings while interviewing them about their lives, and then translating psychological insights into artistic ideas for multimedia campaigns while collaborating closely with ingenious creative minds. However, after four years of working in advertising I realized that I was not a successful capitalist, so I quit and attended graduate school for psychology. But the creative and persuasive powers of qualitative inquiry remained with me, and have infused every aspect of my work now as a liberation psychologist, artist, and phenomenologist.
Can you tell us how phenomenology became your methodology of interest?
I discovered phenomenological research in 2010 through Max Van Manen’s classic introduction Researching Lived Experience (1990) and immediately fell in love. As a budding liberation psychologist, I knew that I wanted to use qualitative inquiry as a method of social advocacy, and Van Manen’s work served as the perfect guidebook for how to pursue this mission. Phenomenological research collects intimate stories of people’s lived experience as data; through personal accounts of experience, the essential meanings of a particular human phenomenon can be unearthed. Phenomenology strikes a delicate balance between honoring the subjective intricacies of people’s diverse stories, while simultaneously illuminating the shared insights that weave these stories together through a thread of common humanity. I found this methodology to be an ideal tool to foster solidarity, empathy, and dialogue across cultural difference, which is one of my primary social justice agendas as a liberation psychologist. I strive to accomplish this by “popularizing” phenomenological research and disseminating it to the mainstream public through films, poetry, and paintings—a vision which is strongly influenced by qualitative researchers Kip Jones and Patricia Leavy who embrace arts-based inquiry as a vehicle for social change.
You are the acting communications chair for SQIP—can you tell us more about that role, and why it is significant for the division?
I am honored to serve SQIP, a community of people to whom I am indebted for creating the methods that bring me so much joy. As communications chair, I am resuscitating my advertising skills to promote the innovative work that qualitative researchers in psychology are doing across multiple social media networks. Digital promotion is an important task through which SQIP and Div. 5 can continue positioning qualitative inquiry as a powerful vehicle for knowledge and transformation in the 21st century. For instance, our SQIP Facebook group currently boasts a powerful community of thousands of qualitative researchers across the globe. Our SQIP Virtual Salons bring together hundreds of people on a monthly basis to share in and be inspired by each other’s qualitative inquiry projects. And our SQIP Distinguished Researcher Interview Series conveys the wisdom and mentorship of pioneers in our field, such as Sunil Bhatia, Heidi Levitt, Amedeo Giorgi, Ruthellen Josselson, and Michelle Fine.
I am also the co-editor of the SQIP Newsletter along with doctoral student Logan Barsigian. In addition to serving as a curated platform for news, events, and books, we have added a unique “Emerging and Established Researcher Spotlights” section to the newsletter, for which we interview a graduate student and distinguished researcher about their work around a shared theme such as decolonial research or indigenous inquiry, in attempt to build intergenerational bridges of mentorship while also highlighting the innovative research performed by both graduate students and distinguished scholars these days. We are always looking for new research projects, books, and news to spotlight, so please email me if you want to promote your work to the SQIP community.
Looking ahead, what inspires you about the future of qualitative inquiry?
I am encouraged by how qualitative inquiry is becoming increasingly embraced as a viable, effective, and essential approach to human science research in the field of psychology and in public health generally, thanks to the persistent advocacy of many Div. 5 and SQIP members. Looking ahead, what inspires me most is possibilities for experimentation and play with our methodological tools in order to benefit society as psychologists. I recently supervised a graduate student’s project in which she designed a phenomenological virtual reality simulation that evokes the lived experience of Alzheimer’s and dementia to help caregivers and healthcare providers better empathize with this experience. Liberation psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró stated, and I paraphrase here, that the point of psychological research is not to explain the world but to change it. This student’s work is a beautiful example of how psychologists can experiment with novel approaches to qualitative inquiry for the purposes of social transformation; every day I am inspired by the creativity of my students.
Gupta, N. (2020). Teaching phenomenological research as a method of therapeutic art-making: A Covid-19 case study. Qualitative Methods in Psychology Bulletin: Special issue on creative and multimodal approaches to Qualitative Research, Issue 30 Autumn 2020
Gupta, N. (2020). Illuminating the trauma of the LGBTQ closet: A cinematic-phenomenological study and film about existential rights. Qualitative Research in Psychology.
Gupta, N. (2019). The phenomenological film collective: Introducing a cinematic-phenomenological research method for social advocacy filmmaking. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 13(4)
Gupta, N. (2018). Harnessing phenomenological research to facilitate conscientização about oppressive lived experience. The Journal of Humanistic Psychology; Special issue: Radical Humanism, Critical Consciousness, and Social Change. Onlinefirst.
Leavy, P. (2020). Method meets art (3rd ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.
Jones, K. (2012). Connecting research with communities through performative social science. The Qualitative Report, 17(18).
Martín-Baró, I. (1994). Writings for a liberation psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Van Manen, M. (1990). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. New York: State University of NY Press.