Alice Fothergill – Sociology

Dr. Alice Fothergill – Professor, Department of Sociology, College of Arts & Sciences

Dr. Fothergill is a sociologist who specializes in disasters, vulnerability, family, children and qualitative research. Much of her research focuses on children and their experience of and vulnerabilities to disasters – notably the project Children of Katrina, which she co-conducted with Dr. Lori Peek from 2005-2015 (see below for more details). Her current research looks at disaster preparedness in childcare centers in New Zealand. Dr. Fothergill uses a wide variety of qualitative research methods, adapting them to the needs of each project. For her project in New Zealand, she used a mix of participant observation, document analysis, and interviews. For the Children of Katrina project, some of the most notable research methods she used were focus groups, participant observations, one-on-one interviews, and spending time playing or doing activities with the participants. Dr. Fothergill is also very attentive to the ethical considerations of her research and works to incorporate and maintain a lot of things in her ethical toolkit.

Dr. Fothergill, like many researchers, draws from the work of a lot of other researchers, but has identified some shortcomings in the culture of methods discussions. As she puts it:

“Part of the problem with methods is that you don’t get to read about things that don’t work very often. There’s a book I use in one of my classes called Unequal Childhoods, and [Annette Lareau] writes a lot about her methods and exactly what she did. She was one of the only qualitative researchers [Dr. Peek and I] felt like, not only said what worked, but told you what didn’t work. I wish people would write more about – what works and what doesn’t work and admitting when something is really not good, and it doesn’t work at all!”

Children of Katrina

From 2005 to 2015 Dr. Fothergill and colleague Dr. Lori Peek from the University of Colorado co-conducted the study Children of Katrina which sought to understand the experiences of youth survivors in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. For their study, Fothergill and Peek adapted a number of traditional qualitative research methods (such as focus groups and one-on-one interviews) to make them more accessible and suitable to their participants whose ages ranged from 3 to 18 years old. This often involved incorporating art, play and other tangible and visual materials to make them easier to understand and more engaging to their young participants. One of Dr. Fothergill’s favorite techniques used in this project was one she and Dr. Peek developed to incorporate into the one-on-one interviews they conducted with participants. They created a set of laminated cards that depicted the different spheres of life they were talking about in the interviews. The cards had both the names and symbols or pictures of the spheres – such as neighborhood, family, school, health etc. – so that all of the participants could understand what they meant. During the interviews, the kids would be given the cards and were in charge of the whole conversation. This gave them the power to determine the order of topics, decide how long they wanted to talk about each, or skip a card.  By doing this, Fothergill and Peek were able to put their young participants in control, which helped balance the power dynamics between adult researcher and young participant. Fothergill also noticed that the interviewees enjoyed having something physical to touch and play with during the interview, and that each kid would hold, sort, or play with them in a different way.

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For more information on Dr. Fothergill’s research, click here.