PETRIGLIERI & OBODARU. (2018). Secure-base relationships as drivers of professional identity development in dual-career couples.

Jennifer Petriglieri – INSEAD
Otilia Obodaru – University of Bath

Sonya Pyo – Stern School of Business, New York University
Rachel Leonor Ramirez – Northwestern University

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Question 1. Your study brings a unique contribution to studying dual-career couples by examining work identity formation for each of the members of the couple, as opposed to focusing on career outcomes or looking at work-life balance. How did you become interested in the identity aspect of understanding dual career couples versus other ways to slice this issue?

We’re both identity scholars, so we have a natural interest in identity issues. That aside, when we began the project we were open to looking at other aspects. When we stated to interview couples and analyse the data, however, it quickly became clear that partners played a key role in shaping each other’s professional self-conceptualizations. We found this fascinating because historically partners have been framed as emotional supporters at best, and active hinderers, of each other’s careers at worst. We felt the identity aspect was important because it shows how our partners are long-term co-crafters of our selves.

Question 2. How did a priori assumptions play out in your research? How did you check them at the door? Were there assumptions that you didn’t know you had coming in but were revealed later? Which were dispelled, and which were helpful in guiding the interview process? Do you have any advice on how to examine our own assumptions prior to data collection?

In our experience it’s impossible to check your assumptions at the door. If, on the other hand, you are attentive to them you can use them to aid your data analysis. For example, one of the assumptions that we realised we had was that couples who invested roughly equally in their careers would fare the best over the long term. Like most assumptions, this was built from our own experience—we’re both in 50:50 marriages, and we’re doing very well in them. Initially when we came across couples who invested unequally in their careers and who also fared well it felt personally threatening. By paying attention to our own emotions in the data analysis process, we were able to spot our assumption and be vigilant that it didn’t bias our analysis.

In our experience, the best way to examine our own assumptions is by using our emotions as data during data analysis. If we feel unusually uncomfortable, anxious, or threatened, and also unusually excited about, connected to or admiring of one of our informants or cases it raises a red flag. We pause and talk through why it is that we’re having an emotional reaction to that case or informant. Through these discussions we can uncover our assumptions and make sure they don’t hold us hostage.

Question 3. Conducting “member checks” by going back to interview participants to confirm results is an interesting methodological layer that seems to be left out of a lot of qualitative studies. Please talk about your decision to conduct member checks, and how you were able to advance your findings from this research through returning to participants for their feedback.

Member checks are a very important step in grounded theory field research to help improve the accuracy and validity of a study. We’ve found that they give us confidence that our theorising is on track and genuinely representative of our informants. They are also incredibly helpful for writing our papers. There is nothing like have to explain your theorizing to non-academics to make you clarify your arguments. 

Were there some instances where the interviewee disagreed with your interpretation and theorizing? Were any of these instances of misinterpretation on your part? On the other hand, did you feel that in any of these instances, the disagreement was because of a gap between lay theories/personal theories and academic theories? Were you able to resolve all disagreements, or were there some that remain unresolved as exceptions or outliers?

Of course! It would be strange if there weren’t. The main points of challenge were that our theory was not all-encompassing enough. We had taken a thin slice of the data. While the informants resonated with the theory we build they wanted more breadth – unfortunately our editor and reviewers disagreed. 🙂

Question 4. What were some of the outliers/counterfactuals/non-central variables that didn’t make it into the findings, and how did you decide to trim/exclude them? (i.e. were children a factor in whether one perceived the other as a secure base? Were there cases other than secure and insecure bases, such as being actively constraining or destructive, or completely isolated as to be neutral bases and non-conflictual? Or cases that didn’t quite fit into either the unidirectional or bidirectional secure-base model?)

There was a lot more in the paper when we first submitted it, but Mike Pratt, our editor, encouraged us to narrow and deepen the paper. Although we did collect data about people’s parental identities and the role their children had in their careers and relationships, it really wasn’t that interesting or relevant to our theorizing. There was so much in fact that Jennifer turned it (along with additional research) into a book – Couples That Work – which will be published in October 2019. Theoretically, it’s conceivable to have a relationship that is absent a secure base, however we didn’t find it in our data. We also think it unlikely in the case of romantic partners because the desire to support and be supported is a central component of being a couple. 

Question 5. Relationship attachment is a domain of relationship psychology that has achieved a “pop psychology” status. As grad students we often think about how to best couch our work to make it interesting and relevant. Could you please talk about what it has been like to share this work with your peers in organizational studies, given that it uses a theory that many might be familiar with, but not expert in? How has the popularity of attachment theory outside of organizational studies impacted how this study is received and discussed? 

It’s true that pop psychologists present attachment theory in a very different way from the original theory—over simplified and often incorrect. That said, we found that academics had often read the original attachment theory work or were aware of it, so we didn’t run into many misconceptions. In the social psychology journals there are 100s of papers published that use attachment theory, and organizational scholars had called for links to be made between it and OT, so it was quite easy for us to make a bridge.

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