Jiang (2021). Sustaining Meaningful Work in a Crisis: Adopting and Conveying a Situational Purpose

Winnie Jiang – INSEAD

Elizabeth Hood – Boston College, Carroll School of Management
Luke Hedden – Boston College, Carroll School of Management

Article link: https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0001839221994049

Hello ASQ Blog readers! We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Winnie Jiang regarding her paper entitled “Sustaining Meaningful Work in a Crisis: Adopting and Conveying a Situational Purpose.” We enjoyed learning from Winnie about her research process, how she gained and maintained access to a fascinating research context, how she crafted a theoretical contribution, and much more! We hope you enjoy this glimpse into her fascinating research on meaningful work.

-Liz and Luke

Liz Hood: Since this is such an interesting context, could you please tell us more about how you selected this specific context and the process of gaining access to such a unique context? Starting with the broader context of the refugee resettlement and then the specific organization.

Winnie Jiang: It started with my personal interest in learning more about how the whole process of refugee resettlement works. We read and watched the news during that time about the Syria war, and we saw these refugees jumping onto a boat and traveling to other countries. Seeing these images from newspapers, magazines, and TV made me curious about the whole process. I was really interested in learning more about how refugees navigate the entire process. I was especially interested in the people who are supporting them, how are they doing their work, and what’s their experience doing their work. So it started with that personal interest and then I learned that there is a local organization in the town I was living in that was actually working on resettling refugees. So I started volunteering with them. And through the volunteering experience, I learned a little bit more. And then I realized their experience speaks to my research interest on meaningful work—both the refugee resettlement employees and the refugees themselves. When the refugees have to move to a completely different country, they don’t know the language, they don’t have any network to go to for support, and most of them have to completely change their occupation. How do they regain the sense of meaning in their new work and life? This is something that I’m very interested in as a research focus. On the refugee resettlement employees’ side, how do they continue to sustain a sense of meaningfulness while seeing the frustrations of the refugees and dealing with the frustrations they personally experience as they help the refugees? This is something that I really wanted to answer through my research. So it became a context that is suitable for me to answer both questions in my head. Then I just started to dig deeper.

And regarding how I gained access to this context, I started volunteering in the organization and studying it. Initially, when I emailed the directors of the organizations, they weren’t that enthusiastic about me entering the organization to study because they were very busy with their work. They worried that by allowing me to go in to study, it would just increase some unnecessary workload for the staff. And so eventually, I decided to not communicate with them about this over emails, I walked in to the director’s office and I just talked to him in person and told him that, as a student, I really want to learn more about it. So I shared with him the two questions I had in mind. And I told him that my purpose is to magnify the voice of both groups—both the refugees and employees working there—to allow more people to learn about the experiences. Eventually, I convinced him so he allowed me to study there as a researcher.

What I would suggest is if email doesn’t work, try to just show up in person. That’s an extra signal to the people who you want to study that you are actually very eager and committed so they will eventually open the door to you.

Luke Hedden: What was that process like of getting to a refined research question that was informed by both your theoretical interests and the great insights emerging from your context?

Winnie Jiang: It definitely didn’t come in the first month, or even year, when I was studying this context. So it’s very much—as we say a lot in writing about and talking about qualitative research—very iterative. You go to your site, collect data, talk to people, collect your field notes, and then go back home, read your field notes, and your transcriptions of the interviews you have done again and again. And then you go back to the literature, especially those literatures you’re interested in and want to speak to and the literature your data has some connection with. Going back and forth, and back and forth is what prompted me to realize that this is an interesting angle to tackle questions in the literature I want to speak to, which is the meaningful work literature. I realized that this context that I’m looking at, is kind of a tumultuous, dynamic context but most of the contexts that have been studied in the meaningful work literature, the meaning of work studies, are quite stable. For example, when studying the animal shelter workers and zookeepers, researchers focus on the experience of these employees as they adapt themselves to the work reality, and that work reality doesn’t seem to be changing throughout the periods of the research (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009; Schabram & Maitlis, 2017). But in my setting, the refugee resettlement employees started in this work doing a set of different tasks compared to when they had to navigate and handle the surge of the refugees coming in. They had to change the way they perceived and did their work. So, the meaningful work context they are navigating has changed. To me, that became a light bulb in my head. We may be able to learn something different about how people experience meaningful work in such a changing context. That’s how I thought of the questions, but it’s a very long process. It’s not something that just happened overnight, it definitely took a while.

Liz Hood: Thinking about the different groups in your context, how did you navigate between the clients and the workers at RISE? How did you make both groups feel comfortable with your research?

Winnie Jiang: Navigating between the clients and the workers, practically, was not that difficult because when I was in that organization I saw both the employees and the refugees in the same location every day. You can talk to or have a chat with the refugees while they are waiting for their appointments. When it’s your time to interview the refugee resettlement worker, you then turn to them. Just physically being in the organization, and when both the clients and the employees are there at the same time, helps a lot. In terms of making them feel comfortable, I think it really, really helps for me to emphasize to both parties at the very beginning, that I’m a student, and I’m from the university. I’m really, really interested in learning more about their experiences. For the employees, I think just saying, “I’m a student” helps because they are already very eager to help anyone, including students. Also, they are really proud to share with you what they do in their work. And for the refugees, what I found quite interesting is, in addition to sharing with them that I’m a student from the university, telling them about my personal background, as someone from China who came to the US to study was really helpful. They saw a connection between themselves and me as a foreigner in a country, navigating a new system and trying to make friends and learn about the new culture. That became a really great way for me to build connections with refugees and gain trust from them, which I did not expect. But in hindsight, I think it makes total sense, right?

So if I were to do it again, I would probably emphasize even more about how I—not completely, of course, I wasn’t a refugee myself—but I understand a lot of the struggles that they might be going through. Not just through my personal experience, but also experience of many immigrants that I know. So, putting yourself as a student really helps. If you do have any experience that could help you create better connections with the people you’re studying, definitely emphasize that as you start the research with them.

Luke Hedden: When and how did you decide to stop collecting data? Was that a hard cut off? Did you stay in touch with anyone from your research context?

Winnie Jiang: I stopped the data collection in the summer of 2017, when I felt that the context didn’t seem like it was going to change again. During that time, after the travel ban was announced, the refugee resettlement agency was going back to resettling a small number of refugees so it’s kind of going back to their pre-surge period. After a couple months observing the same dynamic I decided maybe this was the time to stop because there wasn’t much change in how they adapt their work to a new situation. Actually, that post-surge phase probably continued all the way until recently—now they are facing a sort of a surge again because of the Afghani refugees coming. Now there are a lot of Afghani refugees that the US is trying to resettle and the refugee resettlement agencies are becoming busier again to respond to this. But, I don’t have the luxury to wait for so many years and then study another surge, such as when this new surge happened with the Afghani refugees arriving. Basically after a couple months, I realized the pattern I’m observing here resembled the ones that I was collecting pre-surge. So, that was when I decided to stop and just focus on analyzing the data I had collected. So realistically, I think it was also good timing because that was almost the beginning of my fourth year in the PhD program. And it was right about the time that I needed to start writing the dissertation papers, so it just worked out.

Liz Hood: Do you have anything else you want to share for the ASQ blog?

Winnie Jiang: So, it was a difficult time when I was trying to figure out what’s the theoretical gem from the data I collected. I think the questions you asked earlier about when I started to realize there is an important theoretical contribution I can make with the data I’ve collected, I think this is something very challenging for people who are collecting qualitative data, doing qualitative research, and in the early stage of their career. I think what helped me was there was just part of me that feels that there will be something and I just need to keep digging and find it. Because I keep wanting to go back to the context and that just suggests to me that there is something that I personally find appealing and I want to understand and that means other people may also find appealing and want to understand. You just need to keep going back and trust your instinct a little bit when you are collecting qualitative data. Something that you feel in this context or data really touches you, then that means there will be a contribution. You just need to persist. Doing this by yourself is hard, so I try to share the data with senior students or people who have more experience like my advisors. Present the data in a brown bag and use the collective wisdom of the scholars around you to help you dig out the gem. So I will say two things. First, trust your instinct. If you love the context and it is appealing to you, keep going and persist. There will be something that you can find out to make it into a brilliant paper. Second, just don’t do it all by yourself. Share the data by presenting it to other people. People love to brainstorm ideas, especially when it comes to making a good story out of the great data you have collected. So, use the collective wisdom. I think these were two things that really were very helpful to me in this process.

Interviewer Bios:

Elizabeth A. Hood (elizabeth.hood.2@bc.edu) is a PhD candidate in Organization Studies at Boston College. Her research centers around how individuals, groups, and stakeholders make sense of technologies and the impacts these perceptions have on individuals, organizations, and industries. She is especially interested in controversial technologies and her current projects include qualitative studies of police body cameras, vaping products, and funeral innovations.

Luke N. Hedden (luke.hedden@bc.edu) is a doctoral student in organization studies at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. His work examines the tensions individuals face when enacting their individual or collective values at work, as well as the social processes by which they manage or overcome these tensions. He draws upon a wide variety of theoretical perspectives in his research, including research on occupations, trust, moralization, emotions, and meaningful work. He studies these tensions and processes using ethnographic and other qualitative research methodologies. 

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