Dr. Elise Assaf: The Language of Qualitative Research

Sydney England, Natalia Hernandez, Diana Thompson

For this assignment we had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Elise Assaf about her dissertation study called Hidden, Authoritative Power in Journalistic Representations of Mental Health Labels. She is an assistant professor in the department of Communications at Cal State Fullerton. She focuses on representations of mental health in media. She uses qualitative methods to understand linguistic elements and sources of power within texts, including content analysis and critical discourse analysis. She holds a Ph.D. in Education from Chapman University, as well as a M.A. in Communications and a B.A. from Cal State Fullerton with an emphasis in public relations. Through this interview we learned about different subjects surrounding her study and other mental health issues.

Read more: Dr. Elise Assaf: The Language of Qualitative Research

Q. Why did you choose to do qualitative versus quantitative research on this topic? 

Dr. Assaf is a qualitative researcher. She states that quantitative research does not resonate with her, and that the process of figuring out numbers and doing algorithms is just not her thing. She enjoys language and understanding how people use different words and descriptors, as well as their stories. Understanding how people communicate is interesting to her and so she generally leans qualitatively.

Q. What are the risks and benefits of digital mental health? And how do you think it should be evaluated?

Dr. Assaf mentioned that there have been discussions in terms of who should implement restrictions on social media because studies have shown the problematic nature of it. She thinks the harder discussion is whether restrictions should be left up to parents, government officials, or to the companies who own the platforms. She sees issues from both a research standpoint and from a personal standpoint. For her, there are a number of arguments against and for evaluation, but as someone who works with young adults and someone who has children she believes that it’s important to discuss personal topics in a casual way. She states that it is important to have discussions in the classroom and at home. From a research standpoint,  Dr. Assaf states that one can analyze the content to understand what is actually being said online, creating the starting point and then one can delve into how it is actually affecting other people. Creating a content analysis to begin with can lead you to future studies, such as interviewing individuals to see how it has affected them both short term and long term.

Q. What are some of the misconceptions about mental health and social media?

Dr. Assaf believes that there are misconceptions about mental health in general. There are different stereotypes for each mental health diagnosis but generally speaking that they are “crazy” or “they can’t be relied upon” is not it because there’s a huge connection between mental health and homelessness. She believes that there is a greater discussion of mental health and people are becoming more open about it. 

Q. How did you go about setting up the dissertation?

When asking Dr. Assaf this question, she explained to us the whole process of the dissertation:  “The goals of the dissertation are slightly different from what the goals of a paper or conference presentation would be. So for the dissertation, I had a committee and I had to work with them to get a topic and then they had to approve my methodology so that I could graduate. On those parameters, they influenced what I did with my research and my dissertation.”

Through this process she learned about Foucault and some other theorists and that’s how she got into hidden and authoritative power. In terms of the paper itself it was a journal publication which has specific requirements. What needs to be included in the dissertation is a few hundred pages long so that’s not what a conference paper is going to result in or be so when you submit a dissertation for a conference they tell you what to focus on and what they want, such as headers. The committee wants to see so that dictates what is included more than anything else does.

Q. How did you choose the three newspapers used in your study?

Dr. Assaf was looking at newspaper articles from three different Publications across the U.S. She had wanted to use the LA Times, but her committee member’s husband works for the LA Times, so she had to change that. She explained that was one example of how a committee member could have an influence on the research she does. Initially she was looking at the stereotypes and representations of mental health, generally speaking, but one of the committee members suggested that she needed to delve a little deeper, and gave her some information to use. She ended up using the Washington Post, USA Today, and The New York Times. Dr. Assaf mentioned that she wanted to go with the top five newspapers in the U.S. She initially wanted to use one from the West Coast, one from the East Coast, and one from the middle, but that got changed because one of her committee members. It ended up being The Washington Post, USA Today, and New York Times because they were in the top five, and the content was easily accessible. She does a lot of research with publicly accessible documents, so that she does not have to go through IRB. Access to the content was her main factor for using these.

The figure above is a chart of how many times the term “mental health” and “mental illness” were used in publications across The Washington Post, The New York Times, and USA Today. The term mental health was used a total of 116 times, and of those times it was mentioned, only 89 times was it found to be consistent with medical model terminology and beliefs. 

Q. How was the process of using NVivo?

Dr. Assaf explained that NVivo works fine when helping manage your data. She said that it can be very helpful and serve its purpose, but it is also software, so there are restrictions. After she started using the program, she found that coding by hand was an easier way of managing data. Her coding included going through PDFs and highlighting things on her computer. She concluded that NVivo is useful for certain things, so it may be helpful with our research project.

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