Applying Qualitative Methods to Intervention Research: a Case Study of Mediation as Elder Advocacy Tool in the Context of Family Conflict
Alexandra L. Crampton, MSW, MA, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
BACKGROUND AND PURPOSE: Family conflict resolution is one of the five most frequent interventions by social workers (Weitzman and Weitzman, 2003). Unresolved conflict can undermine the ability of family and caregiver systems to function well in their role of supporting older family members (Parsons and Cox, 1989, 1997, 1998). Conflict has two dimensions; an emotional or affective dimension, which is the subjective experience of being in conflict, and an objective dimension, in which different positions are asserted about desired outcomes (Kruk, 1997). Mediation is a process in which a third party neutral facilitates discussion among disputing parties in order to help reach amicable agreement. Mediation is theorized to empower participants by helping them to identify and advocate for their interests, evaluate options, and accept responsibility for outcomes (Munro, 1997, Parsons and Cox, 1998). Although program statistics usually indicate positive outcomes, standards for success have yet to be established for mediation as a whole and for elder mediation programs in particular (Schellenberg, 1996, Taylor, 2002, Yarn, 2002). Success is difficult to measure in part due to the subjective elements of conflict and therefore conflict resolution. The purpose of this study was to examine mediation as elder advocacy intervention. The first research question was how professionals, volunteer mediators, and clients interpret mediation outcomes given the subjective and objective elements of family conflict. The second was how well empowerment as theorized in social work helps to evaluate mediation outcomes in practice. METHOD: This study was conducted within a larger national demonstration project in which an elder advocacy organization piloted elder mediation services in collaboration with the aging network, community mediation centers, and probate courts. The study sites focused on project partners in one county in one state. The aging network and probate court provided mediation referrals. Ethnographic methods were applied to achieve interpretive validity, which means that an “etic” analysis as researcher is based on accurate understanding of “emic” or insider perspectives. Data collection methods included; document analysis of case management paperwork and progress reports; over two hundred hours of participant observation in the elder advocacy organization, court, community mediation center, and outreach meetings in which detailed field notes were taken on how cases developed and closed; fifteen semi-structured interviews with legal, mediation and social work professionals and volunteer mediators; six informal interviews with mediation clients; and nine mediation observations. RESULTS: Objective measures of case settlement and client satisfaction as measured in the pilot project were compared with subjective experiences of conflict as analyzed from interview transcripts and participant observation field notes. Results show how perceptions of problems change over time as conflicts develop into mediation and probate court cases. Interpretations of mediation success and client empowerment, therefore, also vary over time as well as professional socialization and client self interest. IMPLICATIONS: Results support modified use of mediation in social work empowerment practice with older adults and caregivers. Tools for addressing power imbalances within families are important in preventing elder marginalization. Successful application helps families focus on common interests in eldercare and autonomy.