A Methodological Review of
Muslim American Youth: Understanding Hyphenated Identities through Multiple Methods
by Selcuk R. Sirin and Michelle Fine
In Muslim American Youth: Understanding Hyphenated Identities through Multiple Methods (2008), Selcuk R. Sirin and Michelle Fine document two years of research on what it means to come of age as a Muslim living in the shadow of moral exclusion in post-9/11 America. As indicated by the title, the authors employ a variety of research methods, drawing from both qualitative and quantitative approaches in order to study the effects of living on, at, and in the hyphenated construct of “Muslim American.” Sirin and Fine use the figurative (not literal) hyphen as a metaphor throughout the book to highlight the identity-related tensions that this group of young Americans, who also happen to be Muslims, must reconcile.
Based on their own upbringings and lived experiences in the Muslim (Sirin) and the Jewish (Fine) traditions, and informed by a thorough review of historical precedents and insightful analysis of previous empirical research on the effects of discrimination and prejudice, Sirin and Fine document their study and findings in descriptive and engaging detail. They present a compelling portrait of the many and varied complexities that underlie not only the multiple realities of Muslim American identities, but also the research methodologies required to study, analyze, and understand such diverse realities. They challenge pre-defined research categories and paradigms (e.g., their insistence on self-identifying as methodologists rather than as qualitative or quantitative researchers) as well as conventional thinking (e.g., the “clash of civilizations” frame). The perspectives that guide their “research exploration” (p. 13) are complex, flexible, adaptable to the subject under investigation, and not beholden to any particular textbook-based theoretical approach.
Therefore, while this methodological review of the Sirin and Fine study will follow the general flow of a naturalistic study as defined by Lincoln and Guba (1985), I will attempt to highlight deviations or exceptions to the Lincoln and Guba process as applicable.
Using the four theoretical paradigms described by Creswell (2007, Chapter 2 ), this study by Sirin and Fine does not fit discretely into any one paradigm, but manifests perspectives which can be attributed, to some degree, to each of the four.
While the study relies primarily on qualitative methods, certain aspects of Postpositivism are clearly exhibited by Sirin and Fine, including: their rigor and scientific approach in defining and conducting methods and processes, as well as in their documentation of results; their use of previously-validated quantitative instruments, such as assessment tools for measuring perceptions of discrimination and prejudice; their recognition of multiple perspectives; and the use of multiple levels of data analysis.
The Social Constructivism worldview is also clearly reflected in their research methods, as well as the language that Sirin and Fine use in describing their results. While not specifically using the term “multiple realities,” they repeatedly emphasize the importance of context in multiple dimensions — as a group, as individuals, as a gender, as a generation, during a specific period, etc. They struggle with whether to use the label of “Muslim American,” acknowledging that there is no such single, fixed identity as the categorical label implies. Therefore they make concerted and conscientious efforts to qualify the term when used within a specific context. For them, the underlying purpose of this study is to understand and give meaning to the phenomenon of growing up as a Muslim in post-9/11 America. To achieve this, they devote significant effort to giving voice to those living the phenomenon. In doing so, they take care to constrain their findings and qualify their generalizations, recognizing the contextual limits of such generalizations.
The Advocacy/Participatory worldview is evidenced by the authors’ decision to study this specific demographic group — a group defined and constructed by social and political events following 9/11. Sirin and Fine exhibit this perspective in their participatory engagement with the young people they recruited for the study. Given the sensitive and personal nature of the questions they asked and the topics they addressed through interviews, focus groups, surveys, and identity map drawings, Sirin and Fine forced their participants to self-reflexively think about not only their responses, but the feelings and attitudes about their life conditions that yielded those responses. These 200 or so young people could not avoid being personally affected, to varying degrees, by their participation in such a study. And I presume that readers of this book cannot avoid being personally affected after gaining such an insightful understanding of the lived experiences of these young participants and fellow American citizens.
Lastly, the worldview of Pragmatism is reflected in the authors’ insistence on avoiding categorical labels while emphasizing their roles as methodologists. Indeed, they profess the belief that there is “no methodological justification to limit ourselves to a single ‘fixed’ methodology.” (p. 24)
Informing the Study
Sirin and Fine prepared for this complex and uncertain research exploration by establishing an extensive and informed foundation of history, research results, and potential methods. Their personal backgrounds — Sirin as a child raised by a secular father and devout Muslim mother, forced to “come out” as a Muslim after 9/11 (p. 22), and Fine as the child of Jewish immigrants who has previously compiled an impressive record of critical feminist research — reflect their own histories of living “at the hyphen” (p. 23) of national and religious identities. As researchers for this specific study, they bring a unique blend of both lived experience and informed praxis that are required in order to define, implement, and analyze such a complex and multi-dimensional study. They recognize the challenges of such an inquiry in their insistence on identifying themselves as “methodologists.” (p. 23) They eschew association with “qualitative and quantitative camps” (p. 23), insisting on the flexibility of employing multiple methods in order to provide the most accurate, robust and insightful portrait of their subjects.
Sirin and Fine demonstrate an impressive familiarity with American history and the body of previous empirical research that addresses the impact of prejudice and discrimination on minority youth. They summarize the history of targeted marginalization of minorities such as African slaves beginning in the 17th century, the subjugation of Native American Indians during the westward realization of manifest destiny, the oppression of Mexican and Hispanic descendants after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Jim Crow era of segregation of blacks that continued through the Civil Rights era, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. In historical context, therefore, the current “moral exclusion” of Muslim Americans is nothing new. To inform the design and scope of their study, Sirin and Fine draw on the body of prior moral exclusion research literature, available instruments to assess perceived discrimination and prejudice, demographic census data, and the advice of an Advisory Group comprised of six student participants.
The authors acknowledge approximately thirty individuals who assisted with the study, from conducting the focus groups to providing clerical support. They acknowledge a debt to New York University and City University of New York for providing facilities and support throughout the two-year study, which was funded by New York University and the Foundation for Child Development.
Study Process and Methods
Having bounded their study to focus on the phenomenon of Muslim American youths coming of age “on the hyphen” and in the shadow of moral exclusion in post-9/11 America, Sirin and Fine quite explicitly selected their sample of participants. They required that potential participants identified themselves as Muslim, were either first or second generation in this country, had to have become an official resident of the United States prior to age 10, speak fluent English, and were between the ages of 12 and 25. The selected sample of over 200 young people provided adequate representation from which the researchers were able to collect raw data through a variety of forms, including pre-existing validated assessment surveys, questionnaires, focus groups, in-depth personal interviews and psychological projection tools such as identity maps.
They employed an array of techniques to analyze the collected data. While the scoring of the quantitative surveys was straightforward, Sirin and Fine had to implement a thoughtful and rigorous process for interpreting and understanding the voluminous data acquired through the interviews and focus groups. Not only did they record these encounters (evidenced by extensive verbatim quotes in the book), but they insured that at least two researchers were present in order to compare reactions and interpretations. As they compiled these data, they developed a scheme for categorically coding the results in order to systematically analyze, tabulate, and evaluate what the data meant and suggested. From these data, Sirin and Fine were able to provide rich portraits of individuals, accurate composites of distinct types, and statistically relevant characterizations of the overall sample. For interpreting the psychological projections inferred from the identify maps, they relied not only on Fine’s expertise as a psychologist but also consulted other professionals to confirm interpretations and judgments. From these interpretations, three categories emerged that summarized the inferred assessments of how well the young people had either: 1) integrated their Muslim identities with their American identifies; 2) maintained parallel and unconflicted identities; or 3) exhibited significant conflict between their two identities. (p. 121) These results exemplify the thorough and deliberate processes applied by Sirin and Fine in their efforts to inductively analyze the data in order to understand its significance and meaning.
From what began as a research exploration lacking an a priori thesis or prescribed process, a design for the study emerged from the inferences and understandings suggested by the data. The first example of this recounted by Sirin and Fine was their reliance on an Advisory Group of six students, who provided initial guidance and feedback on certain topics or themes to address or avoid. The study proceeded as the researchers assessed the results from their various data collection techniques, not according to a predetermined schedule.
This emergent process, over the course of the two-year study, produced the results that Sirin and Fine document in the book as descriptive findings, careful conclusions, and limited generalizations. The research results provide not only a detailed description of the targeted phenomenon, but they suggest a theoretical viewpoint about how any marginalized subset of American society is affected by being forced to “live at the hyphen” of two different identities. This theoretical perspective is thoroughly grounded in the research and extensively documented by the authors.
Although Sirin and Fine do not comply explicitly with Lincoln and Guba’s mandate that study results “must be subjected to scrutiny by respondents who earlier acted as sources,” (p. 211) they do provide evidence that their data and conclusions derived from the data were confirmed or negotiated with the participants throughout, rather than after, the study. They give voice to their participants indirectly through the guidance and feedback offered by the Advisory Group. They give direct voice to their participants by the numerous and sometimes lengthy verbatim quotations of the participants’ comments from interviews and focus groups. Their insistence on having at least two researchers present during discussions indicates to me an exemplary sensitivity to accuracy and thoroughness at the point of the researcher-participant encounter, rather than a more distant after-the-fact member checking.
The narrative form that documents this study (the book) could be considered a “case report” as loosely defined by Lincoln and Guba (p. 214). Sirin and Fine protect the anonymity of their respondents by using pseudonyms. Their detailed accounts of historical precedents, as well as extensive documentation of their methods, observations, encounters, and analyses of all forms of collected data, represent fine examples of “thick description.” However, they do not focus their study on individual cases, but the sample as a whole. The profiles of specific individuals, the transcribed excerpts from interviews and focus groups, and the selected identity maps all provide rich details about individuals as to be expected in a case report, but Sirin and Fine use these as data points to portray and characterize the sample from which to draw tentative conclusions.
This study serves as a fine example of an “idiographic interpretation,” as defined by Lincoln and Guba. (p. 216) Sirin and Fine repeatedly emphasize the importance of context in terms of time, place, and individual. They point out the “deep distinctions and variations among Muslim Americans” (p. 43) revealed through their research based on discriminating variables such as age, gender, generation, geography, religious sect, etc. They strive to understand the perspectives of their participants according to their particular contexts, and they take care to generalize only as appropriate to the data. Their struggle with the label of Muslim American reflects their sensitivity to terms, not for simple politically-correctness but as a sincere effort to accurately describe a potentially inaccurate, yet still useful, verbal construct.
This overall attitude of context-specific and holistic interpretation carries through to their summary conclusions regarding the meaning of and applications for their findings. Throughout their narrative, Sirin and Fine exhibit a self-awareness of the inherent limitations of a study like this that involves dynamic, developing human beings. They characterize their conclusions in qualified language that is commensurate with their findings without speculation. They describe findings using phrases such as provide evidence for and lean toward rather than in more dogmatic or absolutistic terms. This articulation of tentative conclusions and applications for their work is evidenced in the title of the very last section of the book, “Concluding Thoughts … For Now.” (p. 204)
Lincoln and Guba conclude their discussion of the naturalistic inquiry process by suggesting four criteria to assess the trustworthiness of a study: credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability. (p. 219) Applying these criteria, the Sirin and Fine study certainly scores high in credibility. They conducted a prolonged engagement with persistent observations over the two-year period of the research project. They employed a variety of research methods, data collection and analysis techniques, and activity sequences with their participants in order to triangulate results for more robust, valid, and supportable conclusions. They sought peer reviews by consulting advisors and other experts throughout the study period, and they solicited critical comments from peers as their prepared their manuscript. They pursued some measure of negative case analysis by noting individual exceptions whose responses or identity maps did not conform to the majority or the norm. They obtained some degree of member checking throughout the process (as explained above under “Study Results”), although they did not apparently provide an opportunity for respondents to review the manuscript that documented their final results.
With respect to transferability, in Muslim American Youth Sirin and Fine have provided a full accounting, or “thick description,” (Lincoln and Guba, p. 219) of not only their research methods and processes, but their own histories, perspectives, tentative conclusions, and suggestions for future research. They have provided a well-documented template which other researchers could use to conduct similar studies for similar purposes, using different participants of perhaps different ages, in different geographic areas, from different socioeconomic backgrounds, etc. Therefore I would maintain that this study exceeds the threshold defined by Lincoln and Guba for transferability.
Finally, Lincoln and Guba suggest that auditing can establish a measure for determining dependability and confirmability. (p. 219) Although Sirin and Fine do not indicate that any audit was performed on their data, I presume from the material they present in the appendices that they maintain all raw data and such an audit could be performed.
As the first book-length qualitative research study I’ve read, I was encouraged to find that a thorough and rigorous empirical study could be documented in such a readable and engaging format. While I have several criticisms regarding some of the narrative choices made by Sirin and Fine in their organization of the book, I can offer only one comment concerning the study itself. In applying the methodological framework described by Lincoln and Guba, the one recognized omission is that Sirin and Fine did not specifically state they negotiated outcomes with their respondents during the preparation of the manuscript. Without knowing this for sure, I can only speculate two cases — they did not solicit comments, or they did but chose not to mention it in the book. My criticism, then, is that it would have been informative and beneficial for the reader if the authors had explained the reason for the omission.
Several aspects of the book’s organization caused me some difficulties as a reader. First, the non-linear organizational structure chosen by the authors made it impossible to discern the sequence of the study. Second, I was confused by the inclusion of so many different participant names. The authors highlighted six students in different chapters, but throughout the book also referred to or quoted a dozen or so others. I would have found it easier to relate to the students on a more personal and intimate basis if the authors had included more about the six highlighted students throughout the book, rather than in isolated profiles. Third, although I very much appreciated the inclusion of the colorful identity maps, I found it cumbersome and interruptive to have to leaf to the back of the book to view the maps referenced in the text. (I realize this choice likely resulted from a publication necessity to colocate the glossy pages in order to reproduce the color artwork.)
Lastly, even though they did explain that references to “the hyphen” were to be taken figuratively (or metaphorically), I feel there is a legitimate case to be made that a literal hyphen (“Muslim-American”) may have provided a more effective construction in presenting their results. Had they chosen to use the actual hyphen, it would have been easier to visualize, and therefore easier to manipulate. For example, in discussing the categories that emerged from their analysis of the identity maps, Sirin and Fine could have demonstrated the joining effects on the hyphen in the case of those students who evidenced integrated identities (in which case the hyphen is appropriate), compared to those who felt parallel or non-integrated identities (no hyphen or perhaps “Muslim|American”), compared to those with conflictual identities (perhaps “Muslim/American”). This could have led to a more generalized discussion that challenges not only the appropriateness of the hyphen, but the appropriateness of all multiple-identity monikers (e.g., African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, etc.). However, given the bounds of the research study as they defined it, their decision to use the figurative hyphen is understandable.
Creswell, J.W. (2007). Qualitative Inquiry & Research Design: Choosing among five approaches (Second Edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Guba, E.G. and Lincoln, Y.S. (1994). Competing paradigms in qualitative research. In N.K. Denszin and Y.S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 105-117). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Lincoln, Y. and Guba, E. (1985). Naturalistic Inquiry. London: Sage Publications, Inc.
Sirin, S.R. and Fine, Michelle. (2008). Muslim American Youth: Understanding Hyphenated Identities through Multiple Methods. New York and London. New York University Press.