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Nov. 13, 2018

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Social Understandings of Sleep

My recent article “Using solicited written qualitative diaries to develop conceptual understandings of sleep”, published in the International Journal of Qualitative Methods, was the result of several years of qualitative data collection concerning the socio-cultural activities and meanings of sleep. My research is driven by my interest in everyday social life that I believe is the central milieu for where we can scientifically and conceptually understand how human beings act and where they develop, strengthen, defend and change their understandings of the world. I prioritize the use of qualitative methods in my research that also includes my critical assessment of these methods.

Quantitative generalizations and medical power dominate sleep research. This has led to numerous achievements in sleep science, but I argue that these assumptions have permeated the knowledge so much that most of us would first regard sleep as a biological need with medical explanations and remedies while neglecting the importance that historical, political, economic, social and cultural influences that also have for informing sleep situations.

The purpose of my paper was to demonstrate how the use of the solicited written qualitative diary, as a prioritized methodological tool, can advance our social understandings of sleep. To do this, I collected 48 solicited diaries from fourth year undergraduate students (182 nights of diary entries in total). Postsecondary students experience ongoing growth and transformation as they mature and navigate through their life-changing academic careers. The balancing act between enjoying everyday independence and fulfilling numerous obligations means that sleep can lose its importance for students.

I was extremely pleased with the detailed narratives that students shared. They described sleep as interacting with the constant fulfilment of academic obligations; nonhuman elements such as technologies, environmental variations, and animals; spatial security and sleep mobility; social relationships; social isolation; and security and vulnerability. The performance of the solicited qualitative sleep diary paralleled the observations made by other researchers who see that diaries, carefully designed, can generate credible data on their own, thus making it a legitimate primary method for social research.

Diaries in the social sciences are often seen as supplemental to other methods such as observations and interviews. My paper concludes that the credibility of the solicited qualitative diary as a prioritized method in general is bolstered by the researchers’ consideration for four design conditions. These conditions are:

  • Allowing diarists time access and flexibility in completing their entries.
  • The researcher’s encouragement of creative expression
  • The provision of incentives and support mechanisms.
  • Recognizing instrumental and researcher influence on diary data.

I encourage sleep medicine to consider the solicited written qualitative sleep diary as a prioritized data collection method for achieving deeper understandings of sleep. I also encourage the use of this method for the study of other groups and situations for where sleep is socially consequential such as couples relationships, student life, shift work, cultural and sexual identities, children, adolescents, or older adults.

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