48 Getting Patricias to Talk About Social Fitness: Artefact Elicitation as an Interview Technique [full paper]
Chelsea A. Braybrook
This conference paper presents a perspective on artefact elicitation as an interview technique to help research participants communicate about topics that make them uncomfortable. Emic research conducted with serving and retired members of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) on the impacts of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on their social fitness provides the examples for this paper. Infanteers’ role is to close with and destroy the enemy and being tough is an implicit part of the job description. Aspects of army, and more specifically Infantry, culture make sharing and talking about fears, struggles, and shortcomings very difficult for many members of this group and this hesitancy to share can be a barrier for researchers looking to understand sensitive social issues in this population. On the other hand, storytelling and artefact collecting are also parts of army culture and if artefact elicitation can help soldiers and researchers to make the connections between their experiences and the research question, then researchers will benefit from a truthful, and often unfiltered, account of the relevant events.
Keywords: artefact elicitation, social fitness, information and communication technology
The Canadian Army (CA) defines social fitness as “the ability to maintain a sense of identity and belonging, develop and maintain trusted, valued relationships and friendships that are personally fulfilling” (CA, 2015, p. 3). As serving member with 21 years in the army, I needed to read this definition several times when the army published the new integrated performance strategy in 2015. The strategy aims to improve readiness and resilience by focussing on six areas of performance fitness; social fitness is one of the six areas (CA, 2015; DND, 2015). The definition of social fitness is loaded with meaningful parts of my life: sense of identity, sense of belonging, trusted friendships, personal fulfillment. I would have a really tough time talking about these subjects with a researcher or any person that I did not know well.
Around the time the CA published the performance strategy, I was commanding a rifle company in the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry (PPCLI). Our team was getting ready to deploy to Latvia on Operation Reassurance and we had recently returned from a domestic deployment in northern Saskatchewan. During those extended periods of time away from home, I started to notice how much of an impact information and communication technologies (ICTs) were having on my team and myself. At the time I had no idea that my observations would lead me to Royal Roads University (RRU) and the Doctor of Social Science (DSocSci) program. A few years later, and with a lot of help, I made it through my candidacy exams and ethics reviews and started my research on the impacts of ICTs on social fitness in the PPCLI.
Research Findings and Conference Offerings
Anyone with a computer and/or cell phone has likely experienced ICT-enabled opportunities and challenges to aspects of their social fitness, borrowing the CA’s definition. Using a two-case study on serving and retired member of PPCLI, my research examined the impacts of ICTs on social fitness in PPCLI (CA, 2015; DND, 2015; Yin, 2018). My project found that soldiers used ICTs positively for peer support, relationship maintenance and to communicate and connect socially. Negatively, ICTs intensified workloads by creating boundaryless work conditions, set the conditions for chains of command to make changes on a whim and reduced opportunities for unmonitored expression online due to the potential for negative professional consequences resulting from these activities.
A separate journal article, to be submitted for consideration with Armed Forces & Society, describes the findings of my project in detail. In this conference paper, I would like to share some insights into using artefact elicitation as an interview technique to help research participants talk about topics that make them uncomfortable (Barton, 2015). Patricias, the informal name for members of PPCLI, can be uncomfortable and hesitant to talk about challenges to their social fitness because, as infantry soldiers, they are part of an army sub-culture where admitting fears, personal struggles and shortcomings are still a taboo. Patricias can also be uncomfortable talking about the opportunities because this means talking about love, feelings and vulnerabilities. The role of the infantry is “to close with and destroy the enemy” (CA, 2013, p. 1-1), meaning that soldiers who sign up to be infanteers are signing up to do some of the Canadian Government’s hardest work. These are mentally and physically tough people.
Patricias are also storytellers. We love to hear, and tell, a good story; we want all the details. When we reminisce, we connect – thus Legions spread across the country (Royal Canadian Legion, 2021). Our stories and experiences reinforce our senses of PPCLI identity and belonging. We also keep totems. Badges that mark our successes on hard courses, medals that recognize our contributions to expeditionary missions, course photographs, gifts from friends, and commanders’ coins – are just a few examples of the totems, or artefacts, that hold meaning for us. A tough infanteer filled sub-culture that keeps totems and likes to tell stories is a good match for artefact elicitation as an interview technique concerning potentially uncomfortable subjects (Barton, 2015). From my experiences, all research participants easily selected an object that represented social fitness for them and were able to make connections between the artefact and social fitness, and subsequently between social fitness and ICTs.
In the next sections I will briefly discuss applied research in the CA, share three examples from my research where artefact elicitation as an interview technique helped my participants, and myself, talk about some challenging topics and make insightful connections to my research question, and I will end with a discussion and conclusions.
Applied Research in the Canadian Army (CA)
From the onset, I designed my DSocSci research to be applied because I wanted to help solve a practical problem I was facing as a CA leader (Bickman & Rog, 2008). When I approached RRU and applied for the DSocSci program, I wanted to leverage my professional experience as a senior officer in the CA, but knew I was missing some of the academic skills I needed to conduct policy-relevant research. The DSocSci program mentored me and taught me academic skills to use alongside my professional experience and help answer my research question in a way that will contribute to meaningful and sustainable institutional and individual change in my organization (Pulla & Schissel, 2017).
As I designed my research project, I was committed to developing a detailed theory of change (TOC) as part of my research proposal because I wanted to ensure that my outputs were focussed on organizational and individual change recommendations for the CA that would leverage the opportunities and mitigate the challenges that ICTs presented to social fitness (Belcher, 2016).
My TOC helped me to choose to complete my dissertation by portfolio, rather than by monograph, so that I could share my findings with the academic community, military chain of command and greater military community through a journal article, a policy paper, and a digital artefact gallery, respectively. Although my results may not be generalizable to the entirety of the Canadian Armed Forces, the two cases in the study had a broad representation of ranks and experience and were in very good agreement (Yin, 2018). My project would certainly benefit from additional cases (or related research) in the future, but for now my focus is on communicating my findings through the outputs of my TOC to start making my organization more supportive, resilient and ready for operations.
Examples of Elicitation and Breaking Barriers
The primary purpose of this paper is to share three examples from my research where artefact elicitation as an interview technique was helpful for participants who were uncomfortable sharing some of their experiences related to social fitness (Bagnoli, 2009; Barton, 2015). The examples selected showcase opportunities for ICTs, rather than challenges reported by participants. Generally, the challenges ICTs present to social fitness were raised in the structured portion of the interviews and were not extensively discussed during the artefact elicitation. More information on the challenges presented are in my draft journal article and dissertation portfolio.
Although the paper will focus on the opportunities ICTs help create for social fitness, many of these examples were hard for participants to talk about because they are deeply personal and they are related to themes of perceived struggles, failures and/or shortcomings. Examples include not being there in person for a friend, ongoing support to veterans in need, being absent as a parent and spouse, and helping others who are struggling to maintain their sense of identity and belonging, respectively.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I had intended to interview my research participants in person. In my original plan, participants would have brought their artefacts to the interview and I would have taken a photograph of the artefacts for use in my portfolio outputs. COVID-19 public health measures necessitated that I collect data respecting physical distancing measures, so I altered my collection plan to include telephone calls and emails, with participants emailing me a photo they took of their own artefacts prior to our telephone interviews. Although not my initial plan, I am very satisfied with end results and retrospectively believe that these collection methods made it easier for my participants to make their contributions.
In the following three sub-sections, I present examples where I assess that artefact elicitation was an effective interview technique in my project. For the sake of anonymity, my participants are called Delta, Echo and Foxtrot. Each section sub-section provides an overview of the participant’s military experience, a photo of their artefact, a description of the meaning behind the artefact, its relation to my research question and my perspective on why artefact elicitation was effective.
Delta is a senior non-commissioned officer with decades of military experience. They have extensive operational experience and have deployed many times. They served in two Canadian infantry regiments and have several advanced qualifications. They are an expert in the technical aspects of mechanized warfare and infantry manoeuvre tactics. Delta sent me the following photograph prior to our interview.
Figure 1 Delta’s Artefact Photograph
This is a photo of a rock that Delta and a friend first shared during a period of stress where both were frustrated due to a group of senior officers delivering a patronizing speech as they prepared to deploy to Afghanistan a decade ago. Delta’s friend gave him the rock with the understanding that if there was something they needed to talk about, their friend would always be there. This started a tradition where Delta and their friend passed the rock back and forth for the duration of their deployment to Afghanistan where Delta was involved in many combat operations, some resulting in fatalities. The rock symbolizes friendship and support for Delta and was a reminder of trusted and valued friendships; that they were never alone, even at the worst of times. To Delta, this rock symbolizes some very important aspects of social fitness, although they may not use the term.
Recently, Delta sent a photo of the rock, by Facebook, to the friend they had shared it with during their tour in Afghanistan when they saw that their friend was having personal trouble in some online posts. The two had not connected in years but the artefact, enabled by ICTs, allowed them to reconnect and provide supports as needed. Delta explained:
I had seen that he was going through a difficult time. I saw it online, on Facebook of all things. And, so, I sent him a text message with a picture of the rock saying, “Hey, I wish I was there to pass this back to you.” It kind of rejuvenated discussion and I was able to kind of help him with, what appears to have helped him a little bit, with the stress he was under.
Delta would have preferred to be there for their friend in person, but their ability to send the photo of the rock was a second-best option. As Delta explained the meaning of the rock to me, they also made the connection between their online support group and my project. Since their tour in Afghanistan, Delta has been a member of a closed Facebook group that offers supports to the members of their previous unit. Only those who served in their deployed group are members, and the group has remained intact for over a decade. Delta reports that this group often connects socially over Facebook and that they continue to provide informal supports to members, long after their deployment ended:
[The closed Facebook page] allows us to stay in touch with each other and then if somebody is having a hard time it’s actually voiced there because it’s a place where they know they’re not going to be judged. Including, we had a guy who was having extreme difficulties, he had been released from military and he was having drug issues and starting into suicidal issues. It was a place for him to come on[line] and say, “Hey, this is what’s going on in my life.” And two of the guys from the platoon drove several hours to go see him as soon as they knew that there was a problem. They got in their cars and they went and saw him and that was the start of him actually going to drug rehab, getting clean and now he’s off drugs. That page is been going since 20XX, just after we got back [from deployment] and it’s been helpful, quite helpful.
A recurrent theme in my research, although not directly related to social fitness and ICTs, is the role of the Canadian infantry’s regimental system in the long fight. Not all countries use regimental systems; however, in Canada, infantry officers serve in the same regiment until they are promoted to the rank of Colonel and non-commissioned officers serve in the same regiment for the entirety of their careers (PPCLI, 2019). Effectively for most, they will serve in one regiment rather than move between the three Canadian infantry regiments headquartered in Edmonton, Petawawa and ville de Québec. This is an idea that I will revisit in this paper with Participant Foxtrot’s artefact; the participants in my project formed life-long bonds and friendships with their regimental buddies and these soldiers often form the first line of support for each other throughout their lives when times are tough (PPCLI, 2019).
When recruited for my project, Delta was unsure of how their experiences could be of use to my project, as they thought they did not have much experience with my research question. Without Delta’s artefact as an elicitation technique, it is very unlikely that the questions I had prepared for the semi-structured interview would have helped Delta to connect their experiences to my research question. Delta’s story was instrumental to the findings of my research project and contributed directly to helping me understand the opportunities that ICTs bring to social fitness. Additionally, Delta was willing to share deeply personal and meaningful information but would have likely been uncomfortable doing so if the conversation had not arrived there effortlessly, helped along by their sharing of the rock.
Echo is a retired non-commissioned member who served in both standard infantry and specialist companies; they are a trained sniper. They have several operational deployments, including one as a sniper. Sniper training is long and very difficult, with low pass rates. Many soldiers do the training course several times; Echo did the course twice, passing the second time. Echo’s interview photograph is below.
Figure 2 Echo’s Artefact Photograph
This is a photo of a sniper bullet, called a hog’s tooth; it symbolizes success on the sniper course and the staff give it to participants when they pass the course. Soldiers are proud to receive this token and generally wear it or keep it with their valuable items. For Echo, the hog’s tooth symbolizes accomplishment, belonging to the sniper community and camaraderie, as everyone would expect; however, in their case, it more importantly symbolizes the sacrifices that their family and spouse made so that they could pursue their dreams. They emphasized that nothing they accomplished in their career would have been possible without the support and commitment of their spouse.
As we discussed the hog’s tooth, Echo was recalling time away from home on both their first and second sniper courses. The course is three months long and takes place in Dundurn, Saskatchewan, a five-and-a-half-hour drive east of Edmonton, Echo’s home at the time. When Echo started the course, they had one young child and by the end of the course, they had two. Echo shared how ICTs helped to keep them in touch with family and friends, maintaining their relationships:
I was still able to go on Facebook and see the videos she would upload to there, they were just about, you know, my kid. It made it so much more manageable as opposed to just wondering and waiting. That was huge. And then on my sniper courses, or exercises even, just having the ability to check my Instagram or Facebook to see what I’m missing out on when I go home. So, it makes you feel a tad homesick, but at the same time you know that you are not missing out on things and you’ve got something to look forward to when you get home. I get to see my kids when I get home.
Soldiers spend so much time away from families on training, courses and deployments that many reported that ICTs were necessary for social health: accessing support, providing support and maintaining relationships. Echo deployed overseas in the early 2000s when ICTs were less developed and experienced the improvements in connectivity over the last decade-and-a-half. They were adamant that it was the day-to-day, hour-to-hour access that made social life and family life much better when away from home for extended periods. It was the little things: Facetime at the park for five minutes, a few minutes of family time throughout the day, dialing into birthday parties and get togethers. ICTs helped Echo participate, although at a distance, and left them feeling engaged and that they did not miss out on too much.
Similar to Delta, Echo was interested in taking part in my project, but didn’t think they had relevant experiences. Echo’s feedback will stay with me for the rest of my military career. They were so honest about the opportunities ICTs bring to participation in important family and friendship life events that I cannot imagine a chain of command who would not fight to get this access for their soldiers and, when possible, ensure that soldiers have the time to maintain and participate in their social lives. Central to social fitness are relationships and belonging. Without Echo’s artefact I doubt that our conversation during the semi-structured interview would have delved as deeply into how ICTs help with relationship maintenance during periods of time away from home, an important finding of my project. I also think that Echo’s selection of the hog’s tooth, a known totem to all in uniform that is deserving of professional respect, clearly reinforces what they shared in the interview: nothing hard that is accomplished by a soldier comes without strong social supports, they are essential to soldier readiness and resilience.
Foxtrot is a senior officer who commissioned from the ranks. They have decades of experience in cadets, the reserves, as a paratrooper and at all levels of command, below unit, in PPCLI. They have several operational tours and extensive experience supporting the regimental family, including serving and retired members. The photograph Foxtrot submitted of their artefact is below.
Figure 3 Foxtrot’s Artefact Photograph
This is a photo of hobnailed parade boots. Polishing boots, called a “boot party” when done with friends, is a military ritual; often repeated, many, many times before important ceremonial events and on basic training. Soldiers put hours and hours into getting a mirror-like shine on these leather boots. Foxtrot has worn the same parade boots for over three-and-a-half decades, and although hobnails are no longer the standard across the Canadian infantry, they will not be retiring these boots any time soon. These boots symbolize a career of service and sacrifice to Foxtrot. They’ve worn them to every important formal event in their career. When these boots were new in the 1980s the resoling – or application of the hobnails at the cobbler shop – required Foxtrot to save up a meaningful sum of money. Foxtrot gladly paid for this improvement to their uniform because the hobnails make a distinct noise when a soldier walks across the parade square, a sound Foxtrot described as “damn sharp”, and I would agree.
Foxtrot talked a lot about the stories behind the boots and of the lasting friendships made in cadets that followed them through their career of service in PPCLI. Many of their friends live across the country now and they regularly connect on social media when they can’t be together in person or are in between meet-ups. The boot parties of the past have become Zoom parties in the present. Foxtrot shared:
I think that as more guys get older there’s this tremendous value in using the internet and Zoom and these other platforms to get online and bitch and complain. I know many different sorts of sub-groups of guys who have gotten together and we do chat lines on a Facebook site, and those are the guys who didn’t have the technological savvy to get on a Zoom call, but they’re sitting there, drinking beer, staring at Facebook, sending each other messages back and forth. And that’s a great thing. I’ve seen all kinds of stuff, “OK, guys we can’t get together, so, you know, let’s meet here [online] and we’ll talk army shit.” I think that’s the greatest thing in the world…The Regimental system, at the end of the day, is first and foremost for peer support in the long fight.
Foxtrot’s use of several different social media platform to stay connected with their friends, providing and receiving supports, are an important part of their weekly routine. They engaged on these platforms before the COVID-19 pandemic, but they’ve reported increased use when they are unable to travel and/or meet in person due to public health protection measures. The ability to private message, chat and video chat lets these soldiers connect, let off steam and reminisce, despite geographic distance. Foxtrot’s feedback provided important insights into the how members of PPCLI who are geographically isolated from the main groups in Edmonton and Shilo maintain their sense of regimental identity and belonging, two important components of social fitness. By connecting to “bitch and complain” and to “talk army shit”, these people stay connected to the current happenings in the regiment and play an active role in current regimental events.
As in the previous two examples, Foxtrot questioned their ability to provide insights to my project and their use of ICTs before the interview. As soon as we started talking about the boots, it was clear that Foxtrot served with many friends, who are considered to be family, and that they actively maintain these relationships. From there it was easy for both Foxtrot and me to connect their experiences to the research question and really get a deep understanding of how ICT use can aid with maintaining senses of identity and belonging to PPCLI.
Although I have only offered three examples for this conference paper, in each of my thirteen interviews participants brought insightful artefacts that helped them to tell their stories and helped me to ask better questions during the semi-structured interviews. The complete online artefact gallery is located at www.socialfitnessintheppcli.com. When the provincial governments are able to relax the public health measures associated with the pandemic and PPCLI Regimental Museum can reopen to visitors, I will also be exploring options for an in-person gallery experience. In the meantime, the website it designed to be interactive and serve as a platform for continued sharing and communication about the opportunities and challenges ICTs present to social fitness in PPCLI and the CA.
When designing the semi-structured interview questions, I prepared several extra questions to be used if the conversation was awkward or had difficulties connecting to my research question. I did not need the extra questions in any of my interviews and each ranged from 45 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes. During the analysis, I remarked that almost all the data I collected was related to my research question. I attribute this conversational ease to the artefacts and how they helped participants to tell their stories and share their experiences.
Similar to other storytelling or “war story” projects involving military personnel (“Soldiers’ Stories”, 2006; Sites, 2013; Veterans Affairs Canada, 2021), of which there are too many to fully list here, my participants were excited to share stories about their artefacts and liked thinking about the ways ICTs helped them reach out to their social circles. Due to the changes necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the end results of the artefact elicitation technique I used was quite similar to photovoice where photographs are used to facilitate the discussion between participants and researchers of topics that are potentially uncomfortable, sensitive and/or difficult (Wang & Burris, 1997). Artefact elicitation as an interview technique, in the form of photovoice, was used successfully by True, Rigg and Butler (2015) with veterans on a project to understand barriers to mental health care. Although my project was not related to care access and had no medical nexus, the three participants cited in this paper, and myself, are all veterans of Canada’s expeditionary operations in Afghanistan during the time frame when the army was engaged in near continuous combat operations and share some of the hesitancies and qualities reported by True, Rigg and Butler (2015).
One important difference between mental health care access research with veterans and my own is that no participant in my project reported any sense of stigma around social fitness, describing their experiences more in terms of seeking safe, trusted and judgement-free spaces to share and build their social networks. Participants did report that the “infantry myth” of being physical and mentally tough at all times remains alive and well, a myth that can be a barrier to openly sharing perceived shortcomings and weaknesses in research projects.
My final observation about research on hesitant populations is about participant trust in the researcher. My thoughts and observations are certainly not unique to military populations (Guillemin et al., 2016; Ciszek, 2020) and not all existing research is in perfect agreement (Guillemin et al., 2018); however, because I am a Patricia I had almost instant trust with my participants, a trust I have been careful to protect as I write up my research findings. In the army, and specifically the infantry, we can easily size each other up in a matter of minutes. As infanteers we are taught the credo “Mission, Men [sic], Self” a mindset that puts service before subordinates, and subordinates before leaders (Kilburn, 2005). From the day we enter the training system this mindset makes us accountable to each other, up, down and laterally throughout the chain of command. Military culture, and I would argue Canadian infantry regimental culture, can be a challenge for outsiders (Hall, 2011), so if someone from outside the community is interested in research with the Canadian Armed Forces, or part of it, they may find it effective to enlist the help of an insider.
For anyone considering data collection by semi-structured interview, I would highly recommend using artefact elicitation as a technique if there is any chance that participants may have difficulty linking their experiences to the research question or if the research topic is likely to delve into areas that may make participants uncomfortable. I would also recommend looking closely at the habits of any culture or sub-culture of research interest and talking to the members during the design phase to help ensure that the approach will be effective. I consider that my professional experience in two PPCLI infantry battalions and close work with the third set me up for success in this applied research project. As my project outputs aim to contribute to change for both my organization and individuals within my organization, I needed access to unfiltered feedback, positive and negative.
If any readers have further interest in my dissertation outputs, they are welcome to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my artefact gallery website at www.socialfitnessintheppcli.com. I look forward to feedback as I continue to work on my dissertation portfolio synthesis and prepare for my dissertation defence.
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