One of five recipients of the Dunlop Spark Grant, Rachel Jacobson is using these funds to collaborate with researchers from the University of Minnesota. The research team is bridging narrative psychology and topic modeling to identify how people tell stories about their racial-ethnic identity. Narrative identity is a distinct component of personality that represents a psychosocial construction of the personal past, present, and presumed future. This theoretical and methodological approach allows for the collection of rich qualitative data that can be analyzed for different narrative themes, like redemption or belonging, providing insight into individual differences in personality.
After learning about narrative psychology through an article by Dr. Dan McAdams, a prominent researcher in the field, Jacobson became interested in exploring systematized ways of analyzing narratives. Fortunately, Dr. Sara Weston has experience with both narrative psychology and natural language processing (NLP), an unsupervised machine-learning method that extracts topics from narratives based on probabilistic calculations. Dr. Weston and Jacobson decided to use a complementary approach, integrating human-coding into the topic model produced by NLP. Jacobson also reached out to Dr. Moin Syed, who runs a lab focused on narrative and identity at the University of Minnesota, to bring in collaborators with expertise in narrative psychology.
To elicit narratives, the participants were asked to describe a particular time in their life where they felt aware of their race/identity while hanging out with a close friend or family member. Jacobson is working with two collaborators from Dr. Syed’s lab, Dr. Dulce Wilkinson and Edward Chou, and six research assistants to code these narratives for two themes of interest: agency (i.e., self-mastery, control, independence) and communion (i.e., connection, unity, and togetherness). Once they are finished coding, Jacobson will integrate the human-coded variables into the topic model produced using NLP, identifying whether the NLP topics are high or low in agency and communion. Jacobson will then examine whether certain ethnicities are related to specific topics.
Although the study is ongoing, Jacobson is excited about the possibilities it presents. The complementary approach of this study, integrating quantitative, NLP methodology with qualitative research, has not been used by many researchers. It combines the advantages of each approach – grounded and data-driven, but also nuanced and descriptive. Jacobson also looks forward to providing more nuance to the field by studying underrepresented racial/ethnic groups and comparing monoracial and multiracial participants.