This business of self presentation

This is a copy of a piece I wrote recently for Pat Thomson’s blog, patter. Patter is a completely indispensable resource for anyone interested in academic writing – check it out.

After long and careful consideration, I decided to write ‘my self’ into my doctoral thesis in ways that sought to challenge various scholarly conventions about distance and detachment. That I felt these conventions were open to some challenge in that particular place and time has also prompted me to reflect on the shifts I have perceived in some scholarly practices of self as I have moved beyond my doctorate, into different organisations and disciplines.

The position I eventually took in my thesis was, firstly, an attempt to present myself as interested and involved in the research. Within the methodlogical traditions I was working in this was certainly not an uncommon move to make – although such moves are always open to contestation – this was certainly not radical. I made a further move which was a bit more disruptive, which was to draw on the relevant personal experience I had vis-à-vis my chosen topic of study, in order to challenge certain conceptions of representation and meaning. This was intended as a kind of playful political move, but I know from the various comments I have received from people who have read my work that it was also a divisive one. Memorably, one such comment came from my external examiner, who said that reading the introduction to my thesis had set alarm bells ringing – definitely not something you want to hear. Fortunately for me he was generous enough to defer his judgement till the end, but his report made it clear to me that in ‘setting out my stall’ as boldly as I had in my opening chapter I had certainly taken a risk.

As I’ve already noted – I was using methods, and was situated in a disciplinary environment, education, where some ‘self talk’ had become increasingly common. I was also writing a thesis. While there are of course many conventions when it comes to writing a thesis, many of these can be stretched and some can be broken. And yet, with these methods, in this ‘safe’ institutional environment, and with this relatively inclusive genre, it seems I was still taking risks.

Skip forward a few years and I find myself in a very different institutional environment; a business school, where I have found scholarly practices of the self to be considerably more reserved. I think this is related to certain characteristics of discipline and genre, which are things that bear consideration when thinking about how to write oneself in or out of one’s work.

Firstly, business and management is a comparatively young discipline, which has emerged out of other disciplines – primarily, economics, psychology and sociology. Two of those disciplines (the former two) are dominated by assumptions of rationalism and positivism. These assumptions add up to a view of scholars as independent evaluators of a given external world.  Critical turns in either discipline – which question these assumptions with the view that in evaluating the world scholars are engaged in its construction – do not have a strong institutional foothold. Much of this is carried over into business and management studies.

Secondly, in business and management studies, the journal article is king. This is probably true in other disciplines, but I haven’t encountered one where this is so strongly and consistently articulated. Where the thesis is a comparatively inclusive genre, the journal article is generally not. There is a generic structure to a journal article which gets followed the majority of the time – particularly in the higher ranked journals, which enjoy being at the top of the list and so have little inclination to alter the rules that have put them there. Along with this generic structure goes a relatively generic style. Sentences are often passively constructed, anthropomorphism is common. The process of getting published in journals also has a tendency to reinforce dominant norms through the extensive peer review that is characteristic of the genre.

Lastly, and this is connected to both the first two points, there is a great tendency to put theory first in business and management studies. As a discipline it seems preoccupied with the idea that to contribute to knowledge means to add a piece to some abstracted jigsaw puzzle. This generally relegates data to ‘illustration’, and makes irrelevent the story of the generation of the data. A big part of wanting to include my own story with my thesis, was wanting to use this as a basis for thinking through the relationships and ideas that I formed while in the field – to treat myself as one research participant among many others. This involved the inclusion of a substantial amount of narrative based on the experience of generating the data. By excluding the majority of ‘methods talk’, many of the journals in business and management also exclude this kind of narrative. Interestingly, this does not just apply to journals – as I have learnt via a recent experience of co-authoring a book. When it came to writing the methods, my initial draft was edited extensively by my co-authors who thought my account ‘too confessional’.

I found this last experience a particularly compelling demonstration of the different institutional conditions at work regarding presentation of the self. This drew the abstract disciplinary tradition down to the level of close colleagues, who would define themselves as ‘critical’ business and management scholars, and with whom I was writing a book – which I have in the past found to be a much more open genre than the journal article. It seemed then that to present such a narrative, for them, was to risk too much of the supposed objectivity with which one must appear armed in our field.

I certainly do not mean to present some kind of cautionary tale here – I believe that interested scholarship is generally more rigorous and trustworthy, and certainly better to read, than the conventional alternative. However, presenting such an account will likely be read as a challenge to certain conventions of discipline and genre in which your audience is located. It is worth thinking carefully about these conventions and deciding how elastic some of them might be. To briefly draw a closing lesson from some management theory: normative institutional change can only be achieved with the consent and participation of existing members. This suggests that evolution rather than revolution might be the key to shifting legitimate practices of the self within scholarly writing.


“They ought to tell us if we’re allowed to laugh”

This is a copy of a blog that I wrote for the Manchester Ethnography Network – check us out:

It’s August 2013. I’m part of a group of researchers, artists, educators and health care professionals, and we have just completed the two week premiering of a play about dementia care. The play is based on an ethnographic study of low status health care assistants in dementia wards. I was one of three ethnographers on the original project. In June 2010 we had found ourselves with the project all but wrapped up and £10k left in the dissemination budget, and through a serendipitous confluence of events, had ended up giving it – along with around a ½ million words of fieldnotes – to a playwrite. 12 months later we were reading through the first draft of a script, which told a story of an ethnographer entering a locked mental health ward, taking on the duties of a health care assistant and documenting the experience. Another 12 months and we workshopped the script on a shoe string budget with a small group of actors in order to try and attract some funding to stage a full production. Another 12 months and the full production was premiered for two weeks to capacity audiences for a two week run. Approximately 3000 people saw the performance over that fortnight, and thanks to the involvement of local healthcare trusts (among them the same ones with whom we had conducted the original research), almost half of those people were the members of staff whose everyday work we were re-presenting back to them.

The title of this blog is a comment that was made by a member of the public who had come to see the first show. The first show was in the evening, and was not one of those that were to be attended by the health staff (these were to be day-time performances followed by workshops for staff). Almost the whole way through the first half of the performance you could have heard a pin drop. There was not a noise from the audience. It was tense and uncomfortable. We thought the play was funny – all be it darkly so – at times laugh-out-loud funny, at time sad, at times surreal, disorienting, frightening, but at all times we had expected to get a response – any response. Several of us who had been sitting out in the audience were filing out of the auditorium for the interval when we overheard a conversation in which two audience members were discussing what they’d seen:

‘what did you think?’

‘not sure what to make of it…’

‘I thought it was kind of…funny…in places…but, do you think it’s supposed to be funny..?’

‘they ought to tell us if we’re allowed to laugh’

At the beginning of the second half of the performance the playwrite took to the stage and addressed this matter – providing a little context to the play, and quite literally giving people permission to laugh. At the start of each subsequent performance she did the same. It had a marked effect, but we couldn’t help thinking after that first performance that maybe we’d missed the mark. Was dementia too much for a general theatre audience to stomach? Had lengthy exposure desensitised us so thoroughly to our subject matter that our sense of what was ‘ok’ had drifted far from public norms? In our desire to render in words, sounds and images the emotional, visceral worlds that we had encountered, to open the locked doors of the ward and raise awareness of the invisible work within, had we in fact betrayed the good faith of the people whose worlds we invaded? Had we exposed them, held them up like some caricature for this silent public humiliation?

The daytime performances with the staff stood in direct contrast. Without prompt or direction they laughed, groaned, screeched, sucked teeth, hummed, clucked and squawked. They were noisy. Only pantomime audiences make more noise than this. In the auditorium we basked in the warm  sensation of a shared understanding. In the post-show discussions their talk was full of words like ‘captured’, ‘voiced’, ‘spoke to’, ‘represented’.

Words to make the neurotic post-critical ethnographer shiver. We don’t capture, we problematise, and under no circumstances do we represent.

I’ve since thought about many different ways in which these contrasting events might be read. I’ve thought about the immediacy of visual representation, not always a comfortable reflection when we think about the potential fear and violence of the image. But in the clear sense of recognition that the health care staff communicated to us, can we also read the image as potentially powerful and trustworthy?

The silence, by definition, is a more enigmatic object of interpretation. I’m struck by the novelty, as an academic, of being so close to my audience and experiencing their response to my work so directly, and yet at the same time I’m still filled with such doubt as to the  meaning of that response. If they had been entertained, then perhaps there would have been a clearer sense in which we had used, or even commodified, our participants. But I wonder if in that silence is to be found many uncomfortable individual encounters with otherness, and our novel re-presentation could therefore be said to have prompted some kind of critical consciousness raising. This is certainly not to lay claim to some kind of new and authentic language, but rather to draw attention to a brief moment in which something ordinarily hidden might have been made visible, and to which there was no practised response.

Treating interviews as ethnographic encounters

I have emerged from weeks and months of blog silence in order to think about a question posed on Twitter this morning, in which @MatthewHanchard asked: “Should I be worried if my semi-structured interviews only seem to last about 30 mins if all Q’s were covered (planned for 90 mins) #phdchat”. This not only interested me, and brought back to mind my own early struggles with interviews, but also seemed to require more than 160 characters to give a proper answer. So here goes.

First off, a caveat: I do not know sufficient details of research design, methodology, research questions etc. to give a  precise answer to Matthew’s question. It could well be that 30 minutes is enough. I was interviewing a GP yesterday who had very kindly agreed to see me between clinics. I turned off the tape recorder at about 35 minutes, in which time he had given me a very concise but informative set of responses, and offered me a distinct perspective on my research questions – not bad considering I am in the last week of data collection. I also think that almost regardless of how much time he had available, I might not have been able to delve much deeper than the story he first offered me. Sometimes you just find yourself in front of someone who for whatever reason cannot, or will not, take you any further down a particular path; they may resist or even become irritated if you carry on attempting to push them further and you risk losing the interview altogether. 30 minutes of thoughtful, if circumscribed, description is certainly better than an hour of terse one-word responses, disinterested agreement, or, worst of all, a terminated interview.

The context of the research is also very important. The research I am conducting at the moment is a service evaluation. The main output will be a 10,000 word report back to the trust who commissioned the research. Of this report, the first 2 pages in which we will give a set of key messages and recommendations will be the only 2 pages read by the majority of people who see it (admittedly not the most exciting piece of research I’ve ever done, but don’t knock it until you’ve experienced the post-doc research job market). If I had radical theoretical insights based on innovative methodologies on my immediate research horizons, then I might not be particularly satisfied with a 30 minute interview. But I do not. I need actionable findings situated within the immediate policy context in which they are going to be spread. So, an interview from a senior local clinician full of concise, to-the-point, quotable responses was just the ticket.

I am assuming that Matthew did not come away completely satisfied with his interview encounter. As a PhD candidate he will have aspirations to break new ground in some regard (to do so is after all the fundamental requirement of the PhD: contribution to knowledge). And so 30 minutes feels a bit thin. The fact that he is planning to spend 90 minutes per interview suggests to me that Matthew either has a very long interview schedule, or that he wishes to delve deep into his questions. 90 minutes is a long time to try and hold your own and your participant’s attention. As Matthew has said he is using a semi-structured interview schedule, I am assuming he is taking a qualitative approach. The challenge with the ever-popular ‘semi-structured’ interview, is achieving a balance of open/closed structure that works for you and your research questions, while allowing the participant the space to find their own narrative. Your interests and theirs may be wildly divergent. When you ask a particular question you do not have any idea what it might spark. This is of course the fascination of exploratory, qualitative research. But it means you can find yourself listening to a very interesting story that has strayed far away from your research intentions, and it takes considerable skill to gently shepherd a stray back to the path, without them feeling, well, like a sheep.

These kind of skills come with experience, confidence and comfort with the interview situation. But you can also do yourself many favours by paying close attention to your research schedule, and building in some contingency to it. Regardless of your methodological framework, I think there is an excellent case for thinking about the interview situation as an ethnographic encounter. I’m using ethnography here less as a prescribed set of methods and principles, and more as a set of aspirations based around accessing a contextualised descriptive account of your participant’s story, in their own language. There is a great challenge to doing this in the interview context, which is brief and performative – by which I mean there are quite formal sets of cultural rules and conventions shaping the interview context. These conventions can act as a barrier to the establishment of trust and empathy between researcher and participant. I like to do what I can to break down some of these power relations before the actual event of the interview: ‘gaining access’ in ethnographic research means much more than gaining permission to physically access a particular group or organisation, rather, it is an ongoing concern, an always temporary agreement between researcher and participant which requires ongoing maintenance and sometimes repair. How exactly you will attempt to negotiate access in your own research will be a very situated and subjective concern. The point is you only have rights to ‘be there and ask that’ as long as the person you are asking gives you that right. This will not likely be something that is always negotiated openly, so paying keen attention to social cues, your participant’s level of comfort etc. is very important. This is not just about creating a ‘nice’ research context, it is about having confidence in the veracity of the story you have been told. All stories are constructed, and so gaining a sense of trust is about guiding the interpretations you will generate out of these stories.

The fundamental building block of analysis in ethnographic research is description, and the insight it gives you into context. So, it is essential to allow breathing space in interviews. I often start this right at the beginning, those gentle, open questions at the beginning of the interview. You might not want to just say ‘tell me about yourself’, it should still be focussed on your research questions, but the emphasis should be on giving participants the chance to address you in their own words, to begin to build their narrative, their approach to or experience with the things you are interested in. When I have been aspiring to something as long as a 90 minute interview, as much as a 1/3 of that time might be spent drawing this story out – it is very unlikely that will come in one 30 minute rush, rather you have to follow-up responses, probe for more description, get a fuller context – it is this context that will allow you to make more precise judgements of the responses you get to more structured questions later on.

I have used the word ‘participant’ throughout this post. This is often a very euphemistic term in interview research, implying a degree of participation which is in fact not permitted by the closed, circumscribed, power-laden manner in which interviews can be experienced. As I’ve said, interviews are highly structured by convention, and so it requires extra work on the part of the researcher to break down some of this. It is very important that words like ‘participant’ finds some meaning in the manner in which you go about arranging, accessing, conducting and analysing interviews. Not just in the interests of conducting more ethically legitimate research, but also in providing you the researcher with some confidence in your interpretation of what has been said – regardless of how long it took to say it.