There is the potential for conflict within the world of academic research, which is associated with the requirement for us to be critical while also being fair to the people who we encounter in our research activities. Being ‘critical’ does not necessarily mean ‘voicing criticism’, it refers to a broader commitment to rigour in scholarly work; weighing up multiple perspectives, reaching balanced conclusions, putting theories and methods to appropriate use, and the like. So, I conceive of thinking critically as thinking differently; unpicking common assumptions, deconstructing social norms, and providing alternative perspectives.
Thus, being critical and being fair are not necessarily opposed; often research is taken on with some kind of emancipatory agenda, with the objective of making clear the manner in which a particular individual or group is experiencing some kind of misuse of power, or oppression. However, an emancipatory ideal may be something that it is comfortable enough to write about in the comfort of our institutional surroundings, at a distance from the people we suppose we are setting free, but the actual work of carrying out research with real people in their real everyday surroundings brings with it a set of tensions to which there is no easy solution. We are merely required to identify tensions, reflect on them, think about the path that brought us to them and, hopefully, think how we might better avoid them in the future.
This kind of reflective pursuit is becoming more common within various forms of critical research, perhaps most common in ethnographic research, where a researcher or group of researchers enter a particular social group and participate in their everyday activities over a sustained period of time. Researchers who choose to engage in this kind of reflection can experience it as a constant, self imposed, injunction; to better oneself, make oneself less harmful, to improve. Experiences of research both good and bad may stick in the mind and heart as things we must try to do more of or try to avoid in the future, but all things to learn from. Thus we acknowledge that as practitioners in thinking, learning, and teaching, we are required to also think about, learn about, and teach, ourselves. This may be a dangerous road, one that can lead anywhere from conceit to neurosis, nevertheless, it is a road taken voluntarily, with some awareness of where it might lead, and importantly, with rewards provided for taking it, such as a relatively satisfying, autonomous, well renumerated, and challenging occupation.
One of the questions this raises for me is: Can this equation be balanced in the same manner for the people we, sometimes rather euphamistically, refer to as our ‘participants’?
The simple answer, I think, is usually, ‘No’. Though participants may enter into a research study voluntarily, they often do so with fairly limited information about the researcher’s intentions, and thus will often not have much idea of the implications of participating, and there may be precious few rewards on offer for them, certainly financial rewards are very rarely offered, and it would be naïve to assume that there will always be an equivalent intellectual reward. I fear the complete opposite is the case. A ‘participant’ only usually participates in a project within a particular time and space, perhaps just one or two of the various times and spaces of that project, and then only really in a partial way. As researchers we can be very cagey about our work, we can give the bare minimum away about our agenda, we can protect our thoughts and notes and make them private, we can certainly keep our analysis to ourselves, we can write and articulate ourselves in unaccessible ways, and we can publish in journals that participants will not often have the opportunity to read. Thus, I see us constantly faced with a paradox, where we carry lofty objectives to do with making paricular societies more inclusive, while going about this business in exclusive ways.
There are various ways in which we can try and open up research to be more inclusive to participants. We can collaborate with them from an earlier time, perhaps at the proposal stage, so that they have more of a hand in both research questions and design; two fundamental aspects of the process. Then we can share our thoughts on data collection during time in the field, we can offer our early thoughts up for consideration by members of the group we are studying, and attempt to draw their thoughts into our own conclusions. Then we could collaborate over the analysis, involve several participants in really grind out what we think is going on in a particular situation. Lastly, we can write publications with varying degrees of participation, right up to jointly authored papers.
These moves are mostly positive, at least in their intention. They also have consequences. Some are fairly obvious, such as resources. The more collaborative a project the more resources of time, and therefore money, will be required. This is particularly so in collaborations with participants who do not share many of the academic languages that we take for granted. This is not a statement of intellectual snobbery, it is an acknowledgement of the idiosyncratic ways in which academic work can progress. Academic norms of critical thinking and contributing to knowledge are not necessarily shared outside the academy. Many people do not value abstraction, theorisation, reflection, review and re-review. Yet these are the tools of the trade.
I can have very enjoyable conversations with colleagues that might go on for hours, which would send most people I know to sleep within minutes. I can spend weeks analysing a set of fieldnotes, and still come out the other side not quite sure what my final argument is going to look like. I have several publications on the go at any one time which are in various stages of writing and review, some of which refer to research I completed years ago and some of which may never get published. I know some of these are very difficult things to get used to, some of them, particularly the latter, I still struggle with regularly, and I have entered this world voluntarily; is handing some of these struggles over to my participants being fair to them?
Thus, while we should certainly strive to make our work more inclusive to those that it involves, it might not be the best thing to try and share everything. What many of us end up doing is trying to incorporate some more participative tendencies into our research work, to try and even up the power imbalances as much as we can, while still making sure that we deliver the goods within the times laid down by the funders.
This partial sharing of agendas can still be a tricky business, involving tensions between you and your participants trying to negotiate what will likely be your very different approaches to a particular subject. At times I have felt like it really would have been better to leave the door closed, as sometimes these attempts can backfire, and in pursuing a more participatory or inclusive agenda you can end up causing more harm than if you had conducted things in a more conventional way. The thing is, if you conduct things in a conventional way you really don’t know what harm you might or might not have caused. This is the promise and danger of reflexive work – you open things up to examination, so don’t be surprised if you don’t always find something you like there, does this mean you shouldn’t have opened it in the first place?