Tag Archives: Participation

Whose line is it anyway?

Research interviews are a strange world in my experience. It was quite a long time before I had any faith in them at all as research methods, and longer still until I gained any comfort in the role of interviewer. I’m getting there on both counts.

The current project I”m working on is almost entirely based on interviews, around 100 of them in total, each lasting around 90 minutes. That’s going to be a hell of a lot of words. But what do they actually mean? Each piece of data is really just an improvised statement, prompted by a question which the respondent may never have given any thought to previously, all contained in a completely manufactured situation – the interview – which might appear contained, in a room, on a tape, but in fact is very much part of the fabric of the world that it enters, it’s just getting a handle on all the different meanings of the varying performances one encounters in the interview situation which can make your head spin. An enigma machine might be handy.

Is this how Clive Anderson felt after each sweaty, incomprehensible, possibly brilliant performance from Tony Slattery? His response seemed, generally, to give the points to Ryan Stiles.

I think performance is a good way to begin to try and understand the things said and done in interviews though. It’s a metaphor which has found its way across the arts and social sciences with a variety of uses, though all linked – from the conventional notion of actors on a stage with a script, to the regulative performances of teachers when Ofsted are in town, to the (sub, semi, un?) conscious performance of different identities shaped by different social situations. With interviews, we’re looking at elements of all three of these.

One of my current projects is an interview based study exploring the knowledge and identities of managers in the NHS. Not the most popular group of people in the world, which is one of the things that makes them interesting to conduct research with.

My most recent interview was with a woman in her 40s, for the sake of a handle we’ll call her P, who had climbed the ranks of her chosen occupation very successfully, was very friendly, confident, candid, and generous with her time. Sounds like the perfect interview right? Well, it was a very interesting interview, however, I have never felt so policed by an interviewee before. P spoke about the things she wanted to speak about. If a question interested her – or she could move it on to territory that did interest her then she gave some great responses. If the question didn’t interest her or moved outside her comfort/interest zone she simply blanked them, moved the conversation on to something else, or on more than one occasion treated them not as questions but as statements – she just nodded, smiled, maybe just turned up the corner of her mouth or shifted her eyebrow slightly, and I was forced to move on. Given her seniority in the organisation, I am not at all surprised that she is able manipulate a situation to her advantage – I probably gave her very little challenge in this regard.

The tricky question is how to make sense of all this context when looking at the interview later as a piece of data, to be compared, contrasted and categorised with 90 others.

My interview style tends towards allowing the interviewee to follow their own nose as much as possible. Obviously sometimes you need to try and pull things back to your own research interests, otherwise you can be left with a very interesting but completely unwieldy set of data which won’t lend itself to any kind of meaningful system of analysis. There is a sense in which this interview drifted much further from the schedule than I should have allowed. However, I think the responses were heartfelt and honest – which can be two of the greatest unknowns in the interview situation. I found this viewpoint strengthened when P commented, after I had switched the tape recorder off, that she was glad that this would all be anonymised, because she had felt comfortable speaking honestly and openly. If I had stuck more rigidly to the schedule I think I would have got a series of fairly brief, disengaged responses, and actually I think she would have become bored and made moves to terminate the interview earlier. As it was I heard a storm of opinions about P’s everyday work, the decisions she had made in getting to the position she was in, the styles of management and leadership she found inspiring and the things she tried to do to be a role model to others, there was also some very critical opinions about the organisation she was working in and the system of healthcare as a whole. And despite the fact that, like almost everyone I have interviewed for this project, she complained about the lack of hours in the day, she gave me almost 2 hours of her time and seemed not to tire or resent this at any point.

All this stuff was going round my head on my train back home after the interview. I had felt utterly stunned on coming out of the interview, it had been an assault on the senses. In some ways it had been a challenge to my own sense of authority as the interviewer – a role which implies, according to conventional accounts of research, that the interviewer does the steering, and takes control. While I think this conventional account is fundamentally flawed, I think there are still expectations hanging in this kind of situation, that an interviewer is going to come in and ask questions and the interviewee is going to answer them. This can make interviewees very nervous – props like a tape recorder often don’t help, they are all part of the performance, which comes with a set of inherited meanings – being on stage, being watched, judged, making mistakes, forgetting your lines. Sometimes you can work and work at getting what you think might be an unconsidered response – not in the sense that you want someone to be careless, but in the sense that you want someone to not over construct their performance, systematically censoring out anything they don’t want seen. None of this was the case with P. She said exactly what she wanted, sometimes considered, sometimes completely off the cuff, sometimes she would even ironically apologise for an opinion – it all seemed to suggest that she understood the rules, and was happily playing with them in whatever way she wanted.

So, I’m thinking maybe becoming the audience in this particular performance might not have been a bad thing. But every different stage seems to demand a different performance, and still i’m plagued by the eternal, cliched, questions.

What does it all mean?

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Opening Pandora’s Box

In the early spring of 2007 I was about half way through the main piece of research that would eventually become my PhD thesis. I was working in an infant school at the time, where I had done about 1 term’s work in the Year One classroom and was now planning to move onto Year Two. My work had consisted mostly of observation, though some participation is inevitable when you are working around children this young, their curiosity would not allow otherwise. I had got on very well with the class teacher, which can sometimes be a difficult relation for me to manage – unlike many educational researchers I have no background in teaching, so there is not that common ground there, in fact, I always had very strained relationships with teachers, and I guess I have a bit of a neurotic history when it comes to school in general, so I’m always afraid there is some baggage there. Then there is my subject matter – challenging behaviour – it’s an emotive topic, there’s panic about what some see as alarming rises in levels and frequency of such behaviour, lots of explanations passed around and lots of blame, much of it aimed at parents and teachers, but the truth is, no one knows what is going on.  The fact that I am critical of much I see in the world of challenging behaviour, doesn’t necessarily make me popular with teachers, although I do see myself as being ‘on their side’ if we can speak of ‘sides’ without driving binaries further apart. Teachers I have spoken to just want to teach, they don’t want to have to spend all their time disciplining and maintaining order – one of the consequences of this is that scapegoats tend to get excluded in the interests of the rest of the class getting on with their work. And that is exactly the problem; that level of analysis which people might not be accustomed to having their everyday work made visible by, can be the cause of much tension.

One of my strategies in this school was to try and be as open as possible, I wanted teachers and I to develop relationships as critical friends – both able to speak openly to the other’s opinion and engage in some kind of collaborative way on the everyday issues around ‘problem’ children. A central part of this strategy was for me to share my notes in full with the teachers in the classroom where I had collected those notes. This may not sound like such a big deal at first. However, there is almost a certain mysticism around the ‘fieldnote’. In the classical model of anthropology, the researcher went into a community of which he was an ignorant outsider, he would live as a member of this society, but there is an abiding image of the ethnographer scribbling his notes from the door of his tent, alone, in private, secretively. While much as changed in the conventions of ethnography, such images are not always so easy to shed, and there are pragmatic reasons for this. Fieldnotes are a strange, muddled, improvised record of just some of the things seen and heard while in a particular situation. They contain detail upon detail of the most mundane sounding facts of everyday life, that an insider in the situation might have long since stopped noticing, because it is just ‘the routine’. This is precisely the point of them, they take an outsider’s view, they ask, ‘what is happening in this situation?’, ‘what is making this work?’, ‘what are the rules of engagement?’. And they are detailed. Long and detailed. One day I wrote over 5000 words in a single day while I was in the Year One classroom. I was there twice a week for a term. That’s around 20 days in total, so at that rate that’s 100,000 words. Considering an entire thesis is expected to come in within 100,000 words, that is a lot of words. By the time I had completed all my data collection I had around 5 times as many words in data alone than I was expected to produce for the entire thesis, which tells you something about the work of selection and presentation that goes into academic writing. But that’s another story.

So, back to this story. I have completed my work in the Year One classroom, and I go in to meet the teacher, with whom as I said, I was on pretty good terms with, and hand her this ‘occult’ document. The fieldnotes. It’s about 70 pages long. ‘Wow’ she said, ‘you’ve been busy’ or something along those lines. I could already see there was some concern in her reaction. I can’t remember what I said at the time, something reassuring, and off I went with my heart in my mouth. I don’t remember when exactly it was that day that I was walking down the corridor which contained the Year One and Two classrooms as well as the reception area at the end. I think I may have been on my way to speak to the deputy head about something, who was also the reception class teacher. Anyway, the Year One and Two teacher were both stood outside the Year Two door in close congress over some document. My document it turned out, as I approached they looked up and seeing me immediately started throwing accusations at me – ‘what is this you’ve written here?’, ‘why have you written that?’, ‘why did you think that?’. And they had not got beyond the first few pages. The Year One teacher was almost in tears and the Year Two teacher was now saying that she did not want me in her class if this was the sort of thing I would be writing. Again, I cannot remember in the moment what I said, I was so taken aback by this reaction. But I took the Year One teacher away, alone, to talk. I apologised to her and said I should have warned her that there was a very great deal of detail in them. I remember clearly her looking at me and saying that she felt ‘betrayed’ by me. That stuck. I asked her to describe what exactly it was she felt I’d done. She talked about what she had read, about the starkness of some of my opinions, and what she saw as the quickness of my judgement, particularly of her actions in particular situations. I reasoned with her that in the earlier notes I was really just feeling my way around the classroom, and what she saw as snap judgements, were really just honest early impressions, and they would be treated as such when I went back to try and make sense of the whole thing. Eventually I persuaded her to keep on reading, even to just get half way through them and see if she felt like that tone changed at all. She agreed to do this. When I next spoke to her about it she was much calmer. She said she had read on and felt like overall I had reached very balanced and justified conclusions over what I had seen and heard. This was really fantastic, although I knew that she was still reeling a bit from that first encounter with the notes, and she would obviously take a while to settle this emotionally within herself. She very kindly agreed to go and talk to the Year Two class teacher and make sure that things would be ok for me to start work in there the following week. She was definitely an ally – our previous good relationship perhaps carried us through, but this was pretty much the end of our close and confidential relationship, it was like she sort of went into a bit of a shell after this, and though she remained outwardly friendly towards me, I felt like she had closed herself off somewhat.

So, this situation was partially resolved in the end by me persuading the teacher to continue reading, which she did. But they could just have easily taken these notes straight to the head teacher with a major grievance, and I could have found myself turned out. The potential fragility of my situation was really brought home to me that day, and that was a very important lesson to learn.


Betrayal in Academic Research

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?