Truths and Realities:
An Autobiographical Account of a Researcher’s View from the Inside
Dr Andrew Armitage
Anglia Ruskin University
Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Institute of Education, University of London, 5-8 September 2007
Modernity’s positivistic portrayal of absolute truth is according to postmodernists a myth, in a world of multiple realities that people inhabit. As such postmodernism argues for the demise of the meta-narrative, as they claim modernism violates reality and imposes closure upon research process and its findings. This has implications for those engaged in the normative research traditions and paradigms, as it calls into question whose reality and truth do we accept or present to those who read such accounts. This also challenges the motivations that lie behind those who report and publish their findings.
It can be argued that scientific method is no more than a superficial attempt to make the unscientific scientific, and that truth and the veracity of research findings are obfuscated by the dualism of power and knowledge that protect paradigmatical positions. As such the idea that the research process and its findings can ever be truly reflexive is called into question through a personal meta-narrative.
Research findings are often written up for publication perpetuates what is, in fact, a myth of objectivity. It is therefore the intention of this paper is to challenge issues of self-doubts, beliefs, and assumptions using a piece of published research as the vehicle to unfold a personal reflexive discourse of the research process from its conception to the data collection stage.
Conducting research and its eventual publication leads to those receiving, and reading such accounts into the belief that a "tidy" and "orderly" path has been travelled through the research process. Authors of research accounts present an idealised conception of how social and management research is designed and executed, where research is carefully planned in advance, predetermined methods and procedures followed, and results are the inevitable conclusion. Thus, authors of research rarely acknowledge the realities of conducting research, or confronting their own self-doubts, and beliefs in what they are attempting to convey to the recipients of research accounts.
It can also be argued that some authors do not challenge the paradigms that they are working within. Accepting instead the epistemological foundations of their research, and presenting the accompanying literature as the "whole body of knowledge". Therefore, the underpinning research design, data collection methods and procedures and its subsequent analysis would appear to be unchallengeable in terms of its validity and reliability. Researchers rarely admit to their own failings and fallibilities, as this would challenge their self-appointed position as the expert and undermine their role as "judge" and "jury" of the issues under scrutiny. This would doubtless lead those who read such "objective" accounts to doubt the worthiness of findings.
What is presented here is an autobiographical account of my personal struggle as I came to terms with the way I saw the world when conducting research. Section one considers the notion of postmodernism and whether it can offer any answers to my search for truth and reality. Section Two relays my autobiographical accounts from the field. The third section is a personal reflection of my journey.
Section One: Starting my journey
Truth and Reality: The Postmodernism Perspective
Reporting research through personal accounts when searching for truth can be an emancipatory experience (Giroux, 1986) as it challenges the author to reflect critically upon his or her own professional practice in a manner that might not sit comfortably with their own perceived reality of what actually happened. For those who publish their research findings this can painful as it reveals the flaws of their approach when conducting and reporting findings, and might call into question the veracity of any truth claims made. However, the personal account can reveal other and unspoken truths which are not reported in research findings, and these personal truths, it can be argued are just as valid as objective accounts. Therefore, the personal account and one that sets out to discover another truth and reality can be regarded as a threat to positivistic notions of management research.
A major challenge of positivistic management research has come from Bharadwaj (1998), Schön (1995) and Van Maanen (1995). Schön (1995) uses the metaphor of the high ground and the swamp of management research. He suggests that management research sits on the high ground where management problems lend themselves to solution through the use of research-based theory and technique. As Johnson and Duberley (2000:42-43) note: ‘In the swampy lowlands (where he [Schön] suggests equates with management practice) problems are messy and confusing and incapable of technical solution. He [Schön] argues that the problems of the high ground, on the other hand, are unimportant to society and individuals’. Again Van Maaren (1995:139) attacks positivism when he states that ‘our generalisations often display a mind numbing banality and an inexplicable readiness to reduce the field to a set of unexamined, turgid, hypothetical thrusts’.
The creation of reality through a research practitioner’s personal account, therefore, offers an opportunity for him or her to critically analyse their own assumptions as to what took place as the research process unfolded. As Johnson and Duberley (2000:108) state ‘The researcher comes to the fore with the recognition that no methodology is capable of achieving an unmediated objective representation of the facts’. It can be argued from a postmodernist perspective that instead of trying to erase all traces of themselves from their work researchers should seek to demystify technology of mediation by explicitly detailing their involvement (Kilduff and Mehra, 1997). The presentation, therefore, of research findings should not allow the author(s) to over claim their findings in the search for truth. As Richardson (1998:348) notes:
‘[Researchers] don’t have to try to play God, writing as disembodied omniscient narrators claiming universal, a temporal knowledge; they can eschew the questionable narrative of scientific objectivity and still have plenty to say as situated speakers, subjectivities engaged in knowing/telling about the world as they perceive it’.
Validity is often seen as the search for truth, and how and to what extent does an account represent the phenomena that it refers to. The term validity implies that knowledge is possessed which is absolute in its certainty and can be proved without doubt. Johnson and Duberley (2000:144) note that:
‘From a postsructuralist/postmodernist perspective this poses fundamental problems for critical theory. Doubts are raised as to whether the truths assumed by critical theory’s critique of ideology can be separated from relations of power – in other words, can critical theorists step outside hegemonic power relations to assess reality?’
Davidson (1986) also comments upon this issue. He states that:
'Truth is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements’, and that 'Truth is linked to a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects power which induces it and which extends it. A "regime" of truth’.
Critics have claimed that researchers 'rely on presuppositions whose own validity we must take for granted' (Bird and Hammersley, 1996:33). Thus, notions of multiplicity of truth are seen as a problem, as Derrida (1978) states 'it is impossible to arrive at the truth because there is always interpretation'. However, the realities of conducting research and publishing its findings are problematic as Walford (1991:1) notes in his attack on these issues when he states:
‘In practice, however, it is now widely recognised that the careful, objective, step-by-step model of the research process is actually a fraud and that, within natural science as well as within social science. The standard way in which research methods are taught and real research is often written up for publication perpetuates what is a myth of objectivity.’
Power and knowledge relations are inextricably interwoven according to Usher and Edwards (1994:85) who note that 'modernity's liberal-humanist paradigm which is dominant in western industrialised countries and whose influence spreads even wider, accustoms us to seeing knowledge as distinct from, indeed as counterposed to power'. In this view they claim that 'knowledge is a (disinterested) search for truth which power gets in the way of and distorts'. Thus, they go on to posit the view that the implication is, therefore, that ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge are only possible under conditions where power is not exercised (Usher and Edwards, 1994:85).
Validity, therefore, is built upon presuppositions whose own validity we take for granted, and in relying on these for a test of truth, we are forced to rely on further ones. Even scientific research according to Usher and Edwards (1994:85) which is seen as 'the means of discovering the truth of the world', relying in its modernist assumptions of its positivistic methodology of procedures and physical scientific measurement can not be relied upon to seek out and provide truth. As Mouly (1978) warns:
'Experts are essential, particularly in a complex culture such as ours, where knowledge is expanding so rapidly that no one can be an expert at everything. And obviously certain individuals have such wide experience and deep insight that their advice can be of immense benefit. Yet, it must be remembered that no one is infallible, and even the best and most competent are not exclusive possessors of "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth". It would be highly desirable that an "authority" be still living; as new evidence accumulates, authorities have been known to change their mind. Thorndike reversed himself concerning the negative components of the law of effect and Spock has changed his views concerning permissive upbringing. Ancient authorities, confronted with today's greater enlightenment, would very probably want to change their position. In fact, in many instances their views are of greater historical than substantive interest’.
However, the acknowledgement that the relationship of knowledge, power and truth does exist provides a postmodernist position that questions the ethical stance between this triumphate, as Usher and Edwards (1994:85-86) note:
'Truth is the basis for emancipation and progress; truth is gained from knowledge which "faithfully" reflects the "real" world; that knowledge is only possible in the absence of power. Once these operating assumptions are present, anything, which does not satisfy these conditions, is thereby rejected as "falsehood", "mere belief", "wrong headed", and "ideological". Thus, other ways of constructing knowledge and truth are marginalised by this "true path to truth". All other forms of knowledge and truth are suppressed or debased, e.g. religious truth based on revelation, notions of Platonic truth based on Ancient Greek conceptions of truth as "without forgetting", the knowledge and truth of literature, and practitioner-based knowledge. They are all suppressed, ignored or marginalised because they do not have the status of truth'.
Foucault refers to powerful discourse as 'regimes of truth' (Couzens and Hoy, 1988:19), and as such he enables us to see knowledge as 'tied to politics, that is to power'. This challenges the argument that the concept of truth implies knowledge that is beyond all possible doubt becomes unsound.
Another problem with truth arises by the very nature of the research process, which is embroiled in human social life. Thus, there are those who see human inquiry consisting of multiple realities by those who inhabit their environments and that 'there is no single reality to which claims made in research reports correspond' (Bird and Hammersley, 1996:33). Thus, it can be argued that multiple social worlds are created or realities and that 'all perception and cognition involves the construction and phenomena rather than mere discovery' (Bird and Hammersley, 1996:33). Therefore, the struggle for truth is by nature problematic as Derrida (1986) notes 'the problem is the multiplicity of truth; it is impossible to arrive at the one truth because there is always interpretation' (in Usher and Edwards, 1994:20). This might lead us to challenge ‘positivism or indeed any other totalizing meta-narrative’ (Johnson and Duberley, 2000:109).
Postmodernist epistemology challenges us to question our own thinking and our personal comfort zones. It openly challenges the modernistic scientific discourse, as Johnson and Duberley (2000:109) note ‘which imperialistically expunges plurality and forces epistemic closure’ Therefore, postmodernism gives approval to relativism via a subjective epistemology and ontology, and truth becomes relative to an individuals engagement with the world.
As Jeffcutt (1994:228) states ‘"reality" is not separate from its reconstitution, and the world we know is the world represented’ when arguing for a postmodernist epistemology. Thus, value-free knowledge is questionable because it deflects attention from how in practice what counts as scientific knowledge is the product of value judgements that are conditioned by historical and cultural contexts. Whatever claims to objectivity are made, knowledge remains a product of particular values that give it meaning and direction (Alvesson and Willmott, 1996).
It can, therefore, be argued that postmodernism views the world in a relativistic manner and is the result of representational practices (Johnson and Duberley, 2000:110). Therefore, the criteria of truth cannot be provided independently and outside of itself. Beliefs, theories, or values are claimed to be relative to the age or society that produced them and not valid outside those circumstances. Thus, all knowledge is socially produced and is, therefore, defective since social interests distort it. Therefore, since all knowledge is distorted, there are no independent standards of truth. This in itself proves a difficulty, as it implies that there is no way of validating relativistic theories themselves.
Thus, the notions of reflexivity are bound up in the arguments of truth, and that interpretations and understandings of social settings are relativistic in nature where both participants and observers of the research process can not claim any divine right to these interpretations and understandings. Rosen (1991:2) notes that ‘by recognizing the link between studying others and discovering about self as learner and change agent researchers "bring the place of epistemology, the place of the meaning of data and enquiry to the forefront of activity"’. Thus, reflexivity has traditionally been seen as a problem which is dealt by the modernity’s positivism. As Usher (1993:131) notes: ‘The world always comes already interpreted - in other words, as a text. As such, it has openness, an indeterminacy that as we have seen earlier can only be closed, made determinate, measurable, lawful, by violence’.
Still further the role of the reader of research findings is recognised within the postmodern genre as they too bring their own assumptions and values to its interpretation. As Johnson and Duberley (2000:109) note ‘Thus, reading is recognised as a creative process, a recognition which adds to the impossibility of identifying an overarching reality of truth’. Therefore, postmodernism challenges the notions that truth claims can be objectively arrived at. Richardson (1998:348) supports this when he states:
‘[Researchers] don’t have to try to play god, writing as disembodied omniscient narrators claiming universal, temporal general knowledge; they can eschew the questionable meta-narrative of scientific objectivity and still have plenty to say as situated speakers, subjectivities engaged in knowing/telling about the world as they perceive it.’
However, it could be argued reflexivity is not possible as this requires the researcher to engage in the act of research. This is problematic as subjective reality expresses an individuals’ perspective of the world(s) that they live in, the way they interact, and interpret the world(s) they inhabit. As Burell and Morgan (1979) note:
‘The emphasis in extreme cases tends to be placed upon the explanation and understanding of what is unique and particular to the individual rather than what is general and universal. This approach questions whether there exists an eternal reality worthy of study. In methodological terms it is an approach which emphasises the relativistic nature of the social world' (in Cohen and Manion, 1994:8.’
This is further exacerbated when the research violates truth via the researcher-researched relationship in the form of power and knowledge. As Foucault (1988) notes:
‘My problem has always been the problem of the relationship between subject and truth. How does the subject enter into a certain game of truth? So it is that I was led to pose the problem power-knowledge, which is not for me the fundamental problem but an instrument allowing the analysis - in a way that seems to me be the most exact - of the problem of the relationships between subject and games of truth.’
Harvey (1990:12) has also expressed concerns about the relationship between the researcher and the researched, which he claims is ‘assumed by a positivist stance contrary to the aims of critical theory’.
This, he argues, is because:
It subverts the critical process, presupposing the primacy of the researcher’s frame of reference.
It presupposes a one-way flow of information which leaves the respondent in exactly the same position after having shared knowledge and ignores the self-reflexive process that imparting the information involves.
The direct corollary of the self-reflection is the inevitable engagement in dialogue where information is required or perspectives need to be discussed. The involvement of the researcher in this real dialogue involves them in the critical process.
The critical ethnographic interview (in whatever its form) is not neutral but directs attention at oppressive social structures and informs both researcher and respondent. Thus, digging down to reveal the respondent’s frame of reference is not meant to be an oppressive hierarchical process but a liberating dialogical one.
Therefore, it can be argued that research methodology can be seen as rhetorical attempt to persuade the reader of the scientific authenticity of the document. Positivists, using the language of the natural sciences and removing themselves from the research process, seek to persuade others that their research is objective and valid (Johnson and Duberley, 2000:108).
From a critical theorists perspective is that valid knowledge can only emerge from a situation of open, free and uninterrupted dialogue, and takes the form of self conscious criticism (Kincheloe and McLaren, 1998:260-299). Habermas (1963, and 1970:360-375) being a principal exponent of this genre and an opponent of positivism argues that the idea of a neutral apolitical science, based on a rigid separation of facts and values. This he claims is untenable since questions of truth are inextricably bound up with political problems of freedom to communicate and to exchange ideas.
This also raises the issue of approaches to research and the way veracity and the researchers’ own truth claims are arrived at, and that any form of knowledge is an instrument of self-preservation as exemplified in Marshall's (1981:399) account of doing personal research. Goodman (1984:29) characterises this as a kind of rigorously constrained relativism that does not hold that ‘everything or even anything is real, but sees the world melting into versions and versions making worlds, finds ontology evanescent, and inquires into what makes a version right and a world well-built’. Marshall openly challenges her own research process and findings within her account, when she states:
‘Because my feeling of rightness is important, my feeling that this is what I can do, it's my translation, what I have found and interpreted from my data. My bias is something I appreciate, it's part of me as a researcher. And while it is important for me and for others to recognise my bias, it really is what I can give as a researcher, it is my contribution, and it's coherent and it's felt and it has all these other qualities which make me value it more than a detached attempt to be objective. I work from a particular position; I appreciate other positions, and I feel that each has its own integrity and its own validity'.
However, although extolling the virtues of individuality and recognising her own uniqueness, feelings of anguish and anxiety which are part and of reporting research findings as she notes in the following extract, truth can become blurred with uncertainty:
'There's another dark side to this, the feeling that I've made it all up, and Help! How can I justify all this? It's this thing about knowing, sometimes I lose it, sometimes I look at words on a page and think, do I really remember, do I know? This is a difficulty with this approach; it is something you learn to live with'.
Different individuals might conclude that contradictory views of the ‘same’ phenomena by different individuals and groups are equally 'true' from their own perspective. Therefore, research does not create truth nor provide an account of an independent reality but as Bird and Hammersley (1996:33) note it can 'create the social worlds they purport to describe, for instance through textual strategies of various kinds'. Therefore, we cannot be sure of the 'truth' or falsity of our claims about reality. As Popper (1959) argues it is not possible to produce laws that will necessarily be found to be true for all time, and that there is always the possibility that at some future date the theory will be proved wrong, or falsified. The issues are not only that we can be certain of 'truth' (or falsity) of our claims, but also as Bird and Hammersley (1996:33) note:
'That we have no grounds for believing that there are phenomena which are independent of our knowledge of them, since all the knowledge we can ever have is formed by our culture, and that culture is one of many.’
Thus, when acknowledging reflexivity, which claims that, the activity of the knower always, influences what is known, nothing can be known through those activities. As Usher and Edwards (1994:148) point out:
‘The question that then follows from this inevitable reflexivity is that research, the making of knowledge claims, is dependent upon the activity of the researcher, can such knowledge be ever a truthful representation - in other words, are we as researchers researching the world, or ourselves as makers of knowledge - claims? Can research ever be anything more than a subtle form of writing self?’
As McHale (1992) notes, the essence of the modernistic project is encapsulated by the question 'how can the world be truthfully known?'. Therefore, it can be argued that research, it's processes, and outputs carries an epistemology whereby a theory about knowledge and truth, and their relationship to the world or 'reality' must be questioned. Therefore, epistemology is value ridden as Usher and Edwards (1994:149) note 'This epistemology is never "innocent" because it always contains within itself a set of values - which means there is always a politics of research, an implication of research with power relations. Epistemic reflexivity makes us more aware of the necessary place of research communities and the power of the exclusion and closure of such communities'.
Section Two: Personal Tales from the Field
Tale 1: A Personal Account of Creating Reality
The notion that truth can ever be attained is challenged through a case study research and its findings, which was undertaken by me. The research described how two case studies were reported by me as a single researcher, and provided an international conference paper. Much of what has been discussed in the previous section causes me concern, and Walford's (1991) comments noted earlier the research is a fraud sit uncomfortably with me, as I can identify with his assertions. What follows here is a reflexive account of my personal innermost thoughts regarding my own praxis as a researcher. This is my meta-narrative, my truth.
The two case studies were undertaken to add knowledge to an under researched area of business excellence. The European Foundation Quality Management Award (EFQM) enables organisations to assess how far they embody the principles and best practices of Total Quality Management (TQM). Like its American counterpart, the Malcolm Baldridge Award, the EFQMs Business Excellence Model (BEM) can be used as a self-assessment diagnostic tool to measure progress towards organisational excellence. However, other organisations use it to enter the annual quality awards either on a European (European Quality Award), UK (The British Quality Foundation), or regional basis (via twelve independent regional awarding bodies which are affiliated to the British Quality Foundation).
This research reported two case studies of two Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) who had used the BEM to enter the 1999 East of England Excellence (EEE) regional Business Excellence Quality Award. The experiences of these organisations were discussed highlighting their journey towards the adoption of the BEM, and eventual entry to the EEE Quality award. The studies were undertaken to broaden the understanding of the use of the BEM in SMEs where accounts within this sector of industry and commerce are not widely reported. Although the two organisations that took part in the research were different, one being in the manufacturing sector and the other a public service provider, the studies revealed many commonalties in their approach and adoption of the BEM and eventual entry to the EEE Quality Award. The feedback that I received from the conference committee was positive and that my research would be a valuable contribution to the use of the BEM, and its application within SMEs.
My intentions were to tell a truthful account and the data gathering phase of the research was undertaken with much sensitivity. I respected my respondents’ rights of not being audio recorded. I was fully open with them, and did even tell them it was my intentions to publish after the research was completed. But what you see here as a finished article, obfuscates the actualities of conducting the research.
I started to question the validity of my findings from the outset. I entered the research arena uncertain of what I was doing was really of worth. Yes, case studies are case studies, and as such I was aware my sample size of two, was to say the least rather small. Grounded theory was the order of the day; generalisations were certainly not on the agenda. But I was faced with a dilemma, or so I perceived. How could I make the findings appealing to wider audiences based on only two cases? I became selective in the evidence that I reported. This was not my intention, but I sought to confirm others’ findings from similar or related studies. I was in effect creating an allusion of truth, my truth. However, I did not ignore "outlying" data, it’s just that it did not feature as prominently as confirmatory data that supported my case.
I had created a new ontological and epistemological perspective. I could not be sure that if I repeated the same research again, even with the same respondents, in the same research settings and environments, that I would reach the same findings and conclusions. I violated others’ "truth", as it was dawning on me that truth by nature is problematic, due to its violation through my personal interpretations (Derrida, 1986). These interpretations were coloured, influenced, and constructed by my inculcation within the literature (Bird and Hammersley, 1996). I had in effect decided before I even gathered my data, never mind analysed it, to reach conclusions based on the literature studies, and research findings of others. I was working in a modernistic genre, which was noted earlier by Johnson and Duberley (2000) as imperialistically expunging plurality and forcing epistemic closure. I was not reflecting the "real world". I was imposing my own power through the literature. I became a slave to the scientific method; emancipation of those who participated in the research through my findings was not part of my agenda. I had compromised others’ realities and truth to pander to what I thought others would wish to read in order to get it published.
As I untangled my accounts by transcription, and hand written notes, I felt that I lost something. I filled gaps in to my respondents’ narrative in order to make sense of the raw data. I constantly asked myself: "Is this was what was actually said?", or, "Did they mean this instead or that?". I was becoming conscious of my privileged position of power, which was unidirectional and unchallengeable as I "made sense" of my respondents’ accounts. Was I acting ethically as a researcher by adding, and filling in gaps? However, as I progressed through the process of "data analysis" I was sub-consciously reflecting and interrogating my own practices, and deconstructing my own representational practices. I was in effect a pragmatic-critical realist, emphasising how I can elucidate, and act upon, the value-laden ramifications of my knowledge products in the light of competing ethical concerns (Johnson and Duberley, 2000:188). As Holland (1999:142) notes:
‘This as the highest level of reflective analysis which is not so much a fixed location as a method of evaluating existing system of knowledge, tied in as they are to sectional interests and constellations of power. It invites re-entry into the epistemological and sectional complexities of our human condition to intervene, "knowingly" according to our ethical priorities.’
Therefore, I felt that I had no new knowledge, no new insights, no "new truth" to add to existing realities, or bring to the world. I decided sub-consciously to define my own world, embedded in my own way of defining the world. Added to this, my respondents were telling me of their realities, their truths, their knowledge. As Melicci (1996:224) notes ‘The social scientist among them can only aid the actors in releasing the suppressed contents constituting their self-understandings’. I suppose that in reality I was frightened to go against what published data existed. I slipped quietly from my idealism into others’ truths and paradigms. I cited what I considered well-respected accounts, research and discourse. In effect, I "inflated" my own findings beyond what the data was actually telling me. Over claiming or telling untruths was not my objective, but I weighted my findings to coincide with what others had found, and made tenuous connections to wider research in order to move, what was in effect case study findings in to generalised conclusions that would appeal to my intended audiences.
My original manuscript was seventeen pages long and it contained direct quotes, facts and figures, warts and all. I broke personal accounts via unstructured interviews into pieces and reconstructed a new jigsaw, a new puzzle, held together by the glue of truth - quote here, a quote there, and a plausible story and narrative emerged. I was pleased! Look, I told myself, different independent accounts that could corroborate each other. I thought that I had unearthed new revelations. What was true in the case studies must be true elsewhere. It was obvious really; the wider literature supported my thesis, my central arguments. But what had I really done? I had abused raw, unadulterated data to create not a new set of realities, and to confirm accepted or existing ones. But why? To publish, to chase research exercise assessment (REA) points, to contribute to my research centres reputation, to be seen, to be read, to be an "expert". I had in effect turned my fieldwork into my reality. Well that’s how I felt after distilling my original manuscript and field notes, to reduce it from its original nine thousand words to a mere three thousand for publication in the conference proceedings.
Yes, there is plenty of scope to hide, ignore, overlook, embellish, and over claim. Methodology and original field notes and transcripts will not be asked for, nor be questioned when the paper is presented. All that matters to the research community, and industrialists, is the bottom line – what did you find, what’s in it for me, what are the implications of the findings? I might seem dismissive, ungenerous, and discourteous to my intended audience, but as I undertook my editorial licence to make it possible for publication these were my thoughts. As I was completing this task my mind flashed back to something Usher (1993) noted in that postmodernism challenges foundationalism, the position that knowledge is founded in disciplines, and the consequent boundary-defining and maintenance that is characteristic of disciplinary knowledge. I convinced myself that I had created a reasoned, connected, and totalising account. I was firmly located in the modernist epistemological project. I had reconstructed social reality (Acker et al, 1991). I had produced what I considered a tight, well founded and justified study, but I felt this was a hollow victory – this was not reality, it was fictional realism, founded on a fictional ontology and epistemology.
What disturbed me though was that I could be challenged, but I could tell my audience anything I wanted if they questioned my approach. To me this was not research. It was not a critical evaluation of my praxis. To the unsuspecting that is how it appears, to me it asks searching questions. Does research have any value? What does research have to offer the world? I became uncertain about these questions.
History teaches us that no research has unearthed the truth, whether of the qualitative or of the phenomenological genre. I questioned as to whether other methods might be appropriate to find truth, and reporting ethical findings. Again Usher (1991) touched my conscious, that research is always collective, even when not undertaken collectively. It is collective in the sense of its intertextuallity, and it is a delimited set of activities which is legitimated by a relevant community where activities are judged appropriate, and function as criteria for validating knowledge outcomes, whilst others are ruled out of order and excluded. Closure is imposed by rules of exclusion and set boundaries. Thus, what counts as legitimate research, valid knowledge outcomes and truth are restricted, and contaminated. Lather (1991:xv) states that:
‘The "world-making", constructive quality of research can either be denied – as it is for example, in the positivist/empiricist tradition – or it can be acknowledged. To acknowledge it involves laying bare the activity of knowing, and foregrounding is what is involved in "world-making".’
What I was really asking of myself was a deeper question, that of researching the research. I was violating social realities. As Usher (1991) notes:
‘By asking this question, the research act is made self-referential of reflexive. This is an activity which is familiar enough in literary texts that dominate the knowledge-producing communities of social research denies it through its own textual practices. Yet since all research including positivist/empiricist research, is a textual practice and since reflexivity is a function of textuality then any denial of reflexivity misses out an important dimension of the activity of research’.
Tale 2: And then there were three
What follows are the initial discussions over a period of five weeks that ensued at the beginning of a project between myself and two research colleagues. Undertaking any type of research requires those involved to formulate a set of research questions. Being the "senior" member of the research team and the author of the original research proposal when obtaining the funding to undertake the research, it fell to me at our first meeting to commute this to my fellow team members.
The initial focus of our study centred around "Quality and how does it affect educational choice at post 16", which I thought was an appropriate starting point, and set of issues to explore. My fellow researchers thought differently. I was challenged on the issue of what did I mean by quality and what I meant by post 16 education. A debate, at times heated, took place at the first meeting. Defining words and phrases were not on my agenda - I just wanted to get on with the research and publish. The clash of ideas and ideals was something that I had not considered. I felt hurt and affronted, they had challenged the perceived expert, the instigator of the project. I felt exposed. Secretly, deep down I had to concede to myself that they were right issues of definitions had to be ironed out before we could even establish what the real focus of the project was.
My initial motivations for the focus of the research were influenced by the area of work I was involved in, and to justify the project I had to convince my line manager that it sat in our existing portfolio of work within our research unit. I felt that any perceived deviation away from quality as a central theme would have jeopardised the project before it had been conceived, thus I had to justify how quality and post 16 educational choice could co-exist in the unit’s commercial environment. I was playing a political game of cat and mouse, but in so doing I had "compromised" myself. As Schön (1991:345) notes:
‘The idea of reflective practice leads, in a sense both similar to and different from radical criticism, to a demystification of personal expertise. It leads us to recognise that for both the professional and counter professional, special knowledge is embedded in evaluative frames which bear the stamp of human values and interest’.
Once the facade of the "expert" had been taken from me, I felt that the group dynamics became more open, and inclusive. This is not say that I wanted to act autocratically or wished to dominate group discussion. This certainly made me sit back and reflect upon my practice and events, even at this early stage, as Schön (1991:345) notes ‘[It also] leads us to recognise that the scope of technical expertise is limited by situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and conflict’.
Three meetings and one month into the project, we were faced with establishing the methodology and the method of data analysis. Surely now my knowledge and background in these issues would stand the test. I had fixed, but valid in my opinion ideas as to how this phase of the project should be conducted, as Schön (1991:345) notes:
‘It is not difficult to see how the traditional epistemology of practice holds a potential for coercion. We need not make the (possibly valid) attribution that professionals are motivated by the wish to serve class interests or protect their special status
Surely there would be no opposition to me proposing to my colleagues an inductive rather than deductive approach for the methodology? To me it was obvious that we were going to get data and build a grand meta-theory from our findings, yes, even ground-breaking discoveries. Illusions of grandeur were to elude me. Again I found that I was under challenge in these issues.
Yes, my fellow researchers saw my point of view, but my initial proposition of using questionnaires, and follow up interviews, were perhaps too much to of a small-scale project, something to do with time, and of my researchers themselves, who were after all doing this part-time. As one of them noted they were not full-time research assistants, and they did have other lives to conduct. Point taken. I had to concede. I had to re-think a new strategy.
Again a debate took place concerning the research instrument to be used. After much discussion I had to reluctantly climb down from doing follow-up interviews. Issues of who, what, where, when, and how had ensued around the methodology. My pleads for "research purity" and triangulation fell, so it seemed to me to fall upon deaf ears. The project was I felt was degenerating into a "quick and dirty" market research exercise, which is far removed from academic, well structured scientific method. Deep down I felt that any data that we collected would not stand the test of academic scrutiny, and cracks were now appearing in the very heart of the project. Methodology was to me sacrosanct, its rigour had to be upheld, it now had serious weaknesses, and I saw this as an area of concern if were to publish in the academic journals. I kept my peace. The show had to go on as they say.
Then we turned our attentions to the questionnaire. In my wisdom I had decided to use an existing questionnaire. It was a tried and tested instrument that had been used in other studies. This seemed logical to me, as it would save us time devising something from scratch, and would, therefore, save us time. The questionnaire was eventually adopted, but I had to justify its use and applicability to the project. Much discussion, which was quite contentious at times, took place. The wording of the questions was changed so it could be used for both the student and staff groups. With over forty questions to re-phrase, several meetings had to take place before we ironed out and were satisfied with the wording. Added to this we had also to re-think how the grouping of questions together should look.
The original questionnaire had been devised to be used in schools by Sallis (1988), it was not in an appropriate form to be used for students and staff (the latter were included in the study in order to establish a perception gap between what students wanted, and what staff thought they provided). We also had to re-word the header of the questionnaire so as to accommodate student and staff information, although it was decided to give out different questionnaires to students and staff, so that there would not be an information overload at the head of the questionnaire. The questions themselves, however, were identical for both students and staff.
We were now three months into the project. I had envisaged a six-month project. I was worried. Time was passing by at an alarming rate. Would I have enough funding to pay for my two research colleagues, all these meetings were draining the funds, and we had not started to distribute the questionnaires, and the data analysis was nowhere on the horizon yet. I was seriously considering suspending the project as the opportunity to collect the data was almost upon us. As yet, we had to get permission to gain access to the six schools, and two colleges that we eventually identified to take part in the study. The examination season was looming. Term three, the "exam term", in these types of institutions is always fraught as time is a valuable commodity for teachers and pupils alike.
The selection of institutions that were to take part in the study was undertaken simultaneous to the development of the questionnaire. At this stage I was really out on limb, and had to completely let go of the project, taking a subordinate role to that of my fellow research colleagues as they had "insider knowledge" of the schools in the chosen research environment.
As such, we were now in a position to better assess which schools to or not to approach on a list of the types of schools in the area. Thus, we arrived at a "representative" sample of the different types of schools. The two colleges, one being a sixth form college, the other a college of further education, were self selecting as they are the only institutions of this type in the area considered. This part of the project was less contentious; myself and the other team member being happy to let our resident expert lead us through this stage of the project. We were all mindful of the time constraints, both the project timing, and impingement upon other commitments, such as work and family life. The project was turning into an uncontrollable monster.
The questionnaire was duly piloted with the career service, amended and distributed to the schools and colleges. But I was haunted by the fact that my confidence in our methodology was not one hundred percent, and any results we would get from the data would be just numbers without meaning.
The administration of the questionnaires within each of the institutions was also problematic. None of the research team could be present when they were distributed, completed, collected, and returned. Thus, issues of standardisation and consistency when conducting fieldwork was, I felt, questionable. If triangulation was a problem, how would the research community view this unscientific mess? I felt that any claims we would make would be rather tacit, and inconsequential due to the lack of rigour. As Schön (1991, p.346) notes:
‘If there are important limits to the scope of technical expertise, we will want to make sure that professionals do not overstep those limits in their claims to authority based merely on technical competence’.
But, the study had to progress, and whether or not I agreed with my fellow researchers, I was now committed to go through with the project. I had compromised, I felt my ideals in order to get "a job done". This vexed me, but I had to accept it was perhaps a sad fact of life. How could I claim any sort of authority or expertise in a methodology I knew ought to be more rigorous, and in data that was not potentially valid or reliable? My self-doubts are echoed by Schön (1991, p.346) when he states that:
‘If technical expertise is value-laden, and technical experts have interests of their own which shape their understandings and judgements, then we will recognise the need for social constraints on professional freedom’.
The words value-laden and technical experts did not sit easy with me. They were a challenge to research ethics. What had happened to honesty and integrity? We were not, I felt, being fair to those taking part in the study, and to those who might read and use our research findings. I asked myself: is all academic research a fudge – an illusion?
Section 3: A Reflective Account of my Journey
Trying to make sense of my personal journey
The preceding personal accounts highlight many points that challenge epistemological and ontological precepts of the research process. The fact that diversity of ideas and approaches exist, leads one to call into question whether there is such an entity as academic research. It can be argued from the foregoing that careful, objective, step-by-step modelling of the research process is "fraudulent". The myth of objectivity and sureness of those conducting research has to be called into question, as the reality of my own experiences demonstrates. But should I take it personally if I have not thought through all the ifs, what’s and buts? Certainly the early stages of the project revealed that my perceived expertise was under question.
As Walford (1994, p.1) notes:
‘There are now several autobiographical accounts by scientists themselves and academic studies by sociologists of science that show that natural science research is frequently not planned in advance and conducted according to set procedures, but often centres around compromises, short-cuts, hunches, and serendipitous occurrences’.
This certainly captures many of my feelings and fears that I had during the research process. Moreover, this is exemplified further over my concerns of the research being of a scientific and objective nature. But I question the whole nature and essence of objectivity in the research project as described here. As Walford (1991:2) states ‘most social science and educational research methods textbooks have abstracted the researcher from the process of research in the same way as have natural sciences books’. Certainly my experiences do not validate such a position.
The account given here of the project is one that challenged, involved, and at times alienated me from the research process. It led me question what is the point of doing research if I have no confidence in the procedures used, sample selection, and data interpretation? All research outputs are at the very least problematic. As Walford (1991:2) notes:
‘Is it little wonder that when the novice researcher finds unforeseen difficulties, conflicts and ambiguities in doing research he or she will tend to se these as personal deficiencies arising from insufficient preparation, knowledge or experience’.
It can be argued that standard procedures have been undertaken and carried out, but the realities were different. Reflexive accounts such as that given earlier are not, if rarely in the public domain. They would be a challenge to the research community, stripping away the thin veil of truth, and objectivity. Their Holy Grail of epistemology would be laid bare.
It can also be argued that reflexivity is a problem to be avoided because it would contaminate or influence the status of research outcomes as truthful representations and valid knowledge claims (Usher and Edwards, 1994, p.148). Traditional research accounts miss out, or gloss over the things that went wrong, and that individuals engaged in research do not behave as what Walford (1991, p.2) terms ‘an objective "autonoman"’. Therefore, my feelings of making knowledge-claims and questioning as to whether they can be truthful sits uneasily with me. As Usher and Edwards (1994, p.148) note:
‘The question that then follows from this inevitable reflexivity is that if research, the making of knowledge-claims, is dependent upon the activity of the researcher, can such knowledge ever be a truthful representation - in other words, are we as researchers researching the world, or ourselves as makers of knowledge claims? Can research ever be anything more than a subtle form of writing the self?’
The argument can thus be extended to question as to what extent reflexivity of our practice is part of the world constructed through research. This is noted by Usher and Edwards (1994, p.148) when they state that ‘More than this, however, by becoming aware of the operation of reflexivity in the practice of research, the place of power, discourse and text, that which goes "beyond" the purely personal is revealed’. This certainly has some resonance when my feelings of uncertainty abounded around the issues of questionnaire distribution, and subsequent results from the data. The issue of power sat uneasily with my position of wanting (and trying) to give a truthful account as I saw it.
My perceptions of a compromise of the "pure" research project vis-à-vis the realities of the outside world, and the conflict with my fellow researchers vexed my conscience. Walford’s (1991) claim of research being a fraud, and a myth of objectivity, had a familiar ring to it. Thus, what Harvey (1990) terms methodological reflexivity, where the aim is to improve research practice through the facilitation of a more accurate representation of reality via the eradication of methodological lapses, was in my view violated. Therefore, the objectivists view of epistemology that presupposes the possibility of a theory-neutral observational language, i.e. is it possible to access the external world objectively, was now invalid. A subjectivist epistemology, rejecting all my claims of objectivity was thrust upon me without warning, and was an uncomfortable mantle to carry. How could I (we) publish such a "shoddy" piece of work, and what would the reaction be of my peers?
I was also being challenged by what I came to term "multiple ontological perspectives", the reality of what "is" as opposed to what "ought" - the dichotomy between what happened vis-à-vis what is portrayed as happening. How many realities of existence are there? This led me to a fundamental question: Is there such a thing as research? Can it or does it exist? It seemed so ephemeral, that any findings, and conclusions would be meaningless, as social research is "of the moment", its dependency upon peoples emotions, opinions, and perceptions means that all research is out of date the moment that it is published. What value is this to anyone? I was now dealing with what Johnson and Duberley (2000:183) call subjectivist ontology and epistemology. I found myself located in postmodern conventionalism. As Holland (1999:463) notes:
‘Conventionalists will either have an emphasis upon comparing incommensurable paradigms with each other so as to reflexively highlight their contradictions and conflicts, or they will have an emphasis upon a commensurable view of paradigms - as clusters of disciplinary alternatives which may be drawn up in an eclectic manner so as to give different socially constructed snapshots of the same reality’.
The postmodern location meant that I was dealing with multiple versions of reality where ‘truth and objectivity are merely the outcomes of prestigious discursive practices which sublimate partiality by masking how the scientist, the processes of observation and scientific knowledge, are all inextricably intertwined’ (Johnson and Duberley, 2000:184).
Therefore, my fears concerning claims of how the research was conducted, its subsequent analysis, and the perception of a neat and tidy "scientific" process were not unfounded. What that account lacked was "a truth" and "a reality" of events, a perspective that challenges the way research is reported, a meta-narrative that gives the reader a personal engagement with the researcher(s) as they strive for truth. As Johnson and Duberley (2000:185) note:
‘One of the benefits of the arrival of postmodernism in the management field has been its focus on the multiple versions of reality which means researchers (or anyone else) have to be humble about any claims they make to represent reality’.
This is a comforting thought, but one has to ask the question: how many academic researchers are willing to put their reputation and careers on the line? I might be so bold to hazard a guess, very few.
A re-assessment of the theoretical underpinnings of doing Autobiographical research
It was not until I had had completed the foregoing accounts that I came to a realisation that my initial location within the postmodern was not the totality of the autobiographical experience I had undertaken. It dawned upon me that the postmodern was merely the representation of the autobiographical to the world and not the process of how I came to know myself and to know the world, something that I can now only come to know as a consequence of undertaking my accounts. Autobiographical/self-study research stands out as a unique approach to conducting research and prompted me to consider the following attributes of what I had experienced concerning my reality as being:
The ego: The self as critical of the self
The id: That part of the psyche that is totally unconscious that acts on the ego
Super ego: The division of the psyche that censors/restrain the ego
Traditional interpretive paradigms are unhelpful as they project the self onto the world – or the world onto the self
Self-study research projects the self onto the self - we need to consider other alternatives – a paradigm of ‘Self Development’
The notion of self-development as a possible starting point for my self to be aware if itself and of the world drew me to consider the possibility of Heidegger’s Daisen and the notion of my self having an existence prior to it having essence. It drew me to consider the meaning of human existence – my existence and my self awareness and my self’s self-doubt of itself – I was positing the existentialist notion of existence preceding essence and how my being related to the world and the self’s starting point as been involved and engaged with the world in order to find its own meaning and purpose. As a moral agent and as an individual were naturally socially constructed and susceptible to change as I moved through my journey. Because this placed the self upon becoming as a being my position was particular to my self – truth for my self was to be found in the subjectivity of how it perceived the situation it found itself in when reporting the autobiographical accounts. I was free to determine my exposure to the world, and because the existentialist self has no finititude its project to completeness is never complete and is always in a state of becoming. Thus my existentialist stance separated the identity of subject and object; thought and being – I was engaged in living, existing and acting through my accounts of my subjective reality. Thus subjective truth of my accounts was one of inwardness – the self reflecting on the self – thus my self – my individualism was the truth of my autobiographical accounts. I referred to the Sarterian notion of being which seemed to encapsulate my inner feelings of my autobiographical accounts.
Existence precedes essence
This is a reversal of the Aristotle that essence precedes existence, where man exists to fulfil some purpose.
Sartrean existentialism argues that man has no predefined purpose or meaning; rather, humans define themselves in terms of who they become as their individual lives are played out in response to the challenges posed by existence in the world
Values are subjective
Sartre accepts the premise that something in the "Facticity" (i.e., the properties of an object or person as traditionally conceived and experienced) of an individual is valuable because the individual consciousness chooses to value it.
Sartre denies that there are any objective standards on which to base values.
Sartre believed that people lie to themselves and, underneath these lies, people negate their own being through patterns.
The preceperi is similar to what today is called insight. It is necessary to get rid of bad faith.
Sartre believed that beings possess the power to look at themselves and at another or an object, which is to use one's mind to look at the person in static.
This concept of "looking" and the power to look is referred to as The Gaze. This destroys an object's subjectivity.
The thing becomes an "in itself" or an object.
Sartre stated that this form of consciousness was used quite often in inter-personal relationships. People place meaning onto what other people think of them rather than what they think of themselves.
This process of radically re-aligning this meaning from The Gaze onto one's own being is what leads to periods of existential angst
Being for others
Sartre believed that people who cannot embrace their freedom seek to be "looked at," that is, to be made an object of another's subjectivity. This creates a clash of freedoms whereby person A's being (or sense of identity) is controlled by what person B's thoughts about him are.
Responsibility for choices
The individual consciousness is responsible for all the choices it makes, regardless of the consequences. Condemned to be free because man's actions and choices are his and his alone, he is condemned to be responsible for his free choices.
Table 1 Sartre’s Being
These discoveries of the self lead me to conceptualise my original ontological and epistemological position. I had put another piece of the jigsaw into my fuller understanding of where autobiographical research is located from a philosophical perspective – something not overtly considered elsewhere. Thus I saw the process as one moving from the nature of being, the existentialist to representation of the being in the postmodern – I captured this in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1 from the existentialist to the postmodern
As a reflective practitioner it is only right to ask a simple, but basic question about conducting research: What have I learnt from it? The foregoing reflexive account of the research project from conception to data collection revealed the messiness of the process. It exposed me to my own vulnerabilities of process and technical knowledge. It challenged my pre-set assumptions about a scientific process that can be supposedly applied to the undertaking of research.
This is not to say that I was unaware research is not a linear process, but conducting even a small scale, and well contained project proved to be problematic. If my view of the scientific method of discovery was appealing to my way of thinking and conceptualising the world at the outset of the project, then these were quickly dismantled.
The conclusion of the project and of its publication has left a cold feeling within me. It has added personal knowledge, but not in the way I had expected. I am now uneasy about any type of research, whether it is naturalistic or phenomenological, quantitative or qualitative. I no longer stand in awe at research or its findings. The project has made me think more deeply about the question of truth, objectivity, and power, and the whole debate about ontology and epistemology. My beliefs concerning the furtherment of knowledge are now one of a guarded sceptic. It would appear I am now grappling with postmodernistic issues, but that was not my intention when embarking upon the project. As Baudrillard (1988, p.54) notes:
‘The point is not to write the sociology or psychology of the car, the point is to drive....that way you learn more about this [American] society than all academia could tell you’.
This challenges the way we think of research as providing a special kind of methodologically validated knowledge about society, which driving could not possibly provide. Thus, the meta-narrative could prove uncomfortable for researchers as it might reveal conflicting truths, ontologies, and epistemologies which do not fit readily into conventional wisdom or research paradigms.
However, if we were to adopt the postmodernists ontological and epistemological position, which according to Johnson and Duberley (2000:184) ‘problematises epistemic reflexivity in two quite different ways, driven by the same relativistic arguments - silence and hyper-reflexivity’ then meta-narratives through story-telling would not be published. The researcher’s interpretative framework in which they locate themselves would violate such accounts. This is noted by Johnson and Duberley (2000, p.184) who state that:
‘by decentring the subject, the possibility to reflect rationally upon and develop self-knowledge by interrogating one’s own meta-theoretical assumptions is dismissed since people can neither posses such agency and independent volition nor autonomously choose their discursive communities’.
Again the notion of epistemic reflexivity is challenged, where any form of or act of representation is denied, including as Johnson and Duberley (2000, p.184) state ‘their own presentation of such arguments in any form’. Thus, if relativism pre-dominates, can anything really be said, as Johnson and Duberley (2000. p.184) further note:
‘Indeed is there a danger that by saying or writing something you privilege it?’
This certainly would have implications for the reflexive account here. It can be defended on the grounds of privilege, this is my account, my truth, and it is as valid as the next persons. But it, after all is only a reflexive account that describes my relativistic position when describing the research project that two colleagues and I engaged in. However, Johnson and Duberley (2000, p.184) defend this relativistic position stating that:
‘This reported/reportable postmodern approach to reflexivity takes a relativistic notion that the world is the result of representational practice as justifying the demand that management researchers must reflexively deconstruct their own representational practices’.
Thus, the personal accounts given here provide an attack on positivism, and representationalism. Naturally being silent in the extremes of the postmodern genre would give rise to the ‘pressing of the "self-destruct" button ... thereby ending their [researchers] academic careers’ (Johnson and Duberley, 2000:184). It can also be argued that if meta-narratives such as this are accepted as the norm, where is the need for researchers? It leads us to ask are their interpretations of events better informed than others just because they are not classed as academic accounts, nor are their authors steeped in the literature. Ashmore (1989) and Woolgar (1988a; 1988b) advocate the use of "hyper-reflexivity"; the deconstruction, and the emergence of a new literary form.
Therefore, my feelings of unease with multiple-relativities and my lack of location and challenge of ontology, i.e. "Is this a research project?", "Is this research?" becomes central to any reflexive practitioner who is giving an "objective" and "truthful" account. Johnson and Duberley (2000:184) use the term "autopoitic" when they state that ‘so for some postmodernists if there can be no external independent ontological referent epistemic reflexivity becomes an autopoitic (i.e. self-generating) process within a recursively closed cognitive system’.
Thus, my over-riding feelings of the research process have challenged my previous foundationalist couched in the positivist/empiricist research tradition. Therefore, I no longer accept that: observation is value-neutral and a theoretical; experience is "given"; a univocal and transparent language is possible; data is independent of its interpretations; there are universal conditions of knowledge and criteria for deciding between theories. As Usher (1991) notes:
‘In the postmodern, there is a questioning of whether knowledge is established through systematic empirical observation and experiment or whether a necessary first step requires a shifting of the way the world is seen and the construction of a new world to investigate’.
My opening sentence of these concluding thoughts were what have I learnt from this research project? I now want to consider the question what can I can learn as a researcher to inform my future practice?
This experience has perhaps made me aware of the need to be less certain, and trusting of research findings, and the process, and technologies in arriving at the "truth". However, I still have to live in the "real world" (whatever this means), and multiple realities have to be dealt with. I accept now that absolute truth and knowledge do not exist, even from a personal perspective. It is a spectre in the imagination, and is based on perceptions of what happened, how one feels, and how others react to you as an individual – whether they are research colleagues, or those being researched upon. What then follows are personal learning points to inform my professional practice.
This was perhaps a personal characteristic that arose at the initial stages of the project when things were going not to plan. I was disappointed with the "un-scientificness" of the process, and its uncertainty. I feel that any research that I undertake whether collaborative or as a single researcher must be more circumspect. I must accept that things do not progress at a rate that synchronises with my world. I am not advocating being so laid back that deadlines are not met, but rather, I should be more accommodating and flexible in the way I think and act. I suppose in reality, I have accepted that if things do not go as planned it is not a disaster, it becomes a learning point. Where people and social settings evolve and operate together you cannot expect harmony. I have learned that I shall have to be better prepared before embarking upon on any future research, for example being clear about definitions of words and phrases, should I feel have been more clearly thought through by myself. This is certainly a fundamental point that I must address. However, I must also be mature about challenges being made upon my pre-conceived ideas and ideologies. I suppose this paper in itself has been part of my therapy as a reflexive practitioner. Thus, having to concede deep down that I was wrong over certain points and issues is no big deal. It is part of being a mature researcher; it is about being responsive to other points of view. As such Schön (1991:288) points out:
‘The concept of professional as technical expert is closely bound on the utopian imagery of the Technological Program, and the radical demystification of the professions is also linked to a utopian vision, one of liberation from the domination of established interests and professional elite’.
Recognising and dealing with uncertainty
This project has taught me to celebrate the nuances and uncertainties of doing research as Schön (1991:299) notes ‘The recognition of error, with its resulting uncertainty can become a source of discovery rather than an occasion for self-defence’. I need to bear this sentiment in mind for future research. In a strange sense looking back at the project, its process did lead me to this conclusion in a sense, as I found myself located in a postmodern perspective. Therefore, I will need to keep an open mind. Schön (1991:300) epitomises many of my feelings that emerged or should have been aware of, when he highlights differences in the export and reflective practitioner dichotomy (Table 2).
I am presumed to know, and must claim to do so, regardless of my own uncertainty.
I am presumed to know, but I am not the only one in this situation to have relevant and important knowledge. My uncertainties may be a source of learning for me and for them.
Keep my distance from the client, and hold onto the expert’s role. Give the client a sense of my expertise, but convey a sense of my expertise, but covey a feeling of warmth and sympathy as a "sweetener".
Seek out connections to the client’s thoughts and feelings. Allow his respect for my knowledge to emerge from his discovery of it in the situation.
Look for deference and status in the client’s response to my professional persona.
Look for the sense of freedom and of real connection to the client, as a consequence of no longer needing to maintain a professional façade.
Table 2 the export and reflective practitioner dichotomy (Schön. 1991)
I also need to consider researcher-client relationships, which I had not considered at length throughout the project. I see three facets, or ways of conceptualising clients. First there are those with whom I collaborated with on the project, secondly the institutions that we researched upon, thirdly those who will eventually read the research findings. In all three cases I feel that the distinctions between the categories can be treated in a homogeneous manner when we consider what X (1991:302) terms the traditional and reflective contract (Table 3). I was certainly aware that the traditional contract as defined by Schön was quickly challenged by my research colleagues, and that I was initially not prepared to move to the reflexive contract situation. Although I did, eventually after much soul searching and experiencing feelings of vulnerability, I am now more acutely aware that I must accede, and acquiesce much more readily to fellow colleagues.
I put myself into the professional’s hands and, in doing this, I gain a sense of security based on faith.
I join with the professional in making sense of my case, and in doing this I gain a sense of increased involvement and action.
I have the comfort of being in good hands. I need only comply with his advice and all will be well.
I can exercise some control over the situation. I am not wholly dependent on him; he is also dependent on information and action that only I can undertake.
I am pleased to be served by the best person available
I am pleased to be able to test my judgements about his competence. I enjoy the excitement of discovery about his knowledge, about the phenomena of his practice, and about myself.
Table 3 the reflective practitioner and reflective contact (Schön. 1991)
Certainly my future actions will need to temper any notion of power-knowledge relations between colleagues, and myself, or for those whom I research upon. I suppose my anxieties about the complexities, and short time scales of the project meant that I could not be as honest as I should have been about the project. I was frightened of loosing control, face, and my fellow researchers, if I really explained the enormity of the project. As Schön (1991:302-303) puts it:
‘For any professional or client who wishes to move from traditional to reflective contract, there is the task of reshaping the norms and expectations which the other party brings to the interaction. If one party to an institution wishes to begin acting in a non-traditional way, he is apt to create new sorts of dilemma for himself. Should a professional, for example, risk losing his patients confidence in order to create the possibility of the reflective contract? Should he risk exploring the client’s meanings when such exploration might be regarded as an intrusion? Should he reveal the complexity of the situation at the risk of frightening or confusing his client?’
As such before I embarked upon the project my confidence in quantitative analysis, grounded in facts and figures was one of assurance. My future practice will rely less upon statistics and hard facts as leading to truth. My attack upon positivism through the postmodern genre has changed my thinking in a radical way. No longer will my thoughts be closed to all that is "soft" when collecting data, nor will I be concerned if personal accounts are not valid because they are a sample of one. I feel that I can defend all possible approaches, as I see the pros and cons from all sides. The words "critical thinking" spring readily to mind. Being open to all methodological perspectives, and not being a slave to any one is perhaps a major piece of learning that I shall take forward to any future research projects. This is naturally a consequence of my rejection of the traditional view of professional knowledge through my own reflective practice, that as Schön (1991:308) notes ‘recognising that practitioners may become reflective researchers in situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and conflict, we have recast the relationship between research and practice’.
My future practice as a researcher must readily acknowledge human values and interests, and the demystification of professional expertise. Yes, there is always a place for professional knowledge, but this is not enough for conducting research. The processes of research demand a new set of rules and learning’s. It demands that social interaction and self-reflection are an essential part of the project management of the research process. No amount of professional expertise will enable research projects to be successful. Schön (1991:344-345) notes this when he states that:
‘So long as the conduct of society depends upon special knowledge and competence, there will be an essential place for the professions. And so long as the professions are shaped by traditional models of knowledge and practice, neither the ideology, nor the institutional reforms of the radical critics will eliminate the evils of expertise’.
What this project has taught me is that the uncertainty and uniqueness of this project ameliorated my technical expertise. It threw up issues of instability and conflict, both within me, and with fellow research colleagues. Thus, it would be wise to acknowledge Schön (1991:345) in any future research that I undertake when he states that:
‘The idea of reflective practice leads, in a sense both similar and different from the radical criticism, to a demystification of professional expertise. It leads us to recognize that for both the professional and counter-professional, special knowledge is embedded in evaluative frames which bear the stamp of human values and interest’.
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This document was added to the Education-Line database on 12 December 2007