Tag Archives: research

Guest post on Pat Thomson’s blog

I recently wrote a post for Pat Thomons’s blog about being a researcher on someone else’s project, and then coming to be the person whose projects have others working on them. The post is in dialogue with a series on pat’s blog about being a ‘jobbing researcher’, and has comments also from Teena Clerke, who works with me on the Creating Better Futures project. We hope you enjoy it, and thank you Pat for the opportunity!

 

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How to keep up to date with research in your field (particularly in the social sciences)

I was asked recently by the lovely people at UTS Library (who happen to have an excellent blog), to speak to doctoral students and other early career researchers about what I do to keep up to date with research in my field. This provoked me into thinking…

What does it mean to be ‘up to date’?

Being a social scientist, my first instinct is to debunk the question, to challenge the assumptions underpinning it. Let’s begin with up-to-date-ness. I don’t regard knowledge in my field (education / social sciences) as being updated in the sense that what comes later replaces what came before. Old knowledge is rarely obsolete, and new does not necessarily mean better. Furthermore there are fashions and trends which have interesting relationships with temporal trajectories of knowledge: education, for example, is sometimes seen as developing obsessions with thinkers and writers who have long since been left behind or fallen from the limelight in other social science fields.

For me, being up to date includes the conventional sense of having my finger on the pulse in terms of what some of the most recent outcomes of research are (note I don’t use the term ‘findings’). But this also involves maintaining a sense of the changes in the landscape in terms of groups of researchers and what kinds of work they are doing. Not just a retrospective ‘what has come out in journals’, but a contemporary ‘what are the key people in my field up to’. Being up to date also involves anticipating what is coming: there’s an ace team in [insert your university of preference here] that are the ones to watch; what’s going to happen now [superstar Prof or ECR] has moved to [wherever they have gone]. Up-to-date-ness involves projecting what will be in vogue and novel in the coming months and years. For many of us this anticipation requires looking outside the field (to changes in policy, practice, social contexts), and within it (who’s emerging, who’s taken over influential editorships etc).

And what is ‘my field’?

Not as easy a question to answer as it might seem. I do work based on pedagogy and practice in child and family health settings. Is this my ‘field’? I publish in journals relating to continuing education and workplace learning: maybe this is my ‘field’? I draw on sociomaterial and practice theories? Do writings by researchers using these (in philosophy, organization studies, education etc) constitute my ‘field’? As an educational researcher, don’t I also have a professional responsibility to know what’s going on in other areas: school education, higher education. Isn’t this my ‘field’?

Well, I think the answer to all of those question is ‘yes’. One’s location or position in intellectual communities is not singular. Just as those communities have a texture created through questions of conceptual scale, disciplinary boundaries, and historical changes, so our position in those communities becomes a textured on: positions [plural], maybe.

And this means we must have a textured approach to keeping up to date. Not all dimensions of our field are as important as others. For me, I use Table of Contents (ToC) alerts to keep tabs on who is publishing on what topics in the general field of education, reading the odd abstract I find interesting. For specific areas where I’m publishing and contributing to advances in knowledge, the approach is much more in depth. But even then it’s not that simple. What if I want to publish in a very general journal like British Educational Research Journal? It’s no good just having a cursory sense of what’s going on in my field and in the broader conversations that ‘big’ journals like BERJ support and publish. If I’m going to take that conversation forward, or in new directions, I’ve got to be more than a (legitimate) peripheral participant in it [those of you who’ve come across Communities of Practice literature will get the poke here].

What is a field made of? Is it findings? I’ve already questioned that notion. Is it ideas? Concepts? Studies? People? Research centres? Theoretical ‘turns’? My answer [no surprises for guessing]: all of the above.

And now, some strategies I use for keeping up to date with my field (whatever that means)

Live on Ramsay Street

Forgive the reference to TV soap opera Neighbours but there’s an important point here, relating to the complexity and texture I discussed above. We have to know who our research ‘neighbours’ are: who is next door, doing the work that relates most closely to mine? Who is down the street, doing similar stuff, maybe in a slightly different way or with a different angle? Who comprises my suburb or neighbourhood – people with whom I share a broader affiliation, but who as a collective still mark ourselves as distinct from the field at large? And how much does my city sprawl – who are the people to watch in the broad discipline or field (for me, education)? And of course, we might be flying over to other cities (fields) from time to time, too: who are our best friends there?

Accrue air miles

Air miles rock (though I have to admit the environmental consequences of rewarding pollution with yet more pollution seem troubling). Not only because you get access to business lounges, free upgrades, and a sense of superiority when you tread the red carpet at check-in, beat the queues through security and immigration, and board before everybody else.

Air miles rock as an outcome of important ‘keeping up to date’ activity. Like it or not, intellectual work doesn’t happen in a single place (note how I’m deliberately upsetting the Ramsay Street metaphor I used above, bringing out the need to jump on a plane every now and then). This was true when I worked in the UK when there were dozens of universities I could visit easily by car or train within a day, and is more true now I’m in Australia where the density of higher education institutions is much lower.

But how many universities there are within 200km isn’t the issue. Chances are no matter where you are, some of the best people in your field are 1000s of km away. Being friends with them, knowing what they’re doing, what they’re about to do, and what they think is coming up next is crucial.

I admit I’ve been very fortunate in receiving generous support for international travel through the positions I’ve held, and I recognise not everyone will be flying often enough to get to gold status. The air miles thing is me being flippant. What’s important is not being parochial in the contacts we make (and twitter, skype, email etc are all useful). And being strategic in how we plan and make use of international travel. Tempting as it may be to find conferences in the more glamorous locations and to travel widely, I’m increasingly of the view that going back to the same place(s) again and again is of more value. This means choosing a couple of conferences that you’re going to make an ongoing commitment to. You want to be walking into the room and recognise, and be recognised by, a good proportion of the people there. It also means doing things like doubling up conferences with institutional visits. The Researching Work and Learning conference creates a temporary Ramsay Street for me, when most of my buddies from that part of my field actually do come together for a few days and inhabit the same (geographical as well as intellectual) space. It’s happening in Stirling in 2013, and I’ve arranged to spend a month there in the run-up to the conference. One air-ticket, but a whole new level of richness in terms of my engagement with overseas colleagues. I’m flying less and making each truckload of carbon dumped in the atmosphere worth more. Visiting institutions is becoming increasingly important to me, and sometimes even replacing conference attendance.

The oedipus technique

Obviously you all think your own work is brilliant, amazeballs, the best. Other researchers who think the same might be worth tracking down: they clearly are the wise ones who know what good research looks like and what the important issues are. Maybe your next door neighbour is a bit of a quiet, introverted type, and without you knowing they’ve been devouring your papers and citing you left, right and centre. Google scholar is a great way of finding out who is reading your stuff – just click on the number of citations and you get a list of where you’ve been cited. It’s also good to see which of your publications is the intellectual equivalent (in terms of popularity, not quality, of course) of Harry Potter, or Fifty Shades of Grey, and which is less widely read (you may wish to regard these as ‘niche’ or ‘challenging’).

In further egotistical adoration of seeing my reflection ripple across the pond that is my field (another metaphor? seriously?!), I also keep tabs of who has been contacting me and asking for papers etc. Not only is this useful when you have to demonstrate ‘impact’ but it’s another way of figuring out who to be friends with, and a way of instigating contact. By not putting papers online, but instead putting details and asking for people to contact you for a copy, you can encourage this. It’s particularly useful with papers published in journals with copyright restrictions. You can’t publish them freely on your own web page.

Old doesn’t (always) mean gold

No offence here to my more established readers, but you’re not going to be here forever. There is constant talk of demographic crises in social sciences: many fields are quite top heavy – lots of academics with decades of experience, not so many in the younger / earlier career ranks. At some point, our current profs will no longer be occupying those prime real-estate offices and editing the big journals. Someone else is going to have to take over. Anticipating who that’s going to be is crucial.

At conferences (particularly the big education conferences in the USA), I have seen well-published professors followed round with a flotilla of admiring doctoral students and early career researchers. Celebrity or guru academics pack out rooms. Great. Many of them probably deserve it and are doing brilliant stuff. But two caveats: sometimes the most established people in the field can also be the most conservative and resistant to change, policing values of the old school. These may be values worth policing (I have my own gurus who do such policing, and I thoroughly intend to continue it myself in some areas). But what happens when they’ve moved on?

Building relationships with other doctoral students, early career researchers, new lecturers etc not only brings different kinds of friendship and joy to research. It is also an investment in your future and the future of your field. Attempts to keep up to date might be well served by following the top professors; they might not. I’ve yet to meet a doctoral student who wasn’t shockingly up to date with what is going on.

Up to date 2.0

Nothing revolutionary here (nor surprising to you since you’re reading this on a blog): social media are great. Twitter, blogs, podcasts, academia.edu – all great. My advice: don’t lurk, be active. But don’t kid yourself into thinking you can tweet or blog yourself into thesis completion or that next journal paper. These are means to something else. But a valuable one.

Sit back, relax, and let others do the work for you

I have self-confessed to adopting a laziness-based approach to keeping up to date with my field. I’m exhausted after having written the above, let alone actually done it all (keeping logs, jet lag, making friends, predicting the future etc). Luckily there are lots of other people who (more or less intentionally) are willing to do some of this work for you. Read book reviews. Use automatic email lists for selected journals and authors. (BUT! And I learned this from a panel member at UTS last month: do this selectively. If you find yourself automatically deleting or ignoring the automatic emails, you’ve giving yourself information overload and need to cut it down). Join Special Interest Group (SIG) lists. Follow interesting and relevant people on twitter. Read blogs.

And double-up on your own work. Reviewing articles for journals is great. Not only do you develop your own writing skills, and make a contribution to your discipline (an ethical obligation in my view), but you also get an early scoop on what is coming out. I often ask to see the other reviews of papers I referee, so I can see if other reviewers identify literature or ideas that I’ve missed. See, other people are doing the work for me again! And like I said, I reckon doctoral students are some of the most up to date researchers there are around. Reading their lit reviews is great, and a bonus of being a supervisor. Laziness is not total work avoidance, but recognising the multiple benefits of work you already are doing. And avoiding work where it is distracting, irrelevant, or if other people are already doing it for you.

Theodore Schatzki on why ontology matters in educational & social research

I was inspired to write this, and base much of the content on:

Schatzki T R (2003) A new societist social ontology. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 33(2), 174-202.

Schatzki considers whether social [and educational] researchers should simply to implement methodological strategies for investigating social affairs and to avoid ontology altogether—for ontologies are nothing but unnecessary and empirically unconfirmable presumptions.

In my words, what he is saying here is: it could be argued that ontology is an abstract philosophical concept best left to philosophers, while social scientists get on with rigorous empirical enquiry.

When Schatzki talks about the ‘social’ he does not mean social in terms of the opposite of anti-social (ie sociable). The social refers to things pertaining to human existence. All educational research is thus social research on these terms.

Schatzki: Types of ontology however, have implications for method.

Schatzki tells us that ontology affects:

  1. The choice and use of particular methods
  2. The inferences that are made from observations and measurements to statements about social matters [ie. how we interpret evidence]
  3. The formulation of these statements [ie. The kinds of knowledge claims we make, and the degree of certainty and universality that apply to them]
  4. What of the social is thought to be directly experiencable, observable, and measurable [ie. Which phenomena we assume we can directly see or measure. This gets messy quite quickly when, as in educational research, we are making claims about social phenomena such as learning, educational achievement, boredom, interest, motivation, emotions etc. Can we see these things? What does evidence of these look like?

Schatzki says: these matters will vary depending on whether a researcher is an individualist [someone who believes individual free will or agency control the world] or believes in social structures [things like class and race as primary influences on human life]… or social facts distinct from facts about individuals (and maybe their relations).

He then considers: An investigator might proceed oblivious to this dependency and simply carry on research. How he proceeds, however, will implicate stands on these issues that collectively affirm at least some general type of ontology (e.g., individualism).

What Schatzki is saying here is that like it or not, and whether we are aware of it or not, as soon as we embark on research, we are making ontological assumptions. They are not optional extras. They are inevitably, always already part of the process. You don’t choose to have an ontology or not. (You can choose which kind of ontology you work with).

Schatzki, as a philosopher, then tells us of the benefits to social research of being explicit about our ontologies, and exploring differences between them. He calls this ‘the advantage of ontological self-consciousness and choice when studying the social world’.

When I was a student I was often sceptical of the value of such self-consciousness, which seemed at times like naval-gazing, abstract introspection ladled with technical terms designed to confuse and frustrate (see another of my posts for more on my love/hate relationship with research perspectives as a set of concepts).

Schatzki then considers how a ‘methodologist objector’ (someone who is less convinced of the advantage Schatzki speaks of) might reply:

OK, a variety of ontologies might inform social research. There is still no reason to argue for and against particular ontologies. Justification in social science is empirical validity, and ontologies cannot be empirically tested.

What is being argued here is that the advantage of one ontology over the other is not something that can be put to empirical test. (NB. This is not the same as the advantage of ontological self-consciousness, which is being aware and explicit about ontology).

As social scientists we care about empirical evidence in leading us to make some claims about the world and to reject or question others. If we can’t test our ontological assumptions this way, then they are just arbitrary choices. Not very ‘scientific’ at all.

Schatzki considers one way of testing ontologies: to see which is the most successful research, and then go with whatever ontology that research is based on.

Great. Easy.

Too easy (as they say in Australia 😉 )

But. Big BUT…

Schatzki says: There are at least two problems with this response. First, unanimity does not exist in social science about what counts as a ‘successful’ research program.

In other words, not all social research projects have the same success criteria. They have many different aims. So establishing which is the most successful research isn’t going to be easy. Or fair.

Schatzki again: Second, and more specifically, what counts as success often reflects ontology.

What good research looks like (and I’ve written about this before) depends on the ontological assumptions upon which it is based, not just our aims (though these are linked).

The person who says ‘identify the best research and follow whatever ontology it uses’ is asking us to identify what ‘best’, but ‘best’ cannot be judged independent of ontology. It’s a circular argument that gets us nowhere.

Schatzki then offers us a genius phrase: So empirical validity is not ontologically innocent.

He adds: And because ontology is tied up with social research, there is room and need in the overall enterprise of social research for ontological disputation.

For me at least, he has won the argument. Even as a researcher who really cares and worries about data and evidence (in a way that some would regard as old fashioned), I simply can’t escape the need to be thoughtful and clear about questions of ontology.

Don’t like philosophy? Don’t like long words that end in –ology or –ism? Want to just get on and do some proper social research? Tough sh!t – ontology is coming your way whether you like it or not. In fact, it’s already there.

Ethnographic fieldwork: transparency, uncertainty, and what is going on here?

On Tuesday 19th February, the Ethnographic UTS group met once again, this time for a themed event focused on fieldwork and data. We had a lively discussion and exchange of ideas among research students and staff from several Faculties. As is typical of our meetings, we found that members have very different perspectives, theoretically and methodologically. Marie Manidis, Deborah Nixon, Paul Thambar and Sarah Stewart all provided us with engaging entry points into their research worlds. Here are some reflections on the issues that came up during the afternoon.

 

Transparency

“Transparency is about what is not there”. Marie introduced us to this quote from Silvia Gherardi, prompting us to think about just what you can see or observe as ethnographers. This thread was woven into our subsequent discussions, and links were made by some participants to related qualitative traditions of oral history interview methods.

 

What can we see as ethnographers? What do we interpret or infer on the basis of this? How can you observe a practice? How can you observe learning? What did Silvia Gherardi mean when she referred to transparency?

 

In a way I think Silvia’s statement is quite useful. I believe (others may disagree) that ethnographic fieldnotes should be dull. They document material artefacts, social doings and sayings, spatial arrangements etc. The meaning and significance of these comes later, the act of observing is in many ways a mundane (and of course selective) documentation of quite boring things. This really struck me in my own fieldwork in a health setting when a nurse read my notes and remarked how boring they were.

 

So what are we seeing here? Not the higher level concepts that we are interested in, such as practices, learning, business strategy, collective memory. Perhaps our mundane seeing (through observation) and listening (through interviews) can become transparent, rather like a pane of glass can provide us with a view through to a world beyond. We do not see that world directly, we have to look through the glass; and it filters what we see.

 

I like the metaphor of the window also because it captures something about what is strange in ethnographic fieldwork. In everyday life, we look through windows as if they weren’t there. The ethnographer makes the familiar strange, notices things that are normally taken for granted. It’s as if we turn our gaze from what lies beyond to the glass itself. We notice its thickness, features, cracks, specks of dirt. That’s what is often hard in observation and interviewing – getting and maintaining that focus on what is normally so obvious it becomes invisible; or transparent.

 

Trust in uncertainty

All four presenters described uncertainty in terms of what they were looking for in their fieldwork, particularly in early stages of the research. How do we live with ignorance of what we are looking for? Ethnography is often touted as valuable because it offers a degree of holism that goes beyond what other approaches can achieve. But we know that our observations and other methods are always selective. How, then, to be selective in a state of ignorance or uncertainty?

 

One answer is perhaps simply to trust: to trust in oneself that the data you are generating are highly likely, on the whole, to be useful in one way or the other; to trust in the world that it is fascinating enough to let you follow where it takes you, confident of arriving somewhere interesting. But blind trust is unwise, so what are the checks that balance our faith? It’s unlikely that after a few field visits or interviews, an answer to your research questions will emerge. In my experience this kind of creeps up on you, semi-consciously, as you become embedded in the field, immersed in your data, and develop a sense, often intuitively, of what is going on here. Yes, we then subject this sense to rigorous analysis and theoretical interpretation, but I think it often has soft and hard-to-pinpoint origins in our extended time in the field.

 

Fine – but looking for answers to our research questions early on isn’t going to work as a counter to misplaced trust is it? Sharing fieldnotes or transcripts with peers and supervisors can help see where gaps are, identify what other people might have been looking at or for, what might be needed to create a fuller vicarious window (here comes the metaphor again!) into what was happening. But I come back again to trust: diligent researchers, with well thought-through questions, elegant designs, and theoretical fluency seem pretty likely to be on the right track or not far off. Of course what the right track is may change, and those qualities I mentioned can all help us achieve the flexibility and responsiveness that is a hallmark of good ethnography.

 

So what is going on here?

I return now almost to where the first theme left off – how do we move from our boring fieldnotes, to beautiful and fascinating insights about the world? As we look at the everyday in its magnificently dull detail, how do we see the bigger picture? This is where our ethnographic sensibility of noticing changes register – from noticing that underpins our fieldwork, to a noticing that provides foundations for analysis and interpretation. Just as concepts and theories may help us focus or filter our fieldwork, so they provide crutches in our analysis. In my own work, I rely heavily on conceptual understandings of what learning is and how it is brought about in order to make claims that quite mundane actions are in fact instances of learning. I don’t claim to see learning, but rather to see certain conditions that tick the boxes that my theoretical approach tells me are required if learning is taking place.

 

But we also have creative insight, a-ha moments, and intuition at our disposal too. Just because they may not fit elegantly into pseudo-scientific accounts of rigorous, systematic analytic techniques doesn’t mean they don’t happen or aren’t important. An analytic idea or interpretation may result from highly accomplished technical procedures but ultimately be weak, dull, and far from offering any new or meaningful insights. One borne of intuition or something more fuzzy could be brilliant, radically changing how we understand our data, and thus offering something new and interesting to say about the world. Of course we want to subject that brilliant idea to rigorous testing, throwing various things at it to see if it holds (doubt, the data, our peers, supervisors, reviewers of journal manuscripts).

 

Two things leapt out at me from the presentations that touch upon the issue of ‘what is going on here’ in fascinating ways. Deborah’s description of photo elicitation techniques with elderly people who had experienced partition in India was fascinating. Rather than taking a photo as a snapshot record of an instant and asking ‘what was going on there and then?’, she used photographs to open up a much more temporally and spatially fluid, and affectively rich, set of responses. The stimulus of the photo was taken up by her participants such that the question ‘what is going on here?’ took us through memories and sentiments, to times and places far from those depicted in the image.

 

As I sat listening to Deborah and looking at her photographs, I realised that images created as part of my own data (line drawings based on photographs) were doing similar work. Rather than just being visual representations of moments, they were helping me ask ‘what is going on here’ in a different way, inviting me to play with temporality and spatiality, and make connections between bodies, things and practices that I hadn’t made before. The drawings are (I admit) quite uninteresting: it is their function as a window (here we go again!) into something else that is where their real value lies.

 

Finally, Sarah’s description of her fieldwork approach introduced a lovely idea about complementing different techniques. She is using observation and interviews in a fluid and responsive relationship to each other, in order to maximise the light that can be shed upon a particular event or situation. This does not mean forgetting that these are different windows (!) onto the world reflecting different processes of selection and production. But it does keep a nice focus on our purpose: drawing on all the resources and sources at our disposal to arrive at the best sense of what is going on here. What ‘the best’ means… well that would be a whole new blog post.

 

Postscript – some amuses-bouches for posts to come…

  1. How do you observe a meeting?
  2. What can we do when participants are (overly) generous in their treatment of us? Don’t we sometimes get too worried about being a burden, about compensation or reward, when really the best we can do and our primary obligation is go ahead and do our research to the best of our ability?

 

 

 

 

Ethnography

So I embark on a thread of blogs about ethnography. My PhD involved ethnographic research in secondary schools, focussing on geography lessons. I spent much of 2011 in a very different environment – the Residential Unit at Karitane, a health service for families with young children. Both were fascinating, exhausting, inspiring experiences, over sustained periods of time. I’ve also been involved in more intense (what some might call ‘drive by’ or ‘parachute’) observational work that draws on an ethnographic sensibility.

I’m generally interested in learning about how people practise ethnography, how ethnographic methodology is responding to changes in the world, the kinds of questions we are asking of the world, and the kinds of answers or accounts of the world we wish to produce.

I have been lucky at UTS to find over 100 people with interests in ethnography, and to have had chances to explore with them what it means to do ethnography, how they do it, and why.

As we meet, and as I read and continue my own ethnographic work (which is now in analysis and writing stages, for a book) I will post more substantial writing.

If any of you have comments or issues relating to your own ethnographic work I’d be delighted if a kind of forum gets going here.