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Blurry lines

February 22nd, 2010

Rachel has been writing about our AERA paper and project, and she’s been thinking about how we came to be at this place as a collective—you and me, all of us here at NZCER, all of you who were at the conference, all of us who blog or read or lurk or comment.

I’m thinking today about the methodological implications of what we’re doing here, about what it means to conduct and share research this way.

Some of you who read and write here have been participants in our research projects. Some of you have been researchers. This website means that suddenly, all of us are both—part of the research (into this grand experiment) and also part of the researchers. This makes for rather blurry lines, as Rachel has written about in the ethics blogs. It also makes for blurry lines in the methodology.

When I was a grad student learning research, my teacher (the brilliant and fantastic Reba Page) talked with us about the ways our question and our data collection and our analysis plan all needed to link up and connect our ideas together in a coherent package. We weren’t to make the mistake many researchers (still) make where we had a research question, a favourite research method, and a favourite analysis theory or method which were unconnected to one another except through us, as though we picked them from three different hats. (It always reminded me of those little board books my kids played with, where you could get the head and shoulders of one animal, the midsection of another, and the legs of a third—all now creating an entirely new creature.) This is no easy feat, or else everyone would do it. It has the researcher as a thoughtful composer of the research, intentionally layering on one piece after the next, being sure each instrument is in harmony and each contributes to a rich and satisfying—and trustworthy—piece of research.

What we are finding now as we play with this new kind of research is that it’s more like inviting a whole lot of people to a jam session than composing a concerto. Here we have much less control than we had once. We go public with our research questions at the beginning, and others begin to shape them with their questions. Is this the research design stage or are we already collecting data? We go public with our initial analysis, and others start to reanalyse—sometimes even those who were research participants in the first place. When one of your research participants begins to add new categories to your codes, is that more data or is that analysis? And is that research participant now a research partner in a different way? What principles or techniques do we use to choreograph the whole performance of the research?

All of this means that the typical pieces we’ve long thought of as research stages—which yes, we always knew weren’t iron clad or utterly bounded—are more fuzzy than ever. We used to know when data collection was (mostly) finished and analysis and drafting of outputs had begun. Now we put those initial ideas out (does that make it an output?) and others comment (does that make it data?) and we rethink and reshape (more analysis!). The filter-then-publish world has some great benefits in its clarity.

Of course, even before the internet, some people were wrestling with these issues. When I was in grad school, we published Reba’s sophisticated and courageous piece of research about what happened when she reported her findings to research participants who might not like what she had found (Page, Samson, & Crockett, 2000).  Still, Reba kept control of the process—it was hers—even as she shared that control with others. How do we negotiate control with you in this blog space? How do we share with you things you might not like to hear? How do you tell us things we might not want to hear? (And how do we do this in an international setting which is also still mostly the intimate New Zealand society where we may well know one another in several different contexts?) How do we stay courageous and help you be courageous too (and how can we en-courage each other)? And what does this mean about power and the creation of knowledge and what is good and trustworthy research?

See, I don’t know the answers to these questions, but together we can play with them. Or maybe you could add new ones. I’m not sure what phase of research this is, but it does seem to be helping to shift my thinking about research…

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Page, R., Samson, Y., & Crockett, M. (2000). Reporting ethnography to informants. In B. Brizuela, J. Stewart, R. Carrillo, and J. Berger (Eds.), Acts of Inquiry in Qualitative Research. Cambridge, MA Harvard Educational Review.

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  1. | #1

    I like the idea of lived rather than fuzzy! It raises the helpful point that life IS messy, and that we try to edit some of that out with our more traditional research methods and solid lines. The more we find ourselves researching actual life, the more alive and also messy the whole thing gets. I guess the thing I wonder most is what do we gain as we lose the comfortable partitions which were neater, but less alive?

  2. | #2

    I would call this lived research, not fuzzy. You have given birth to something and now you need to feed it, water it and we will all watch it grow. Perhaps you could call it an improvisational participatory event!

  3. | #3

    I’m *so* interested in this whole idea of opening up the research process to both participants, and those who could potentially learn from the research – what you talk about as “blurring the lines” – and thinking about what that means for us as researchers, and for the process of research.

    If you read various literature about what learning in the 21st century ought to involve, there is an overwhelming emphasis on learning through generating new knowledge in real-world situations, working with other people(e.g. see Jane’s book Catching the knowledge wave, as well as the idea we’ve talked about lots on this blog, about equipping people to be confident and capable of dealing with uncertainty, ambiguity, and able to re-evaluate their positions in view of new information, perspectives, contexts, deepened understandings, etc.

    I think being a researcher is one really great way to develop these ways of thinking and working (although I’m sure it isn’t the only way), and if we can help to “de-mystify” this process in various ways then I think it’s our responsibility to do so!

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