Researching from the inside — does it compromise
Practitioner action research
Practitioner action researchers carry out studies in their field,
often with the aim of improving practice (Jarvis
1999). Thus ethical and practical dilemmas arise. These dilemmas
and the ways in which they are managed also raises questions concerning
the validity of research. Fraser's
(1997) study illustrates this.
At the time of the study, Fraser was Head of the Midwifery Department
at the University of Nottingham. A new midwifery course had been
validated, and the first intake of students was embarking on the
programme. As Head of Department and Chairperson of the Course Management
Team, Fraser was responsible for programme quality and wanted graduates
to meet requirements for midwife registration. Thus she was an integral
part of the research context.
To evaluate the effectiveness of the curriculum, Fraser undertook
action research which `case-studied' students on placement in a
general hospital. She collected all data and, in collaboration with
colleagues, used these to consider if alternative strategies were
needed for the course.
According to Cohen et al, case studies strive to portray `the close-up
reality and `thick description' of participants' lived experiences'
(2000: 182). To capture this
`subjective reality', honesty, trust and openness between researcher
and researched is essential (note
7). Fraser identifies various issues that arose because
of her insider status which made this process difficult.
Although most participants could choose whether or not to participate
in the study, Fraser acknowledges that, because she was their superior,
they may have felt under pressure to take part. In fact, hospital
staff were not given a choice but were directed to participate by
senior managers! Thus it is possible that Fraser's `subjects' were
not willing participants — which may have impacted on their
honesty and thus on the quality of data.
Fraser recognizes that her professional role may have prevented
participants from being honest. She asks were students/staff afraid
that she would use information given, for other purposes? Insider
status and accompanying internal politics means that such suspicions
may arise (note 8).
Fraser acknowledges that internal politics may have prevented staff
from revealing important information. Although she was concerned
to build up trust and to `help the staff … feel that they
were participating, as equals, in a conversation' (Fraser
1997: 166) she asks, were they giving her answers that she wanted
The issue of confidentiality may also have impacted on the quality
of data. Were participants afraid that information given would be
made public to colleagues? Would participants be identifiable in
the report? Fraser describes her attempts to counteract such fears
by assuring participants of the confidentiality of any information
given (note 9).
Another potential threat to the reliability of Fraser's study is
her tacit insider knowledge. Does she make assumptions and fail
to address or probe important issues as a result? Fraser's familiarity
with staff may also have reduced her willingness to ask uncomfortable
but important questions.
Thus Fraser's insider status may have had a considerable impact
on the honesty and depth of conversations with participants. Although
she documents strategies used to counteract the potentially negative
effects of her insider role, it is difficult to judge if she was
successful. Only participants know how reliable and truthful their