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Researching from the inside — does it compromise validity?
A discussion

Author - Pauline Rooney

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4. Case studies

4.1 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 to hear?

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 accounts were.


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