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

Author - Pauline Rooney

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4.3. Personal narrative/autoethnography

A number of terms are used to refer to personal narrative including `autobiography' and `reflexive ethnography' (note 18). In this genre, the researcher assumes the dual role of academic researcher and personal self, to tell autobiographical stories about some aspect or experience of their life (Ellis and Bochner 2000).

This case study examines Convery's (1999) personal narrative created to form the background to his PhD. Convery writes about his personal and educational background, describing how experiences and events in his life led him to enter teaching and influenced his behaviour as a teacher. Convery states that the aim of his narrative was to contribute an insider perspective on `teacher-thinking' (Convery 1999: 132).

In his account, Convery identifies a series of `critical incidents' in his life including his consequent feelings and emotional development. `At 16 I was at grammar school ... and took my first summer job as a petrol pump attendant in a very quiet garage. The boredom was excruciating and unmitigated' (Convery 1999: 132).

Convery theorises about how particular events in his life influenced the development of his teaching values and practice.

On teaching practice … I sat next to a Deputy Head of a primary school who called a nine-year-old out of line and humiliated him in front of me and other staff to demonstrate how he had managed to tame the badly behaved pupil. I felt embarrassed and somewhat sickened by this episode. I think this was quite important in smothering my desire to teach at that time.
(Convery 1999: 133)

From these extracts it is clear that Convery's study, like any personal narrative, is inherently subjective. Coffey (2002) states that it is a genre in which the subject and author merge. But does this compromise validity?

It is difficult, if not impossible, to establish the validity or truth of Convery's narrative for several reasons. The reliability and truth of his account are dependent on his honesty and integrity. This is an ethical issue which arises in all qualitative research and for which the researcher must take responsibility. Will he tell the truth? Will he distort events? It is not possible to confirm events with others who appear in his account, because we only have Convery's perspective.

Convery acknowledges that `identity is created rather than revealed through narrative' (Convery 1999: 139). He admits that he constructs an attractive moral identity through his selection, organization and presentation of events and emotions. He selects incidents that illustrate his evolving moral development and maturity.

It was there that I learnt about ideological hegemony — the process whereby the powerless in society consent to their subordination ... as being in their own best interests.... I felt strongly that I had to use my privileged position to try to improve their expectations from life.
(Convery 1999: 133) (note 19)

His readings of events in his life depict him as someone who overcame the odds to succeed. `I went to evening classes, gained better grades, and spent three very enjoyable years which were academically and personally successful…' (Convery 1999: 133).

It is interesting to note that Convery does not portray himself as being in the wrong. His initial failure at school is blamed on bad teaching rather than on his lack of work and self-discipline. His use of the active and passive voice reinforces this. When he is doing something positive he uses an active voice — (`I went to evening classes, gained better grades' (Convery 1999: 133)). When something negative happens, he switches to the passive voice — (`Having initially failed to gain grades to enter university' (Convery 1999: 133)).


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