Researching from the inside — does it compromise
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
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
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 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
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
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