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A methodological story, or how I planned to create a (metaphorical) chest of drawers and ended up with a bedside table

Author - Susan O'Shaughnessy


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How my research questions shaped my theoretical approach

The research questions I started out with were informed from the outset by the background and events described above, which unfolded over the years from 2001 onwards. My first question was to assess what had been the scale of change for German language lecturers in selected Irish higher education institutions over the last decade. This type of question presupposes a desire to quantify the problem, to discover its extent and its boundaries and it was indeed an objective of my study to gain an understanding of the size of the problem, the number of people involved and the extent of change they had been required to contend with. I chose to use Bourdieu’s concept of field, defined as ‘structured spaces of positions (or posts) whose properties depend on their positions within these spaces and which can be analysed independently of the characteristics of their occupants (which are partly levels of power and influence at work upon the professional lives of German determined by them)’ (Bourdieu 1993, p. 72) as a method of delineating the various lecturers within their department or school, their institution, the higher education sector to which it belongs, as well as the national and international policy fields within which all these sub-fields operate.

However, my interest was not solely in the structures that had affected the changes made by lecturers. I was also interested in their individual choices and how they as agents had shaped their professional lives since the demand for their subject had collapsed. My second research question was to address how individual academics in Irish institutions were coping with changes to their professional identities. On a conceptual level this focus on individual experiences and trajectories brought Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and capital into the framework and allowed the project to examine the influence of these concepts on individual professional identities in flux.  In my understanding of these concepts, ‘habitus’ is a durable set of dispositions acquired during a person’s life experiences and applied in situations in a way that reduces all the possible choices and reactions of an individual or group to a limited set of actions and behaviours (see Bourdieu 1990), while ‘capital’ in various forms (such as economic, social or cultural capital) is what motivates agents to try to gain dominance of a field, legitimate their own control of it and gain the profits (further capital) that the field generates (Bourdieu 1984, 1988).  The main data gathering mechanism to answer this question was qualitative, the conducting of unstructured and semi-structured interviews (Fontana and Frey 2005), most of them with German lecturers affected by change over recent years but others with informants who had had an institutional role to play during the period of change and since then and who were able to provide some of the background information surrounding this period of individual and structural upheaval.

A key objective that developed with ever greater intensity throughout the life of the project was a desire to demonstrate the usefulness of Bourdieu’s ‘socio-analytical toolkit’(Zipin and Brennan 2004) of concepts as a thorough methodological approach to data collection and analysis. Unlike Nash (1999) and Reay (2004) who discuss the use of habitus as a methodology, I wanted to use a range of Bourdieu’s concepts from habitus, capital and field to reflexivity not only  inform a theoretical understanding of the object of study but also to shape the progress and the process of the project itself.

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