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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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Reflexivity and the issue of insider research

Reflexivity, both in general terms and as understood by Bourdieu, was essential as a tool to help me explain my position and my consciousness of being an insider researcher. From the epistemological standpoint of the qualitative researcher, the validity and the valuable insights that can be gained from insider research (Sikes and Potts 2008) do not need to be argued – given that ‘there is really no such thing as pure objective observation of much human behaviour in real work situations’ (Smyth and Holian 2008, p. 37); that ‘all observation is theory laden and dependent on past experience of the observer’ (ibid) and that this holds true for the participant who is as much interviewing as observing her colleagues.  In undertaking insider research, as a person who not only was employed in one of the institutions explored in this study but had also personally experienced the changes I describe, I had the not inconsiderable example of Bourdieu before me, whose Homo Academicus (1988) examined the phenomenon of change within the French higher education system of the 1960s and 1970s – albeit with many more participants, at much greater length and over a longer time span than my project could offer.

It is essential to remain aware of the positive and negative aspects of insider research, in order to counteract the negative aspects as much as possible while taking advantage of the positive aspects for the benefit of the project. Some of the positive attributes of insider research are that it brings a pre-understanding of the issues involved Smyth and Holian 2008) and it can allow greater access to information and to respondents who may be more open to a colleague than they would be to an outside researcher (Potts 2008)a Negatives include: issues related to anonymity, ethical matters and credibility (Smyth and Holian 2008), validity, power differentials between interviewer and respondents (Sikes and Potts 2008), the possibility of self-censorship by the researcher because of an oversensitivity towards the effects of the research (Potts 2008) and the risks and tensions involved in continuing to work within the same environment after the research is completed and made public.

One of the most effective ways of guarding against the negative aspects of doing insider research is by maintaining a high level of reflexivity as this enhances ‘the credibility of  findings by taking into account the researcher’s values, beliefs, knowledge and biases’ (Aléx and Hammerström 2008, p. 170). If that is what reflexivity does, what is it exactly? As Tripp (1998) explains it, reflexivity has several meanings, one of which encapsulates the idea of reflecting, as in a mirror, but also in the sense of reflection as thinking back over things. This type of ‘memory work’ takes the form of life history narratives when employed in research. It is seen as constituting identity (Tierney 2000) while, it is argued, the ‘political nature and potential of memory’ (Sikes and Goodson 2003, p. 48) sets it up in opposition to history which is ‘perpetually suspicious of memory and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it (Nora 1989, quoted in Sikes and Goodson 2003, p. 49). This understanding of reflexivity allows for the expression of forms of truth and experience that are not normally in the public sphere. The researcher, therefore, can give a voice to those memories and reflections that are so often lost and forgotten, as well as to the people who have and share them.

D’Cruz et al (2007) identify at least three alternative meanings for the term ‘reflexivity’ ranging from the application of (1) a ‘skill to process information and enhance decision making’ (p. 77) to (2) a critical awareness of the self and of knowledge as a social construction (p. 85) to (3) a still more heightened awareness of ‘the influences on knowledge creation, from the interplay between cognition and emotion and the connections between structural power and interpersonal relationships’ (p. 82). While I kept all these meanings in mind throughout my research project it was particularly those meanings 2 and 3 above that affected how I approached the analysis of the data collected and how I attempted to record the process of analysis itself. My stance could therefore be summarized as

    an attempt to identify, do something about, and acknowledge the limitations of the research: its location, its subjects, its process, its theoretical context, its data, its analysis, and how accounts recognize that the construction of knowledge takes place in the world and not apart from it (Smyth and Shacklock 1998, p.7.

Bourdieu espoused the concept of ‘reflexive sociology’ in order to avoid the bias of the sociologist or intellectual who objectivises the object of study but omits to objectify his own role and position within the field of which he is also a part. Reflexive sociology allowed him to ‘continually [turn] the instruments of his science upon himself’(Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, p. 36) and avoided the danger of confusing the reflexivity which derives from psychoanalysis with that related to socioanalysis; to Bourdieu the more popular ‘psychoanalytic reflexivity’ derived from a desire to individualise experience and provide therapy while ‘sociological reflexivity … makes us discover things that are generic, things that are shared, banal, commonplace’ (ibid, p. 72, italics in original).

It was these ordinary social experiences that I was intent on examining in my research. I was anxious to avoid engaging in personal therapy, to indulge in an autobiographical account of the events I described or project my own experiences onto the accounts of my respondents. Nonetheless, there was a therapeutic value in telling the story and attempting to make sense of past events, both for myself and as expressed to me by several of my interviewees (Merrill and West 2009), while remaining conscious that it was the social and structural background to personal choices that gave an additional layer of objective meaning to my research findings. However, I was also aware that Bourdieu was not averse to an autobiographical standpoint which increasingly appeared in his work as he got older. This perspective is explored in the next section.

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