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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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The story of the project: collecting the data

Unlike Bourdieu, who came to regret his failure to keep a diary during his research into French higher education (Bourdieu 1988), I was fortunate to have been encouraged to keep a research journal from the earliest stages of the EdD programme. Once the thesis proposal was underway it became a space to plan out the work I needed to do and the interview schedules; to note my impressions and thoughts after interviews with respondents and meetings with my supervisor; to record new ideas and changes of direction as the research progressed and to motivate and ground myself at times when the research did not seem to be progressing at all. My research journal became the red thread that held the project together although, given the part-time nature of the research, there were often long gaps while I got on with other aspects of my professional life. At other times, such as when I was hurrying to complete an analysis of the first interviews of the participants I was planning to interview a second time and then conducting the second interviews within a short and busy time-frame, I later regretted that I did not find the opportunity to record my impressions of most of these second-round interviews and had to rely on hazy memory to remind me of the background details. While not as thorough as it might have been, the journal became a valuable document in providing internal validity (Elliott 2005) to the research process by triangulating the facts as they occurred at the time, my analysis of the interviews themselves and my memories and impressions from the distance of more than a year later as I wrote up my thesis.

As a starting point to gaining an understanding of the issues that surround the concept of ‘professional identity’ I undertook a thematic review of the literature. The purpose of a literature review, according to Schostak (2002), is that it gives focus to the ‘key foundational debates’ (p. 27) that surround the central interests of the researcher. By reading deeply, but not too widely because otherwise there would be no limit, it becomes possible ‘to find one’s own questions, see how other writers have tried to answer these and then formulate one’s own responses’ (ibid). In my case, because I was not based near the University of Sheffield library and would have had difficulty in accessing books I might require, I concentrated mostly on journal articles. This had the advantage of allowing me to search through journal archives online as well as getting immediate access to the most recent writing on the subject. By setting up Zetoc alerts online I was instantly contacted by email as soon as specified sociology and education journals and articles containing certain key words were published. In this way I was kept abreast of newly published work and was able to incorporate new and interesting insights throughout the project.

I undertook a similar process with regard to working out my conceptual framework. Having decided during the thesis proposal stage that Bourdieu’s concepts looked most appropriate to my research, in helping to provide answers to such questions as what identity is and how it changes under certain structural conditions, I proceeded to write a reflective essay on how Bourdieu could be used to frame the methodology of the project. Reading a number of key primary texts (Bourdieu 1984, 1988, 1990, 1993, 1999, Bourdieu et al 1999) and some secondary sources, including Swartz (1997) and Grenfell (2004, 2007), gave me a preliminary understanding of how Bourdieu’s work could shape theory, methodology and research methods. By continuing to widen my reading of Bourdieu and some of the numerous writers who have discussed his work, particularly as it relates to education, educational institutions and organisational analysis, I kept up to date with journal articles on these subjects which informed my thinking throughout the planning and writing of the thesis.

The first step in beginning the next stage, the interview process, was to put my proposal through the ethical review procedure of the university. I drew up an information sheet for potential participants which described in straightforward terms the aims, objectives and methodology of my research and why they had been selected: because they were either lecturers in German whose professional identities had been affected by change or were in management positions during the time this change took place. I assured the ethics review committee that the information given by participants would remain confidential and anonymous and would be safely stored in my office at home. However, on the advice of my supervisor, I alerted potential interviewees that I would be unable to give an absolute guarantee of anonymity because of the relatively small pool of German lecturers and higher education institutions in Ireland but would use pseudonyms for both themselves and the institution they worked at and try to ensure at all times that they could not be identified and would be fairly represented in the thesis.

Once the project was approved I went on to contact potential interviewees. Not expecting that everyone would want to take part I emailed twelve permanent lecturers at one IoT and received a positive response from eleven of them, although one individual subsequently withdrew on receipt of the participant information sheet. Later, at the first interview stage, two lecturers wanted further verbal assurances that their audio recordings would not be used in public – at that point I realised that the information sheet had not been clear enough in expressing my intention to use only transcripts of audio recording, not the voices themselves, in the event of presenting my research at conferences. I had decided initially that I would concentrate on two other IoTs and made contact with three lecturers in each institution. Unfortunately, at the first of these, one lecturer was not available on the day we had arranged to meet and then went on extended leave. At the second IoT one lecturer withdrew on receipt of the participant information sheet and another was not available on the day I came to interview him. The third lecturer was extremely helpful and gave me an overview of her institution as well as her own situation. At that point I decided to widen out my approach to get a more general sense of the issues at work across the IoT sector and therefore contacted two more German lecturers from two different IoTs. For contrast, and to give some insight into the issue of academic identity in the university sector (Henkel 2004, 2005, Harris 2005, Archer 2008, Clegg 2008, Kolsaker 2008), I also contacted a lecturer at a university where languages are more often applied to the needs of industry and technology, as in the IoT sector, than the traditional university view of languages as pertaining to literature and philosophy.   

At the same time I also included a small number of managers from one IoT who had been involved in or aware of the decisions to remove German from several programmes across the institution, because it seemed likely that very little of that decision-making process would be available in documented form. One of these informants suggested approaching a human resources (HR) manager to give a different perspective on how lecturers had changed their careers. When I interviewed this informant I discovered that he had not been employed at the institution at the time in question – nonetheless, I found him very helpful and willing to explain the current institutional viewpoint. Subsequently, I decided to include a teaching union perspective by interviewing a former TUI official who had been actively engaged in the events that triggered this project. That interview marked the end of the first round of respondent and informant interviews.

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