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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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Writing the story: analysing the data

On one level data analysis is synonymous with data collection itself. The process of collecting, and constructing (Bourdieu et al 1999, Guéranger 2009), interview data involves the simultaneous process of understanding and analysing what is being said. It is essential to the ‘non-violent communication’ (Bourdieu et al 1999, p. 610) that should take place between the researcher and the respondent but, equally, between the researcher and the reader of a research project that the ‘intentions and procedural principles’ (ibid p. 607) should be explicit at all times. The social proximity and familiarity between the researcher and interview respondents must be reflected in the analysis that is produced. I attempted to do this by placing myself within the same analytical space as my respondents and by including a socioanalysis of my own experiences, both personal and professional. I kept in mind Bourdieu’s precept that the researcher must attempt to provide an objective perception of the people being questioned while avoiding objectifying them (ibid). At all times my ‘point of view’ in analysing the data of the interviews was to ‘re-produce the point of view of [the interviewee] and constitute it as such by resituating it within social space’ (ibid p. 625). To do this I needed to take a somewhat different approach to that outlined by Bourdieu in The Weight of the World(Bourdieu et al 1999) where he and his colleagues concentrated on collecting interview data.  While I had found Bourdieu’s advice (ibid, pp. 607-626) enormously helpful for conducting interviews, my analysis needed to find a way to combine this data with the material I had gathered from secondary sources to allow the reader to situate him- or herself in the social space of my respondents’ views.

I therefore adopted an approach provided by Warren and Webb (2006,2007a, 2007b), that draws on Bourdieu to move beyond the individualising tendencies of life history research so as to connect individuals’ habitus to the social structure that affects their lives, what they term ‘recursive methodology’ (2007b). Here data collection and analysis become an iterative and reiterative process as the researcher constructs a series of narratives that derive from a first interview; the analysis of that interview; a second interview that takes account of this analysis; interviews with informants that throw light on the social structures that surround the respondent and the analysis of documentary evidence to add to a fuller understanding of the forces at work in the field of power. Each layer of narrative deconstructs and reconstructs the original life history and the habitus of the respondent under the objectifying gaze of the researcher.

Following this methodology my summaries of the first round of interviews with German lecturers and former lecturers became the first narrative layer in the recursive process. In preparation for the second round of interviews with lecturing staff I analysed the interviews again, this time from the perspective of how Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, capital, field and reflexivity could be observed at work in the narratives. A second set of narratives was thereby produced and from this I derived a number of themes that were common to all the respondents and that required further exploration. I compiled six general questions, mapped to the issues on which I required elaboration from the respondents and to how Bourdieu’s concepts were linked to the notion of professional identity, which I called an interview methodology matrix.

I used this matrix to ensure that the second round of information-gathering would provide details that were directly linked to my conceptual framework. For example, I hoped that more targeted questioning would allow respondents to use their own reflexivity to think about and express their views on their professional identities; on how their previous life history and experiences (their habitus and capital) had affected their ability and willingness to change; on how their institution had helped or hindered them in adapting to change and in shaping their professional identities, changed or otherwise. I also planned to use the contrasting experiences of lecturers from different institutions to build a case for the argument that different social spaces created different possibilities for those who were positioned within them. In the end, once I had come to the conclusion that I would need to include a large amount of material about myself and my experiences in my own institution, there was not enough space and time left to explore this issue to its fullest extent and a number of the interviewees were only touched on briefly in the thesis.

Before deciding to include myself, however, I still hoped to elicit from the second round of interviews accounts that would delve willingly into the personal histories of my respondents and help to explain the formation of their professional and academic habitus from their personal trajectories. In discussion with my supervisor the idea emerged to try to shake up the interview experience and engender a new kind of dialogue. My plan was to conduct the second interviews sitting beside rather than opposite the interviewees so that I could use a more graphic representation of the questions I wanted to ask. During the interviews I drew a circle to represent identity and asked them to mark how much of this circle was taken up by professional identity, how much by other types of identity. I then drew a time line representing their careers and asked that they consider times when they had encountered or initiated change and whether they had behaved in the same way or differently then than they had during the changes we were discussing. While all the respondents answered these questions, most did not seem comfortable with pursuing the topics back into the personal realm. Not wanting to impose symbolic violence on my interviewees I withdrew my questioning to the professional arena.

Recalling this experience brings me to a brief discussion of the power relations at play within the interview situation. Many writers have drawn attention to the idea that, by instigating the research and conducting the interviews, most of the power is in the hands of the interviewer (Goodson and Fliesser 1995, Scott and Usher 1996, 1999, Schostak 2002, Goodson 2005). While not wishing to appear naïve as an insider researcher in the ‘pursuit of innocence’ (MacLure 2003, p. 103) I did not always feel that this was true in my case. When interviewing managers who were higher in the institutional hierarchy than me, although they were always friendly and helpful, the fact of being occasionally kept waiting before an interview or the interruptions during some of them certainly balanced out any power differential that control of the questions and the voice recorder may have given me.

In the case of lecturers I encountered several examples of individuals resisting any perceived power imbalance. One example was an interviewee who was so hesitant and evasive when I tried to open out the discussion beyond professional identity that I knew the subject must be dropped. Once the recorder was switched off she expressed her discomfort but later sent a very open and informative email when she had reached the comfort zone of her own home and had time to reflect on the process. A second interviewee, with whom I was chatting after our second interview, burst out laughing when I admitted that the results of my research would hardly have any noticeable effect on her professional life – I had been at pains to equalise our status by acknowledging that my research could not affect her, while she made it clear that such an outcome would be ridiculous anyway. A final example was the response of a third interviewee on meeting me after he had received a copy of his first interview summary: he made a cat snarling noise and a clawing gesture which I took to mean that he felt that the critique he had voiced had actually come from me, and that I was being catty. It was a funny gesture but I was shocked that an interviewee might think I was skewing his views – on the other hand, this interviewee did not pursue the matter further and was even more critical in his second interview, of which he received a full transcript. The point being made here is that all the interviewees who took part in this process took the opportunity, to a greater or lesser extent, to voice opinions that had not been elicited previously. They may well, as Bourdieu has pointed out (Bourdieu et al 1999), have been closer to mastering the interview situation than I was as the interviewer. Overall, I was very grateful for their generosity in sharing their time and thoughts with me and hope that a sense of ‘fair trade’ (Goodson and Fliesser 1995) prevailed.

One final opportunity presented itself to get further comments from respondents when I sent their second interview transcripts with a covering letter and a copy of the interview methodology matrix. By including the matrix I wanted to show where the questioning for the second interview had derived from and give them a chance to get involved in the analysis of their own stories (Merrill and West 2009). While two people did answer an individualised question pertaining to their professional identities, no other comments emerged.

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