Subjectivity, ontology, ethics, intersectionality and more: an introduction to the language of qualitative research(MSc Qualitative Methods) Erica Burman firstname.lastname@example.org www.discourseunit.com
Aims for the session • To discuss some of the key terms used in qualitative research • To explore their rationale and meanings • And what kinds of research questions and practices they promote • i.e. to encounter, appreciate the significance of and engage with the language of qualitative research.
Different paradigm, different questions… • Beyond numbers • From ‘what?’ to ‘why?’ questions • From responses to meanings; • From (experimental) ‘subjects’ to ‘subjectivities’ • From statistical patterns to rich description • From scientism to humanism? • (or varieties of non-mechanistic interpretations of human activity…- some qualitative models are also antihumanist!) • Re-working criteria for rigour in qualitative research: Not replicability, reliability or generalisation Developing a new vocabulary for quality in qualitative research e.g. (see e.g. Denzin & Lincoln, 1995; Parker 2005 etc.)
Taking care of our words? But are we being too fussy? Or pretentious? Or elitist? etc • focus on research as an interpretive practice • Assumes that our words are productive of meanings and practices, rather than merely reflecting these • From ‘problems’ to resources? • (And knowing what level of complexity is right for your research question)
What are the tricky words? • Subjectivity • Ontology • Epistemology • ….
Thinking ‘out of the box’ in qualitative research • Relationships between researcher and researched are more obvious and (sometimes) intimate • (tho some would say that the same issues also apply to quantitative work too, altho’ not explicitly acknowledged) • Important to work within a conceptual paradigm that adequately acknowledges this relational character and can analyse the ways this enters into the generation and analysis of the research material • (dangers of transposing a laboratory experimental approach to qualitative research - )
Re-thinking the relations between epistemology, ontology, methodology and method • Epistemology: theory of knowledge (including its generation and procedures for evaluation) • (Within a qualitative paradigm) this necessarily imports such questions as: who is a knower? Therefore relates to: • Ontology: theory of being - poses the question of how experience relates to knowledge • Also imports attention to questions of context, embodiment and social location…. (axes of ‘race’, gender, class etc
Different epistemologies imply • Specific ontologies (ways of understanding the relation between knowledge and experience) • And have certain relations with specific methodological approaches • Note: methodology: theory of method, not to be confused with specific techniques • Epistemologies may imply certain methodological approaches but can rarely be tied to a specific ‘method’ • Key (introductory) references: Harding on Standpoint theory; Stanley and Wise (1983, 1990 and more) Breaking Out and Maynard and Purvis (1994) Researching women’s experience from a feminist perspective
Example: interviewing • Watching our language: specific terms imply particular ways of configuring the interviewer/ee relation • Researcher vs. respondent, participant, informant, co-researcher (others… client? Etc.) • What different epistemologies and associated methodological frameworks do these imply?
Different narratives of knowledge construction The quantitative paradigm (but not only): • The gatherer: knowledge collection • The miner: digging down for ‘nuggets’ • The scientist: accumulation of knowledge (presumes passive, asocial relation) The ‘new’ (ish) qualitative paradigm: • The traveller: knowledge construction • ‘A miner approach will tend to regard interviews as a site of data collection separated from the later data analysis. A traveller conception leads to interviewing and analysis as intertwined phases of knowledge construction, with an emphasis on the narrative to be told to an audience’ (Kvale and Brinkmann, 2008. InterViews. P8) ie connects the model of knowledge generation with the process of analysis and of reporting/dissemination
From methodology to methodolatry? • Chamberlain’s (2000) typology: agnostics (uncommitted/not interested); fundamentalists (committed to one true way); charismatics (dangerous electicists); and … heretics (the poststructuralists and postmodernists) • Dangers of focusing on/reifying methods is a problem in qualitative as well as quantitative research • Dangers of merely describing, avoiding the critical; privileging codes and coding over creativity and interpretation • Dangers of being too inflexible in the search for secure methodological frames • But this is NOT a license for loose conceptualisation! Theory is your friend and guide in these new uncharted territories (to use a colonial metaphor!)
Terms for ‘quality’ in qualitative research • Trustworthiness, credibility (rather than internal validity) • Transferability (rather than external validity) • Dependability (rather than reliability) • Other terms: authenticity, saturation, meaning-in-context, recurrent patterns etc • Not only getting close to our material; getting lost in the detail and losing the overall picture: ‘garden path analysis’
Reframing the 4 ‘horrors’ of quantitative research into the strengths of qualitative research: working with rather than sanitising away problems of specificity, provisionality, subjectivity and change • Indexicality: reformulating validity, reliability and replicability • Inconcludability: ‘minding the gap’ • Reflexivity: reformulating the problem of subjectivity • Research as a change process: Making a difference (see Parker, 1994)
Re-formulating objectivity • Objectivity as a form of subjectivity (rather than its opposite) • All knowledge is situated, generated from a partial perspective, and has effects • (there is no ‘god’s eye’ view – omnipresent or omniscient) • This means that we have to find ways to work with subjectivity, to understand its role and impact, rather than pretend it is not there…
Understanding subjectivity(c.f. Chamberlain: from the ‘prickly’ to the ‘gooey’? • As necessary and inevitable • As amenable to interrogation and evaluation (at least to some extent) • As a means to understand research processes better (rather than a ‘confounding variable’) • As a means of harnessing the power of change rather than pretending neutrality? (links with A-R) • Strong subjectivity? (rather than objectivity) • Feminist researchers have been at forefront of these debates (see e.g. Harding’s The Feminist Standpoint Reader)
Note: proliferation of models of qualitative research – and each has their own suggestions and approaches to understanding subjectivity, consistent with the specific epistemology (theory of knowledge) of the model
Mazzei & Jackson (2011) • Highlighting the importance of theoretical frameworks • ‘Thinking with data’ • ‘plugging in’ (from Deleuze & Guattari): multiple texts, ‘into which ideas, fragments, theory, selves sensations’ connect up to ‘create new ways of thinking about both theory and data’. • (D&L: machines, assemblages; rhizomes etc) • Reading the ‘same text’ through different theoretical frameworks: Derrida, Spivak, Foucault, Butler, Barad • These different frameworks suggested different sections of the transcripts for analysis
‘plugging in’ as an exercise in methodological rigour • Putting philosophical concepts to work… showing how theory and practice constitute each other • Clarifying which analytical questions are made possible by a specific theoretical concept, and how these emerge through the process of engagement with the material (‘plugging in’) • working the same “data chunks” repeatedly to highlight the assumptions of each theoretical framework and also their ‘suppleness’ ‘Earning one’s theory’: to generate and interrogate, rather than foreclose, meaning. Mazzei (2011 ms p22) ‘To think with theory is not only useful but essential, for without theory we have no way to think otherwise’
‘Ethics’ • From acknowledging research as a relationship to understanding it as (also) a power relationship • (though we need to have a complex model of power) • Ethical-political issues structure and inform research at every level, so we need to be attentive to exactly how (not whether) they function
Ethics: the ‘manual’ approachsome examples from last year’s UGs “There are no ethical considerations. See Appendix 5 for the Ethics form.” “A research ethics form was also complete[d] and signed by the research supervisor to ensure there would be no major ethical issues.”
On the problem of the desire for manuals 'More often than not, instruction manuals are received like security blankets. They give assurances and protection from the haphazardness of wrong-headed turns. They may even be imagined as magic that blow away the harshness and inexperience, the terrors of mistakes, and the embarrassments of working in a field of insoluble problems. Freud teaches that the wish for manuals is subject to psychoanalysis. Manuals also tell a story of the crisis of education from the vantage point of a profession’s symptoms, anxieties and defenses against the loss of mastery.' (Britzman, D. (2011) Freud and Education. New York and London: Routledge p62)
Manualisation as combining personal and institutional defences against… uncertainty? • 'Demands for a manual seem to become the solution to a profession’s anxiety, although they hark back to the wish for the parent’s authority, to the child’s fantasy of the parent as capable of mind-reading powers, and our capacity to regress in the face of uncertainty. …Finally, the paradox of transference – that there can be no learning without the transference but that the transference is an obstacle to learning – gives us a clue as to why knowledge is idealized or so subject to disparagement when it disappoints.‘ (Britzman, 2011 p81)
An impossible way of dealing with insecurity 'From the educational side, manuals can be unconsciously linked to the infantile wish for absolute knowledge, so indexing a piece of psychoanalytic transference. Any desire for certainty could mean only that something was terribly uncertain.’ (Britzman, 2011 p83)
Ethics: beyond the manual approach • Ethics as a process not a bureaucratic procedure • Informed consent as a process (signing a contract does not mean signing away participant rights, it means understanding the commitment to them!) • Ethical considerations structure all aspects of the research, not simply the immediate context of ‘data collection’. • Ethics go beyond codes of professional practice • ‘Having no effects’ does not necessarily mean ‘doing no harm’… what of our responsibilities to help facilitative change? Ethics and action research
Resources on ‘ethics’ • Ribbens, J. and Edwards, R. (Eds) (1998) Feminist Dilemmas in Qualitative Research • Mauthner, M. et al (Eds) (2002) Ethics in Qualitative Research • Badiou, A. (2001) Ethics. • Extensive discussions in journals such as: Qualitative Inquiry, Qualitative Research in Psychology, Qualitative Health Research, Qualitative Studies in Education, Qualitative Social Work
Reflexivity as a practice of accountability • Not simply a ‘confession’ • - Though there is a school of thought around research as (auto)biography • An account to the reader of relevant features of one’s positioning that aid evaluation of the status of one’s empirical material and interpretive claims • offered to specific audiences… your professional colleagues, your participants, to help show how you arrived at your material and analysis • Obviously subscribes to a quasi-rationalist model (or else subject to unconscious processes?) • But some approaches do draw on dreams, fantasies and associations… (see QI and Handbook of QR)
Reflexivity: cont. • Wilkinson (1988) – positional, disciplinary and personal forms of reflexivity • E.g. how class, racialised position, gender generation, shared or different cultural norms between parties • Remembering that (e.g. cultural or gender) ‘matching’ is both a fiction and is in danger of covering over, via presumed commonalities, issues that should be critically interrogated as constitutive of the research material • Qualitative research’s ‘quality control’? • Links to other criteria for evaluation
Taking complexity and reflexivity seriously: the move to intersectionality
Box 1Open questions about quality (from I. Parker (2005) Qualitative Psychology. p.140) It is crucial to the enterprise of scientific work generally, and qualitative research in particular, that the way we go about it is open to debate. Here are some questions for which there are no clear answers and much disagreement. 1. What counts as good? (a) It corresponds to the norms of established scientific study. (b) It will improve the lives of those who participated. (c) It is intrinsically interesting and will provoke and satisfy those who are curious about the questions posed. 2. Who should it be for? (a) It should be directly accessible to ordinary people outside psychology. (b) It should contribute to the accumulating body of knowledge for the use of other researchers. (c) Those who participated should gain something from it in exchange for their time. 3. What counts as analysis? (a) A careful redescription using some categories from a particular framework. (b) The discovery of something that can be empirically confirmed as true or refused as false. (c) The emergence of a new meaning that was entirely unexpected. 4. What is the role of theory? (a) Mystification by those versed in jargon at the expense of those who participated. (b) A necessary antidote to the commonsense and often mistaken explanations for human behaviour. (c) The space for thinking afresh about something. This is not a multiple-choice test (which, of course, would be a most inappropriate assessment for qualitative research). These open questions are puzzles for us and for our colleagues, and good research does also puzzle about them a bit further and position itself in relation to them.
Box 2Explicating the parameters of criteria (from p. 141-2 of Parker, I. (2005) Qualitative Psychology. Berkshire; Open University Press.) These points summarise key questions that should be considered in the process of carrying out qualitative research in psychology. 1. Objective? – Have you described what theoretical resources you draw upon to make your subjectivity into a useful device and how those resources impact on the research? 2. Valid? – Have you made clear the ways in which the account you give is distinctive and paradigmatically different from other things that might be categorised along with it? 3. Reliable? – Have you traced a process of change in your understanding and other people’s understanding of the topic and explored how views of it may continue to change? 4. Neutral? – Is there a reflexive analysis which steps back from the account you have given and allows the reader to see something of the institutional vantage point from which the story is told? 5. Confirmed? – Is there an attempt to bring research participants’ responses to the analysis into the study, and an attempt both to clarify the ways in which they agree and disagree with what you say and to analyse why and how these different responses may have come about?
6. Definitive? – Is there an attempt to ‘triangulate’ views of the topic and a decision about whether this triangulation should be taken as arriving at a clearer view or an explication of what is apparent from different vantage points? 7. Established? – If you did not study and refer to an established line of research, did you discuss the reasons why this may not appear in the research literature? 8. Coherent? – If you did not organise your material in a coherent way, did you say why you chose a different kind of narrative to display your research and thus persuade the reader that this work is worthwhile? 9. Accessible? – If you did not arrive at something that could be easily accessible to someone in the discipline or outside it, did you say why your work needed to be more complex? 10. Psychological? - Have you made clear that the theoretical or methodological framework you have used is from within the domain of psychology, or made clear how the topic is usually understood by psychology, or examined what the implications might be for psychology of what you have done?
Some issues to consider before embarking on your research • Forms of relationship between researcher and research, including what frames for relationship already structure the researcher/ed relation even before they meet? (thro official professional roles, or assumptions/attributions of ‘expertise’, or frames constructed through understandings of social axes such as class, ‘race’, gender, assumed sexuality, assumed able-bodiedness etc) • The importance of historical situatedness (time, place, setting) and what this brings to your encounter • Power relationships – structural (which ones – not only singular, nor one way!)
Issues cont. • Research as a process: How do identities and power relationships shift during the research? (during the encounter – if there is one, during the analysis and dissemination stages…?) • Agendas: what are the possible reasons for all parties taking part in the research, and how might this enter into what material is remembered and documented? (and by whom?) • What forms of resistance occur in relation to the formal structures of the research paradigm and relationship?