Tag Archives: Educational Research

Writing research papers (Part 3)

Part 3: Authority, representation and responsibility

Rhetorical and literary devices are not only used to entice, engage and persuade readers of qualitative research reports, they are also employed to give them authority. Social research has always suffered of certain angst towards its own status as science and researchers have used such language devices to create texts that sound factual, objective and scientifically authoritative. Atkinson (1990, p.36) argues that textual literary conventions are greatly responsible for readers interpreting texts as factual, to persuade readers that what they are reading is the reality straightforwardly reported by the author/researcher. It follows that, from this standpoint, both text and researchers are merely, neutral conveyors of the ‘real’ world discovered/uncovered by research. Furthermore, it gives the author/researcher the authority of the one who ‘has been there’ and seen ‘how things are’. The researcher’s authority has been one of the premises upon which Western anthropology and ethnography have been built. It would be a gross oversimplification to say that early anthropologists and ethnographers had no awareness of how problematic representing others is, but later 20th century post-structuralist philosophy and calls for greater reflexivity have certainly contributed to the current view that authority in social research writing is a contested territory. Then the so-called ‘crisis of representation’ in social research. The single, privileged authoritative voice of the researcher is now under scrutiny and a call for multiple perspectives, the inclusion of the voices of those observed/researched to be included in research reports comes from those advocating for more inclusive, alternative forms of representation. As Clifford (1986) argues,

The critique of colonialism in the postwar period – an undermining of ‘The West’s’ ability to represent other societies – has been reinforced by an important process of theorizing about the limits of representation itself. (…) what is at stake, but not always recognized, is an ongoing critique of the West’s most confident, characteristic discourses. (1986, p.10)

This critique of discourse forms has lead some to advocate for novel forms of textual representation in ethnographic writing where the voice and authority of the author/researcher is somehow undermined, or at least brought to questioning, by the inclusion of other voices. New written arrangements vary from more substantial inclusion of extracts with participants’ voices in the weaving of the text to more radical text forms such as poems, drama and fictionalized narratives. While recognizing that novel textual forms of ethnographic social research representation may give a positive contribution to the field, Walford (2009) argues that they should ultimately be based on observation, field notes and research evidence. Moreover, there should be serious a commitment from the part of the ethnographer to reduce ambiguity as much as possible. For him,

Good literature, drama or poetry should certainly try to encourage ‘connection, empathy, and solidarity’. Good literature is centrally a writerly text with multiple possible interpretations designed to engage the reader in a reflexive process of new understanding. However, the reports of ethnographic research (and, indeed, all research) are surely fundamentally attempts to construct a readerly text _ one where the attempt is made to restrict multiple meanings as far as possible. For me, ethnographic reports need to be logically constructed and be clear about what empirical claims (factual and explanatory) are being made and what empirical data have been generated that support those claims. (2009: 227)

Hammersley and Atkinson (2007, p.204) had already called for caution in producing overtly fictionalized accounts of research and argued for a ‘proper balance between a totally impersonal style that elides the agency of the observer-author and an ‘exaggeratedly’ literary form in which the author seems more important than the rest of the social world.’ Such balance is not just a matter of sensibly employing rhetorical devices and opting for the most suitable textual genre, but also a matter of balancing the voices of the researcher and the voices of those represented in the text and being as faithful to the data collected from participants as possible. It is a matter of recognizing that research writing and the authorial power of representation are intrinsically interconnected and that the researcher should reflect on such issues and make them as explicit as possible when producing their research accounts. Ultimately, it is a matter of academic responsibility and an ethical stance since it is the researcher’s responsibility to provide a clear enough account of their study to allow their readers to make an informed decision on how accurate, valid, reliable and representative a research report is.

Conclusion

In this series of posts I have briefly considered how understandings of the nature of language also affect the way we perceive the nature of qualitative research reports. It seems to me that a responsible attitude towards the research participants, the academic community, the readers of social research texts in general and those whose lives maybe affected by our research findings is to commit to a textual representation in which arguments are based, as much as possible, on methodological rigour and appropriate evidence. As complex and debatable as notions of accuracy, validity and reliability may be, as multifarious and shifting truth may be, somewhere there is thin line between literary writing making use of research findings and research writing making use of fictional elements. Post-structuralism may have rendered the line between fiction and reality epidemiologically nonexistent, but ethically it still stands (Kearney, 1988, p.361). When deciding between writing research texts as a social scientist or as a poet we have to make the decision based on our understanding of our responsibility towards the others involved in our research projects and the ones who will be affected by it. It may not be an epistemological decision for us to make, but it is certainly an ethical one.

References

  • Atkinson, P., 1990. The Ethnographic Imagination. London: Routledge.
  • Hammersley, M. and Atkinson P., 2007. Ethnography. Principles in Practice. 3rd Edition. London: Routledge.
  • Kearney, R., 1988. The Wake of Imagination. London: Hutchinson.
  • Walford, G., 2009. For ethnography. Ethnography and Education, 4(3), pp.271-282.

Writing research papers (Part 2)

Part 2: Writing the World

First of all, it is to the nature of language itself that we have to turn our attention in a discussion of the aspects to be considered when analysing qualitative research reports.

We have inherited from both pre-Christian and the Judeo-Christian traditions in the West an understanding that sees an intrinsic correlation between language and reality. Actually, for the Sumerians that was exactly the whole purpose of creating writing: three sticks on a clay tablet preceding the symbol for goat, for instance, stood for three existing, living, breathing goats to be traded on or accounted for (Manguel, 1996). This resulted in a view of language as a transparent medium capable of rendering the real world into words. Language, in this perspective, is taken as a system of symbols and sounds that has neutral value and which conveys in a straightforward way information from a sender to a recipient without any bearing on the process of transmission. Language here has a purely referential function.

This view of language persisted until the 20th century when linguists and philosophers started questioning this purely referential functional understanding of language. For Austin (1975, p.5), language does not merely describe something that exists; neither does it simply establish the truthfulness or falsehood of a given statement. On the contrary, for him, language is not purely referential, instead it performs actions, i.e., statements are, for example, designed to create effects, convey non-stated meanings and accomplish desired outcomes. For Bruner (1986, p.121), language ‘imposes a perspective in which things are viewed and a stance toward what we view.’ Language then ceases to be transparent and mere conveyor of the information supposedly intended by the speaker/writer to become an integral part of the meaning perceived by the listener/reader. Some developments in this line of thought, eventually, lead to the post-structuralist viewpoint that language, as a socio-historical phenomenon, also actively constructs meaning (Foucault, 2001).

Such discussion on the nature of language is relevant to any examination of research reports. The way we see language has implications for the way we see the object and findings of any research investigation since it is mainly through written language that we have access to them. Considering ethnographic writing, Hammersley and Atkinson (2007) point out that,

Writing ethnography is a key part of the entire research process. (…) Ethnography is inescapably a textual enterprise, even if, it is more than that. Furthermore, written language is an analytical tool, not a transparent medium of communication. We can never reduce writing to a simple set of skills or prescriptions. What is needed is an appreciation of texts as the products of reading and writing. (2007, 191)

This emphasis on textual construction and on the reading/writing process inexorably leads to a consideration of textual elements and how they contribute to the creation of meaning both from the author and the reader’s point of view. Aspects of textual construction, such chronological and thematic arrangements, textual strategies and rhetorical devices (Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007, p.193-203) all contribute to the weaving of research narratives and how they are interpreted. Such textual elements are usually the object of attention in literary studies and such association with the arts has not always been seen as something positive by social scientists. On the contrary, the view that social research is a ‘scientific’ enterprise has lead sociologists, and qualitative researchers in general, to make great efforts to create their texts based on ‘facts’, ‘objective, measurable evidence’ and even deny any association with subjectivity and aesthetics. However, the increasing attention both literary and social researchers have been giving to the constitution of their texts should lead to a greater awareness, among social scientists, of the affinities between both disciplines. According to Atkinson (1990),

Although sociologists agonize over the ‘scientific’ standing of their activities and products, they may be reluctant to acknowledge any possible affinities with the aesthetic. (..) Certainly sociologists, of all people, cannot allow themselves to be hoodwinked by uncritical everyday prejudices. ‘Science’ is itself a rhetorical activity, and the scholarly and the literary share common conventions in the production and reception of their texts. (1990, p.10)

Atkinson calls for a better understanding among social researchers of the rhetoric of their research reports, including their uses of narrative techniques and other figures of speech, such as metaphors, irony, topos and stylistic devices. The limits of this post does not allow for a full treatment of such issues but for a good starting point to such matters, one could turn to is Hammersley and Atkinson (2007, p.197-201) summary. For a more in-depth analysis of the aesthetic dimension of sociological knowledge,  turn to the works of Brown (1977).  For a more comprehensive analysis of the place and role of rhetoric in human and social sciences, refer to the work of Edmondson (1984).

Interest in the language of research reports is not, however, just a matter of linguist and aesthetic speculation. The understanding that language not only reflects but also constructs reality implies that language is one of the determining factors in how representation and authorial authority are constructed in text. Issues of representation and authority, in turn, raise issues of social responsibility. These are the aspects I will consider in next post.

References

  • Atkinson, P.,1990. The Ethnographic Imagination. London: Routledge.
  • Austin, J.,1975. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Brown, R.H.,1977. A Poetic for Sociology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bruner, J. S., 1986. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Edmondson, R., 1984. Rhetoric in Sociology. London: Macmillan.
  • Foucault, M., 2001. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.
  • Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P., 2007. Ethnography. Principles in Practice. 3rd Edition. London: Routledge.
  • Manguel, A. , 1996. A History of Reading. New York: Viking.

Writing research papers (Part 1)

Part 1: Introduction

In the beginning it was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. (John, 1:1)

The Judeo-Christian tradition which, at different degrees and levels, pervades most philosophical systems in the West, gives language a place of prominence and unparalleled importance. The very act of creation is dependent upon language for things come to be just after God pronounces them so. For the Evangelist, there is no distinction whatsoever between the Creator and Language itself. When humans translated language into symbols that could be registered down in clay tablets, a new process of creation begun since now the correspondence between the divine intangible became visible. Even in pre-Christian cultures the connection between language, symbol and the act of creation was innate: magic words and symbols were nothing but language creating correspondences between the domains of the divine and the human world (Tambiah, 1996: 34). Writing is thus a human attempt to translate an elusive world into discernible, interpretable evidence.

All major religions, both in the West and in the East, have sacred texts that are the symbolic written embodiment of the way they see the world. Philosophical systems come down to us by the writings of their major thinkers. Our world is, and has historically been, a written world. Research, as many human endeavours, comes to be in a process of written creation. All research is depended upon language being translated into writing: recorded interviews must be transcribed, observed behaviour, body language and impressions must be registered in field notes, journals notes must be produced as evidence, reports must be written and, eventually, the whole research process only comes to be when a thesis or article is produced and published.

Given the centrality of writing in research it is surprising that until recently little thought has been given to how this process develops and to the nature of the products it generates (Atkinson, 1990, p.2). In the following posts I will explore some concepts of language and how such views influence the writing of research papers. I will then discuss the  writing of qualitative research reports, focusing on representation, authority and responsibility.

References

Atkinson, P., 1990. The Ethnographic Imagination. London: Routledge.

Tambiah, S. T., 1996. Relations of analogy and identity. Toward multiple orientations of the world. In Olson, D.R. and N. Torrance (eds) Modes of Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Back on the road

From now on I’ll be writing from Milton Keynes, where I’ve just started my Masters of Research at the Open University.  This the first stage leading , hopefully, to a PhD degree. I have to admit that MK is not the prettiest place in England if you consider the city itself.  However, because of the city plan, it is actually a bit like living in the countyside and… well, the English countryside is beautiful and special in its own way…  even if the Midlands lack the serene, deep beauty of Devon.

The Open is a quite peculiar place because the only sudents here are the  research and doctoral students since the undergrads are all in online courses. The whole structure of this huge campus is here just for us and the administrative staff.

Issues for me at the moment revolve very much around educational research, its forms and applicability and also the philsophical underpinnings of different approaches to it. What I have to reflect now is where I stand in these big picture and what implications my positioning and views have for my practice in ELT.   Moreover,  how my ELT experience influences the way I see educational research.

Back on the road for a new journey into the unknown… 🙂