What Am I Doing and Why?

written equations on brown wooden board

Physics is often thought of as the most rigid of the material sciences. Qualitative, or text-based data which focuses on opinions, beliefs, and relationships between people shares much in common with physics.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity reveals that it is only in relation to particle X that we can make any claims about the state of particle Y. In isolation, particle Y is unintelligible, much like a person. Therefore, relationships between things constitutes the study of all life.

I am a qualitative researcher. The key questions I continually ask of myself in my own research are on what grounds can my work claim:

  • To have found anything
  • That the findings truthfully reflect the lives of the participants
  • That the findings are interesting and useful

grayscale photography of scientist using microscope in the zoological division

What have I found?

In the 1900’s, Max Weber acknowledged that since so much of our behaviour is the outcome of entrenched routine or autopilot, it is folly for researchers to claim that observation or interview conveys the ‘point of view’ or ‘perspective’ behind every decision or statement.

In other words, a story might ‘belong’ to an individual, but might also belong to overarching cultural discourses which are just being repeated in the interview.

To illustrate this point, Gubrium and Holstein (pp. 21-2) describe how closely narratives given by pharmacists who had engaged in substance abuse correlated with typical self-help narratives propagated by self-help and recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous & Narcotics Anonymous.

The researchers subsequently found out that many of the pharmacists had attended both AA and NA groups. In this way, the stories of recovery given by the pharmacists represent an internalisation and reproduction of stories that they had been told by communities they identify as belonging to; recovering substance abusers.

From this point of view, the stories do not represent anything innate, essential, or original about the individual pharmacists being interviewed, but rather give evidence for the way we make sense out of our own experience by using the common language and frameworks of our culture.

framed eyeglasses on top open book

Do the findings truthfully reflect the lives of the participants?

One of the key considerations here is ensuring to the best of our ability that the biases and reactivity of the researcher are noticed and clearly communicated in order to foreground the views of those being researched and allow the reader to judge for themselves how trustworthy the information is.

In the case of this thesis, it is a critique I have been ongoingly been given; my work is too closely aligned with an activist register, it is biased and reads like an advocacy paper, not a neutral unbiased academic work of impartial enquiry and marshalling of the evidence.

I think this critique is accurate but not defaultly valuable. If an academic were writing on the social practise of kicking puppies, and the tone of their work was skewed towards activism in an effort to discourage people from kicking puppies, I wonder if it might be difficult to justify advising a more neutral position.

four assorted-color puppies on window

In my own case, I find it disingenuous to pretend that I am undecided on whether or not tiny houses should be an option made more easily accessible to women around the world.

Despite many methodological papers advising that researchers interrogate and plainly state their positionality vis-à-vis a research subject in the name of increasing transparency and therefore rigour, it is unlikely that this passage could be included in my final thesis, as the register is likely to be critiqued as too rhetorical and not sufficiently academic.

The use of a first-person pronoun would also be questioned, since it is a roundly accepted norm to pretend that I am not writing this chapter, but that ‘a researcher’ or ‘an author’ is.

My findings represent an amalgam of the lives of the participants and my own life. This is true for all research including areas we tend to think of as ‘hard’ evidence based science such as computing and algorithm programming.

assorted-title of books piled in the shelves

Are the findings interesting and useful?

For many feminist scholars, feminist research is feminist theory put into action. Focussing research attention on the lives of women can challenge mainstream and malestream assumptions about the world and work to redress power imbalances. The scholarly process of analysing the experiences of women contains the latent potential for social change, which is a core goal of any branch of feminism.

In this way, conducting feminist research becomes a practise of feminist activism and can contribute to the political aims of creating fairer, more equal societies. Simply, “the aim is to understand the world and change it”. I hope my work is useful in this way.

If you prefer video, you can watch my TedX talk.

man in brown hat with yellow blue and red scarf

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