Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Restating the (not so) obvious

I've noted the advice in Clandinin and Connelly (2000) to take the opportunity to 'explain' my research question to different audiences and at different times. I think this process helps help me refine what exactly I am interested in and to explore how the question(s) have changed and shifted as I engage with new material.

As a reminder, my starting point has been the professional identity of individuals working in complex / emergent forms of children's services. The reason for this came from my own narrative of working in several different environments, and my own experience of change in my professional identity. I was interested in how individuals presented their biography of identity (implicit here is the interest in change over time, or response to a dynamic environment). A key interest was that of interactions (of all sorts) between individuals, with their sense of professional 'self' and 'other' elements; all those things that may be found in the professional environment as perceived. 

I began with an interest both in the agency of individuals and the structure of the 'environment' - how individuals used them and made choices in the light of a wide range of 'social objects'. I wondered about the levels on which this process happened, but the nature of a narrative study (for me) would at least be dealing with those actions that individuals could account for, even upon reflection. Did individuals even have a professional narrative, and if so how and why did it change; what were the transitions, mechanisms, incentives and constraints? 

I reflected on the sorts of conversations I had had with people as a professional mentor, and my academic interest in visual methods of research and learning. I became interested in the process of 'research' also being a process of realisation (itself a new catalyst, as opposed to pretending it would be about detached observation). I imagined participants 'mapping' out their cultural environments and identifying both the flows / dynamics but also their navigation within them.

In order to provide myself with a map of my own to begin my journey into these topics and questions, I have collected some theoretical perspectives and key words. As I have read more about narrative inquiry, I have realised that I need to hold these loosely, as the purpose they serve is to 'sensitise' myself to the meaning and significance of stories. I am not aiming to produce grand theory that can be generalised, but I do hope for insights and the generation of key issues and questions for ongoing study over the years. Here are a few useful reference points for me:

  • The pragmatism of Mead, Dewey and others: here, I found a philosophy which was reflective but connected to very real concerns and practical lives. This echoed a personal aim of mine, to ensure any inquiry dealt with real struggles with professional identity, and real choices and mechanisms (physic and otherwise) that related to them. I liked the lack of distinction between thinking and action (I think much professional change is done 'on the hoof') and the aspiration to understand the link between the individual and what they 'know', rather than suggest this is unknowable. In addition, doubt and the idea of 'search' is recognised - allowing the researcher to admit a starting point (useful for me as someone who is 'positioned' in the study), with the process being about looking for some sense of being 'settled' - or resolving a question that sits uneasily in the present reality. I note that I need to find a suitable articulation of pragmatism, including a position that addresses the role of metaphysics rejected by many pragmatists. I have placed question marks next to the names of the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and George Lindbeck and the Christian academic Cornel West as I wonder whether others have found helpful ways to weave faith and pragmatism together.
  • The sociocultural focus of Vygotsky, Leont'ev and Engestrom: variations of activity theory, developed initially by Leont'ev and recognised human action as complex and socially situated. The theory suggests that as people interact with their environments, they create 'tools' which are visible forms of mental processes - then visible, and available as social resources. Engestrom's work on third generation activity theory reflects input from systems theory and pragmatism, so this sits at a useful overlap for me - hinting at mechanisms for interaction and navigation amongst other things. 
  • The narrative themes of Paul Ricoeur: My early encounters with Ricoeur add him to my list of 'hopeful' reference points in that he seems interested with the powerful themes of hermeneutics; how people make sense of their stories (hence link to my study). His interest with the idea of self is useful, as is is dealing with the idea of narrative as making sense of moving through time.