Thursday, 14 February 2013

Reflexivity in analysis

The last time I blogged, I was expressing some reluctance at the prospect of engaging in the next stage of my PhD analysis. If I was honest (actually, I think you will find I was) then I'd be saying the work ahead of me didn't seem as interesting as the previous phase: the last set of conversations with participants, where we talked about cartoons and 'maps' I had created based on the first phase of analysis of their talk about professional identity and social interactions.   Since then, I've got on with that next block of work and I've also pulled together some thinking about what's getting me 'stuck'. Before I share some of those insights, I'd like to say that I'd never 'got there' without the pig headed determination to just persist. I realise some PhD researchers 'give up' at several points in their journey - I understand why this might happen - but I'm convinced at the value of just putting the work in. Thanks to my wife, without whom I couldn't do this; we have four children and I have a busy job. Right, that said, on to my recent insight into my own research journey.

Put simply, I've realised that what felt frustrating was the sheer...impossibility of the task ahead of me. I don't mean the analysis, I don't even mean the writing of the thesis; but the sort of questions I was asking. I have realised that what 'worked' for me up to this point were not 'researchable' questions, but were philosophical wonderings. Ironically, I spend a lot of my time advising my students about forming research questions...which I think I'm good at! What I had were a sort of general 'place markers' which talked about the sort of focus I had, but talked in general terms about 'relationships' between things. However, I was asking questions that great philosophers and sociologists spent their lives asking!

I'm not bitter. It's all part of the research journey. We all are living with our 'best' articulation of our research questions. In a flexible research design, it's no problem, but it calls for researcher reflexivity - our ability to think about our thinking, to be conscious about how we are positioned in the research process and how we interact with it. I try to do that through blogging, journaling and talking - in person and through my twitter network (as @ianrobsons).

So; I was living with research questions that had done their job in directing and sensitising my inquiry - they had taken me as far as they could. I wasn't about to throw them out, but they needed re-articulating. This had contributed in my sense of 'stuckness'. I only realised this because I had pushed on with the analysis. This is a lesson in the value of persisting (to a point) when you are not 100% sure. As I immersed myself in what I sometimes thought of as boring (let's be honest) raw data, I felt the distance between those very real narratives and the rather abstract 'questions' that were directing my studies...or rather, had become less useful in directing my studies.

I have realised what may seem quite obvious, which is that there is a reciprocal relationship between the questions and the process of analysis. Analysis benefits from the focus and direction good questions gives, but questions are re-shaped in the light of the demands of the process of analysis (if analysis begins to get unfocused or not productive in some way). The key seems to be aware of the 'balance' between the two. If things are 'working' then I'm usually OK, but if I'm stuck then a re-assessment of one of the two is usually needed. Either questions need refining, or the process of analysis isn't informing the question. I'm sure that's a simplification, but let's be honest, this is a blog post not a thesis so short is good.

So, I've written a note to myself that will direct a re-drafting of the research question. I'm thinking of practices, representations, transformations and all sorts of more specific things I can actually ask my data about. I've realised that the job of my thesis is to move forward what 'we' know about the topic not reinvest or define the world. In my case, it's about the narrative construction of professional selfhood for leaders in early childhood services, and I'm a little bit more equipped to examine my data on that now, thank you very much.