Designing research together: it’s complicated

In my last post, I went into some detail about Oblong’s funding, the geographical community where we work, and how our work is affected by government policies.  This week I’m going to focus on the process of designing my research project with Oblong.  I’ll write briefly about the practicalities, as well as a term I discovered in academic articles:  positionality.

Positionality, in my understanding, means:

  • a researcher’s relationship to the people they will encounter in the process of doing research; and
  • the standpoint the researcher uses to interpret and write about what she finds out.

Talking about positionality when you do research indicates that you think these relationships and standpoints make a difference – to how the research is designed, and the conclusions you will eventually come to.  I do think these relationships and standpoints make a difference – in my research with Oblong, and in any research.  If you told me you were doing research from a neutral, non-biased point of view, I might think that you hadn’t reflected enough about what kinds of assumptions you were making. Everyone has a point of view.  I don’t claim to know what ‘enough’ reflection is, but I have done some.  (I learned a lot about reflexivity – not just thinking about what might bias our research, but questioning our own assumptions – in a workshop run by Anne Cunliffe, who studies organisations.)  As a result I think it’s important to be transparent about my relationship to the organisation and people I’m doing research with, and about why I’ve chosen to ask the questions I’ve asked.  Stating these things up front allows you, as a reader, to make more informed judgements about the conclusions I’ll present at the end of my research.

As I wrote in my first blog post, I used to work as an employee at Oblong.  My role was to co-ordinate the project of taking over running Woodhouse Community Centre.  I applied for the job at Oblong because the organisation’s values were really attractive to me and resonated with my own beliefs.  (Also I needed a job, reasonably paid, part-time and close to my house!)  During the course of the asset transfer of Woodhouse Community Centre, I started to worry about all the financial responsibility Oblong had taken on.  Not only needing to win grants but now also committing to the costs of running the centre, Oblong risked losing sight of its values in favour of ‘chasing the money’, I thought.  As someone involved in running the organisation, I felt this would be understandable, but it would also be a real shame.  As an employee I felt overwhelmed by financial problem-solving – “How are we going to find the £6,000 to repair the boiler?” “What about the roof which is leaking?” – but this worry about holding on to non-financial values would eventually shape my research questions.

I started out by blaming government policy for the pressure Oblong faces, but I also realised the issues are bigger than that.  Certainly I think many of the policies which affect voluntary and community groups are flawed (not to mention policies which affect public services!).  Many people who work in and study the sector think so too.  However, I started to feel that changing policies might be a lot of effort for not a lot of change.  I think that wider problems – like our society’s assumption that monetary profit is the primary motivating factor for people doing stuff – mean the potential for effective change through government policies is limited.  I believe most policies, however different they seem, will still support this profit-driven logic, wrong as it is (in my view).  So now you have a glimpse of my view of reality in the context of my research, or, the ontology I’m coming from personally.

The worldview I’ve briefly presented here may seem a bit grim, and I became wary of writing research which would be demoralising for me and everyone else.  ‘Should I ask questions which can prove that current government policies may destroy the ethos and lifeblood of community organisations like Oblong?’ I asked myself.  It seemed doable but, on reflection, not the best use of my opportunity to do a PhD.  I thought about all the time and energy I would be asking people at Oblong to give to answering my research questions with me.  I didn’t want it to be a waste of anyone’s time.  I could probably argue, if I wanted to, that Oblong’s values have been compromised – at least from a critical, theoretical point of view.  On the other hand, Oblong carries on promoting its values and trying to practice them after nearly 20 years, so hands-on observation suggests that money pressures and changes in policy aren’t enough to bring them down.  ‘What would be the benefit of using academic critique to “expose” the effects of economic pressure on Oblong’s ideals?’ I wondered.  Who would be the real losers – the policy-makers I accused, or those of us trying to do our best despite the circumstances?  Oblong values promoting social action and empowerment, and so do I.  I decided the best way to support these values was to try and do research which would be helpful, productive and affirming.  I believe that asking is action.  My research questions have an agenda designed to give the organisation space and time to focus on exploring ways to preserve and practise its values.

I drew heavily on principles from Participatory Action Research to design my project with Oblong.  Lots of people doing research and community development debate what ‘participation’ actually means and how it can, in fact, be manipulated.  I was lucky to explore some of these issues in two workshops with Participatory Action Research scholar Rachel Pain.  After discussing these things, I realised there was no such thing as ‘pure’ participation, so I could relax about being a bad person if I didn’t achieve participatory perfection – but I do have a duty to make this clear.  As for the ‘action’ part of this research, I needed to ask Oblong how I could most usefully contribute and what concrete issues we could address through my project.  This is what I did: I came up with some options for how I could conduct research, and I asked Oblong’s staff team what they thought would be most worthwhile. “Should I concentrate on helping manage the building and make observations about you all in my notebook while I’m here working?” (This option wouldn’t have been very participatory, although I myself would have been a participant in the group.)  “Or should I try running workshops where I ask people about Oblong’s values?”  We chose the second option; discussed it with the trustees; and outlined a ‘job description’ for my year-long placement with the staff team.  My job as Resident Researcher included running participatory events and exploring the work of our collectives, making connections between our work and our stated values.

Next are the things I did not do:  I did not consult with volunteers about what they thought my PhD should be about or how I should do it.  (I didn’t imagine they wanted to spend time on this.)  I did not ask Oblong’s staff to write my research questions with me.  (I think we all felt that was my task; it will be me who gets the PhD, after all.)  I did not ask anyone to read academic literature with me or identify relevant theories, although staff have analysed interview data and feedback from workshops to make practical decisions about how to do things.  The staff team have peer-managed my work as it has progressed, therefore they’ve had more influence than anyone over what I’ve done.  On the other hand, it seems like the ‘point’ of my PhD remains a bit mysterious to people I don’t work closely with.  For example, I put up a poster in Oblong about my research and asked for feedback…but most people gave me feedback about the poster design, not the ideas on it.  I’m also aware that doing academic work can create separation or power differentials between me and other people at Oblong.  And, these change depending on the people and each given interaction.  Being reflective and honest about these shifting issues forms a key aspect of Participatory Action Research: messiness is inherent to doing research which draws on participant’s views and experience to create valuable knowledge through addressing real-life issues.

Relationships affect – and potentially enrich – every aspect of participatory research.  (I think this is true for any social research.)  My relationship to Oblong is complex and multi-faceted.  As a previous employee, I have friendships and professional ties to the people I’ve worked with as colleagues.  My time there as a work placement and resident researcher has built upon these links and forged new ones.  These relationships have shaped the questions I want to ask as well as my ability to ask them.  I work often with volunteers in different roles as a collaborator, facilitator, interviewer, peer or advisor.  Their willingness to work with me comes, in part, from our relationships.  The answers each volunteer or staff member gives to my questions are undoubtedly influenced by the dynamics between us, even on that particular day.  (Did I chat with the person over a cup of tea?  Or did I rush past them on my way to the printer for an ‘important’ document?  Did they criticise the poster I put up?  Or did they put me at ease by smiling when I arrived?  I don’t try to engineer these interactions, but I know they have an effect, even if it’s small.)  Some of us involved at Oblong live in the same neighbourhood and may see each other socially, either intentionally or by chance.  We may know each other’s families or take an interest in other community groups that each other is involved with.  I value the contribution Oblong makes to the community I live in; as such I consider myself a legitimate stakeholder in the organisation.  I feel I have as much a right as any other participant to influence what goes on there, but not more.  That’s one reason that maintaining honest, communicative relationships is important.  I am deeply invested and interlinked at Oblong, with both the organisation and the individuals involved.  So long as that’s visible – so you can make up your mind about my statements and their relevance for your own situations – I believe that my research is all the richer for this productive entanglement.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and reflections about what I’ve written in this post.  Next time I’ll tell you more about my hopes for this project and give you a bit of a road map.

4 thoughts on “Designing research together: it’s complicated

  1. garethwilce

    A very timely post, Stella, as I am currently wrestling with issues around positionality within International Development research. The main focus of my reflections concern power; in particular my own power to determine what is in view, especially when modelling particpatory research, and therefore what knowledge is reproduced about the research subjects. There is the added complication of how the presence (more than likely in Kenya) of another white, european researcher modifies the behaviour of the researched communities – in particular, overcoming established expectations that the research will lead to additional resources and therefore telling me what they beleive i want to hear – and of course how my own agenda will influence the decisions I take along the way. Reflecting on these has sent me into something of an intellectual, self-aware cul-de-sac, so I may well be seeking your advice to determine when ‘some’ becomes ‘enough’, before it undermines the entire thing!

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    1. Stella Darby Post author

      Thanks for your comment Gareth and for the reblog. It sounds like you’ve got quite a lot to wrestle with! I know what you mean about going round in circles when you start to reflect on these issues.
      I think perhaps one anchor we can hang on to is clarity and transparency about the reasons you’ve chosen to do your research and the way you’ve chosen to do it – both when you are presenting your research to others and when you are working with participants. It is difficult to ‘un-have’ power, though it’s tempting to try! Usually I think we only succeed in removing it from view – and it is easier to begin to share power when we keep it visible.
      Can you share with your research participants some of your thinking and beliefs behind your research topics and methods? This feels quite vulnerable to do, and I’m not sure how open I felt able to be at the beginning of my research. Also, at the start, sometimes we don’t know the answers to these questions ourselves…but, it’s a good time to start figuring it out and being honest with ourselves. Sharing these things leaves us feeling more open to critique but it also opens up discussions and dialogue. Participants will have a choice about whether to work with you or not. The more you share, the more informed their choice can be (and, in turn, the more informed you can be about how to design something which they will really want to participate in.) Can you tell them you are worried they might tell you what you want to hear, or that you worry you won’t be able to deliver on any expectations of additional resources they might have? If they then don’t want to participate…well, you’ve got something very interesting to write about. They might respond in a way which turns your thinking upside down – who knows? Some people do entire research projects about power issues.
      On the other hand, it’s ok to say, I’m doing this research and not that, because this is what I’m passionate about. You will find in turn that you are also constrained by the power of the university, and it’s ok to be honest with participants about that too.
      I think there’s a long way for all of us to go on this issue, as individuals and as ‘researchers’ collectively. But, it seems like a start to get things more out in the open, by interacting with participants and writing for readers as honestly as we can manage.

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