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Theorising Qualitative Methods: Paradigms and Methods
Seminar organised by Qualiti for ESRC National Centre for Research Methods
Edinburgh University, 15 June 2006
‘Theorising Qualitative Research in Practice Oriented Disciplines’
Ian Shaw,
Department of Social Policy and Social Work, University of York
The range of this subject is daunting. I have spent much of my career wandering
round its rooms.i For today I have walked round the inside, looking for windows
and keyholes that seem to facilitate both illumination and conversation. To keep
my, and hopefully your, mind fresh I have stuck to problems that are part of my
current preoccupations.
The title is in part simply for the sake of argument. I am none too enthusiastic
about the implied distinction in the phrase ‘practice oriented disciplines’. It says –
both by way of assertion and of denial - too much. But it has useful currency. For
example, the recent report on the demographics of the social sciences rests
significant arguments and recommendations on the basis of such a distinction
(Mills, et al, 2006), and on related distinctions within social science, between, for
example, importer and exporter disciplines.
‘Theorising’ is, to borrow Popper’s term, a ‘bucket word’. By and large I take it in
the sense of a scheme of ideas, a framework that provides orientations or
perspectives that act as approaches to framing, understanding or solving
problems (Schwandt, 2001). I will use the time we have to reflect on theorising
four problems:
1.
2.
3.
4.
Applied (Qualitative) Research
Qualitative Research as Advocacy
The Practice/Research Relationship
Quality in practice-oriented disciplines
And add an aside about theorising discipline recognition.
1
Applied (Qualitative) Research
My caution about the implied distinction in the phrase ‘practice oriented
disciplines’ is a worry that it sets up a discontinuity that risks fracturing the overall
coherence of the social sciences. In fairness, David Mills and his colleagues
express themselves carefully. Referring to criminology, media studies, planning,
development studies, social policy, education, management and business
studies, planning and the like, they say:
Their dual identities as fields of academic research and areas of
professional practice should be seen as a strength rather than a
weakness, but one that makes the development of autonomous
disciplinary research traditions and intellectual debates all the more vital
(Mills et al, 2006: 38).
I have found John Furlong and Alis Oancea’s paper (2005) on applied
educational research a stimulating contribution to this area. For example, they
draw on the work of Stokes to suggest that the applied/basic distinction is too
one-dimensional. They distinguish two questions:


Is research inspired by considerations of use?
Does research seek fundamental knowledge?
The answers to these questions, so they reason, are not dependent on each
other. For example, we can have ‘use-inspired basic research’ (What Stokes
calls Pasteur’s Quadrant). This is helpful in that we no longer are pushed into
seeing ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ as being at opposite ends of a single continuum. The
distinction is of value for us today by pointing to the need to conceptualise
practice-oriented research in such a way that ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ are not in
conflict but rather that contributions to basic knowledge and contributions to
practice can be seen as compatible and potentially synergistic dimensions.
Of course this is quite different from collapsing disciplinary boundaries. I wonder
how far we can chart the territory of disciplines in ways that have useful
specificity but avoid seeing each as an independent island state. I think there
may be four ways of charting the territory of practice-oriented disciplinary work, in
terms of purpose, contexts, practices and methods, and domains.
These might sound easy enough to be banal. Apart from the domains in which
research takes place consensus may look simple enough. But the devil may be
in the detail. The first three may look like the following. Here is what I think may
work as a set of purposes for research:





Providing objective, impartial evidence for decision-making; providing public
accountability.
Generating or enhancing theory and knowledge about social and practiceoriented problems, policy and professional work.
Improving interventions and practice.
Highlighting and advancing the quality of lived experience, practical wisdom,
and personal and organizational learning
Promoting social inclusion, justice and social change
Second, the contexts that shape the practice and purpose of such research
include social, relational, political and ethical dimensions of research as a
practice engaged with people.







Structural (especially governmental) contexts for research.
Politics and values in research
Practice oriented research and ethics
Professional/occupational practice contexts of research
Theory and theorizing: intellectual contexts of practice-oriented research
The uses of research.
Time and place, culture and history.
In an effort to rise above but not ignore the quantitative/qualitative debate, the
practices and methods of practice-oriented research are better approached by
considering their critical relation to the purposes of research. I have deliberately
set this up in a loosely formulated way, believing that undue specificity risks
foreclosing too many options.



Methods for providing evidence of effectiveness and improving direct or
indirect interventions.
Methods for enhancing theory and knowledge about problems, policies and
practice
Methods for understanding, learning and social justice.
Relying solely on ‘purposes’ risks being detached from the practicalities of
science at work. Using preliminary conclusions from a study of the nature and
quality of social work research in UK HEI’s research outputs submitted to the last
RAE, a more subject-specific list emerges. I would be interested to know how far
this list is translatable into, say, education, criminology or development studies. I
would also be interested in discussing the extent of common ground with, say,
politics, human geography or sociology.
What is the primary issue or problem focus of the research?ii
1. Understand/explain/resolve issues related to risk, vulnerability, abuse,
resilience, challenging behaviour, separation, attachment, loss or trauma.
2. Understand/assess/develop/evaluate social work practice customs,
methods, or interventions.
3. Understand/address issues of ethnicity, racism in relation to the field of
study
4. Understand/address issues of gender, sexism, the role of women,
masculinities in relation to the field of study
5. Understand/promote the nature and quality of informal care, carer activity,
volunteering, and their relation to formal care.
6. Understand/assess/strengthen user/carer/citizen/community involvement
in social work; empowerment; equality; diversity; inclusion.
7. Understand/evaluate/strengthen social work services, including
voluntary/independent sector
8. Understand/promote learning and teaching about social work or related
professions
9. Demonstrate/assess the value of inter-disciplinary approaches to social
work servicesiii
10. Demonstrate/assess the value of comparative, cross-national research
11. Develop general theorising (with exception of methods of social work
intervention)
12. Understand/appraise/develop the practice and quality of social work
research (including advocacy research agenda in the planning, practice
and utilization of research)
13. Understand/explain/promote good practice in social work organizations
and management
14. Describe, understand, explain, or develop good practice in relation to
social work/er beliefs, values, political positions, faith, or ethics.
2
Qualitative Research as Advocacy
This initial mapping poses a tricky question. How far and in what, if any, ways are
social science disciplines distinctive in character?iv I will take an example and
relate it to qualitative research.
In social work it is often claimed that an emancipatory research agenda,
delivered prominently through the involvement of service users and carers in the
research process, is part and parcel of good researchv. It is also (sometimes)
claimed that qualitative commitments better serve this purpose than quantitative
methods. David Hamilton, in a little noticed argument, concluded several years
ago that ‘its commitment to participate rationally in the prosecution of worthwhile,
even emancipatory, social change is probably the most enduring tradition of
qualitative research’ (Hamilton, 1998: 127).
However, an advocacy position on research has often been associated with a
diminished concern with methodological cogency, in which instrumental
procedures take second place to wider political issues. Lorenz summarizes this
position as follows.
It is not the choice of a particular research method that determines social
work’s position socially and politically. Rather it is the ability to engage
critically in the political agenda of defining the terms on which knowledge
and truth can be established which should form the basis for the search of
appropriate research approaches in social work. (Lorenz, 2000: 8)
In a thoughtful analysis of black research, Stanfield concludes that ‘even in the
most critical qualitative research methods literature there is a tendency to treat
“human subjects” as the passive prisoners of the research process’ (Stanfield,
1994: 168). A similar argument has been put forward by participatory researchers
such as John Heron.
Others have been more optimistic regarding the affinity of qualitative
methodology with moral or political agenda. Riessman, for example, has written
about narrative methods through which ‘an individual links disruptive events in a
biography to heal discontinuities – what should have been and what was’ (1994:
114). She makes a more general link between qualitative methodology and
liberatory positions. ‘Because qualitative approaches offer the potential for
representing human agency – initiative, language, emotion – they provide
support for the liberatory project of social work; (1994: xv; cf Froggatt and
Chamberlayne, 2004).
Dingwall arrives at a similar conclusion, albeit from a different standpoint. In his
consideration of the moral discourse of interactionism, he is impatient with the
postmodern repudiation of moral concerns and is concerned with how the moral
and empirical plug together. He reaches back to the philosophy of Adam Smith,
for viewing sociology as studying the very preconditions for mutual society. ‘If we
have a mission for our discipline, it may be to show the timeless virtues of
compromise and civility, of patient change and human decency, of a community
bound by obligations rather than rights’ (Dingwall, 1997: 204). This quotation has
been deliberately chosen in contrast to emancipatory models of research, to
show that the qualitative analysis ‘of what it might take to live a moral life’ (p.
204) is neither novel nor the exclusive province of any single political position. My
own position is that qualitative research informed by critical concerns ‘must
neither ignore instrumental issues nor privilege them’ (Vanderplaat, 1995: 94).
It seems difficult to controvert the conclusion that social work has given an
emphasis to the general position that marks it out from other social science
disciplines, including cognate fields such as social policy and education vi. Social
workers, to borrow apt phrasing from Robert Stake, have become ‘reluctant to
separate epistemology from ideology, findings from yearnings’ (Stake, 1997:
471).
My own position is close to Cathy Riessman’s (above). But is advocacy research
a sine qua non of good (qualitative) research in a practice-oriented discipline? I
would claim it is a necessary part of the overall research mission, but it is not a
necessary dimension of each and every research project. In the case of social
work, a strong version of advocacy research - user-led research – widens and
challenges the foci from those academics and practitioners think are key
questions for research, extends what is regarded as good intervention, and
provides a powerful sense of what is stigmatising (cf Hanley, 2005).
For example, user-led research and evaluation shifts the focus from what
practitioners or researchers think are key questions for research to those that
sufferers and survivors think are central. They are likely to include:
 Coping
 Identity
 Information needs
 Support needs
 Self-help
 Carers
 Women’s issues
 Rights and opportunitiesvii.
This anchors an abiding tension in applied qualitative research – that between
expertise and democratising values in social research. I think I detect an
emerging level of accommodation, or at least conversation, in this vexed field.
Thus Hammersley conceded recently that
‘if we can see how educational research could be characterized by
competing paradigms (in a non Kuhnian sense)…and therefore
necessarily divided by allegiances to discrepant world-views, then we
perhaps should resist any inclination to dismiss paradigm differentiation as
entirely the product of bias, theoretical or methodological fashion, career
building, etc as some of us (myself included) sometimes do’ (Hammersley,
2005)
3
The Practice/Research Relationship
I want to limit myself to a couple of very particular arguments, but ones I believe
open up extensive opportunities for qualitative inquiry. We can and should
theorise the practice/research relationship in two ways. First, by taking a fresh
look at how we see the science/practice influence. Second, by challenging the
assumptions about the hierarchy of influence.
Historically, the influence of science on direct social work practice has
taken two forms. One is the use of the scientific method to shape practice
activities, for example, gathering evidence and forming hypotheses about
a client’s problem. The other form is the provision of scientific knowledge
about human beings, their problems and ways of resolving them. (Reid,
1998: 3)
Reid’s distinction is fundamental and too little appreciated. I have tried to develop
an example of this approach through work on evaluating-in-practice (eg Shaw,
1996). Three aspects of the approach need emphasising. First, evaluating in
practice is not about the application of research findings to practice but about the
method of inquiry and evaluation. We may label this the difference between
research as ‘source’ for practice and research as ‘model’ for practice. Second,
evaluating-in-practice is a cluster of practice skills and not research skills as
such. Third, my own orientation draws primarily on the rich literature and practice
of qualitative inquiry and evaluation.
A demanding set of skills is necessary to achieve this shaping of practice – skills
that I convey through the use of metaphors such as ‘translation’ and ‘countercolonizing’ and through ideas of transfer of learning. Implicit in this argument is a
challenge to conventional ways of seeing expert/beneficiary relationships.
‘Counter-colonization’ is an allusion to the typical dominance of social science
and research over practice and the potential for practice to challenge social
science.
To illustrate from psychology, endeavours have been made to liberate
practitioner research from a personalized model that takes academic research
and disciplines as given, and limits practitioner inquiry to applying research to
practice (Fahl and Markand, 1999). Fahl and Markand’s project seeks to create
an identity for practitioner research as critique rather than individualised
application – critique of social science as well as of practice. Their point about
psychology will stand for social science in general when they conclude that ‘if
existing academic psychology and existing professional psychological practice
can only be brought together with difficulty, then this “only” says that this type of
psychology needs to be criticized and developed’ (p. 75)viii.
4
Theorising quality in practice-oriented disciplines
As part of the study mentioned earlier about the nature and quality of social work
research, we have explored the rhetorics of quality used in the previous RAE
submissionsix, in order to accomplish a relatively ‘systematic “stocktaking” of the
postulated and enacted judgment criteria that play themselves out in routine
scientific research’ in our field (Breuer and Reichertz, 2002). I wish we had time
to do some comparative work on submissions from other social science fields. In
general, the motifs of quality claims included:






Knowledge/epistemic claims
Recognition/esteem claims
Capacity claims
Influence claims.
Value claims.
Having a mission
While there is common ground, what has struck us is the diversity of claims. This
comes across especially in what we interpret as ‘mission statements’. Compare,
for example, the following from two equally highly rated outlets:
University Ax
‘Our raison d’être, to improve policies and services for service users and
carers… provide products that will help to translate research findings into
policy and practice’.
University B
[Our approach] ‘brings together conceptual, methodological and
theoretical creativity and innovation but in a way which is empirical and
has clear practice implications…Our long-standing, overall philosophy has
been to encourage an approach to social work research which makes a
significant contribution to theory, policy and practice …’
Universities were not required to present a ‘mission statement’ but these claims
certainly read like such. I have quoted them because of the apparent differences
between them. They seem to imply that these two social work centres would
place themselves rather differently on any basic/applied continuum. University B
is making what looks much more like a discipline claim, whereas University A
isn’t. University A’s gaze is outward to the world of policies and services.
University A is more obviously ‘applied’ whereas University B is more apparently
interested in the world of ideas.xi The point is not at all that social work needs to
get its act together but rather that this kind of diversity will exist in practiceoriented disciplines.
Theorising discipline recognition
By way of an aside, as a consequence of a recent study (Shaw, Arksey and
Mullender, 2004, 2006) we reflected on the implications of the invisibility of social
work research within the ESRC. Disciplines within universities are not fixed and
abiding realities. ‘Recognizing’ social work is a dynamic, socially negotiated
process, shaped by the construction and ordering of knowledge claims within
social work and social science communities, and reflecting power differentials
that are mediated through structural mechanisms that tend to exclude new
‘claimants’ such as social work.
Conclusion ‘….not too much’
We should not expect too much from science, theory and qualitative research.
‘Scientists are neither Gods nor charlatans; they are merely experts’ (Collins and
Pinch, 1998:143), and there is a risk of overestimating the benefits to be gained
from research.
The products of systematic inquiry will not necessarily be better than the
presuppositions built into traditional ways of doing things. It is a modernist
fallacy to assume otherwise. (Hammersley, 1993: 438)
Hence we should not be precious about our theories. ‘Theory is too often used to
protect us from the awesome complexity of the world’ and
In the name of emancipation, researchers impose meanings on situations
rather than constructing meaning through negotiation with research
participants. (Lather, 1986: 267, 265)
Our vision of the relationship between our practice concerns and qualitative
research must never be utopian – but it must always be radical. With the whole of
the social sciences in mind,
Science can be socially framed, possess political meaning, and also
occasionally be sufficiently true, or less false, in such a way that we
cherish its findings. The challenge comes in trying to understand how
knowledge worth preserving occurs in time, possesses deep social
relations, and can also be progressive…and seen to be worthy of
preservation. (Jacob, 1992: 501)
‘Theorising Qualitative Research in Practice Oriented Disciplines’
Ian Shaw
References
Bloor, Michael (1997) ‘Addressing social problems through qualitative research’,
in Silverman, David (ed) Qualitative Research: Theory, Method and Practice.
London: Sage.
Breuer, Franz and Reichertz, Jo (2002) ‘Standards of social research’ Forum
Qualitative Sozialforscung [online journal] 2(3). Available at:
http://www.qualitative-research.net/fqs-texte/3-01/3-01breuerreichertz-e.htm
Collins, Harry and Pinch, Trevor (1998) The Golem: What You Should Know
about Science Cambridge: University Press
Dingwall, Robert (1997) ‘Conclusion: the Moral Discourse of Interactionism’ in
Miller G and Dingwall R (eds) Context and Method in Qualitative Research
London: Sage.
Fahl R. and Markand, M. (1999) ‘The Project “Analysis of Psychological Practice”
or: An Attempt at Connecting Psychology Critique and Practice Research’ in
Outlines 1: 73-98.
Floersch, Jerry (2004) ‘A method for investigating practitioner use of theory in
practice; in Qualitative Social Work 3 (2): 161-177.
Froggatt, Lynn and Chamberlayne, Prue (2004) ‘Narratives of social enterprise:
form biography to practice and policy critique’ in Qualitative Social Work 3 (1):
61-77.
Furlong, John and Oancea, Alis (2005) Assessing Quality in Applied and Practice
Based Educational Research Oxford University Department of Educational
Studies. Available in pdf format at esrc.ac.uk.
Hamilton, David (1998) ‘Traditions, Preferences and Postures in Applied
Qualitative Research’ in Denzin, N and Lincoln, Y (1998) The Landscape of
Qualitative Research Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Hammersley, Martyn (1993) ‘On methodological purism’, in British Educational
Research Journal, 19 (4): 339-341.
Hammersley, Martyn (1993) ‘On methodological purism’, in British Educational
Research Journal, 19 (4): 339-341.
Hammersley, Martyn (2005) ‘Methodological disagreement and the problem of
quality’. Paper for seminar on Assessing Quality in Case Study and Qualitative
Research, forming part of the ESRC TLRP Seminar Series on Quality in
Educational Research.
Hanley, Bec, (2005) Research as Empowerment? York: Joseph Rowntree
Foundation.
Jacob, Margaret C. (1992) ‘Science and Politics in the Late Twentieth Century’ in
Social Research 59 (3): 487-503
Lather, Patti (1986) ‘Research as praxis’ in Harvard Educational Review, 56 (3):
257-277.
Lorenz, Walter (2000) ‘Contentious Identities – social work research and the
search for professional and personal identities’ paper from ESRC seminar
series ‘Theorising social work research’. Accessible via www.scie.org.uk.
Pawson, R., Boaz, A., Grayson, L., Long, A. and Barnes, C. (2003) Types and
Quality of Knowledge in Social Care London: Social Care Institute for
Excellence
Reid, William J (1998) Empirically-supported practice: Perennial myth or
emerging reality? Distinguished Professorship Lecture. New York: State
University at Albany.
Riessman, Catherine-Kohler (1994), ‘Preface: Making Room for Diversity in
Social Work Research’ in Riessman, C. K. ed. Qualitative Studies in Social
Work Research, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications
Schwandt, Thomas (2001) Dictionary of Qualitative Inquiry Thousand Oaks:
Sage Publications.
Shaw, Ian (2005) ‘Practitioner research: evidence or critique?’ British Journal of
Social Work Vol. 35, No 8, pp 1231-1248.
Shaw, Ian (forthcoming) ‘Is Social Work Research Distinctive?’ Social Work
Education
Shaw, Ian, Arksey, Hilary and Mullender, Audrey (2004), ESRC Research and
Social Work and Social Care London: Social Care Institute for Excellence.
Shaw, Ian, Arksey, Hilary and Mullender, Audrey (2006), ‘Recognizing social
work’ British Journal of Social Work 36 (2): 227-246.
Shaw, Ian and Faulkner, Alex (2006) ‘Practitioner Evaluation at Work’ American
Journal of Evaluation, 27 (1): 44-63.
Shaw, Ian and Ruckdeschel, Roy (2002) ‘Qualitative social work: a room with a
view?’ in Qualitative Social Work I (1): 5-23.
Sheppard, Michael and Ryan, Kate (2003) ‘Practitioners as rule using analysts’
British Journal of Social Work 33 (2): 157-176
Stake, Robert (1997) ‘Advocacy in evaluation: a necessary evil?’ in Chelimsky, E.
and Shadish, W. (eds), Evaluation for the 21st Century. Thousand Oaks:
Sage.
Stake, Robert and Schwandt, Thomas (2006) ‘On discerning quality in
evaluation’ in Shaw, I, Greene, J and Mark, M (eds) Sage Handbook of
Evaluation London: Sage Publications.
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Notes
i
The more extensive products of these wanderings have been Evaluating in Practice (1996,
Ashgate); Qualitative Evaluation (1999, Sage), Evaluation and Social Work Practice (1999, Sage,
with Joyce Lishman); Qualitative Research in Social Work (2001, Sage. With Nick Gould),
Handbook of Evaluation (2006. Sage. With Jennifer Greene and Mel Mark) and the journal
‘Qualitative Social Work’ (Sage).
ii There are, of course, other ways of distributing kinds of research by, for example, inquiry
methods or ‘targets’, but I suspect these are less illuminating for our present purposes.
iii I use ‘inter-disciplinary’ here to include two distinct categories. Research that crosses different
occupations/professions (eg health and social work). Research that crosses different higher
education disciplines (eg sociology and social work).
iv I have discussed the broader version of this question in a pending paper (‘Is social work
research distinctive? Journal of Social Work Education).
v A moderate version of this claim is implicit in the subject guidelines for social work in the recent
ESRC research training recognition exercise. It is also present in major national social work
research strategy to be launched next month by the lead developer, the JUC Social Work
Education Committee.
vi Furlong and Oancea cautiously remain silent on the issue.
vii This list is drawn from discussions at a national seminar of user researchers in the mental
health field.
viii For examples of this, see also Floersch, (2004), Shaw, (2005); Shaw and Faulkner, (2006);
Shaw and Ruckdeschel, (2002), Sheppard and Ryan, (2003). Routes in to theorising this area
include work on tacit, practical and common sense knowledge, and also explorations of different
kinds of knowledge (eg Pawson et al, 2003). See also Bloor, 1997 for a rare example of an
ethnographer taking interest in practice implications of research.
ix We have also carried out fuller case studies of universities but that data is still to be analysed.
x While these are public domain documents I have not named the universities. Their identity is
purely incidental to the point.
xi For an interesting discussion of the relative suitability of ‘quality-as-experienced’ and ‘quality-asmeasured’ see Stake and Schwandt, 2006.
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