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Eva Dobozy

Further information

About the author

Eva Dobozy has lived in Australia, where she has been teaching in various positions, since 1992. Currently she is involved with questions of the Right of the Child in educational contexts and questions of reality, truth and the social construction of meaning. These issues form the basis of her doctoral thesis in Education at Murdoch University, where she also lectures part-time.

Publication details

Volume 5, November 1999

The Researchers Move to the Centre of the Research Process

The notion that observers' personal prejudices and interests might influence their interpretation of scientific evidence dates back at least to Francis Bacon.
R. MacCoun, 1998
What it is to be a researcher is not what it was twenty years ago when there was one right way, and it will not be in another twenty years what it is today.
J. Scheurich, 1997, p. 175

In our Western academic culture the claim that a qualitative research account is "subjective" or that the researcher is "biased" is rarely a polite expression of praise, rather it may be seen as the expression of severe criticism or an attack on the researcher's credibility. MacCoun posits that generally this reaction may be seen as a sign that "some kind of norm has been violated" (1998, html document). Robert Merton (1973) distinguishes between two specific norms of scientific research which are readily adopted amongst researchers using qualitative and/or quantitative research methods. One he termed universalism, which demands that scientific research must be evaluated by impersonal criteria and the evaluation must be objective and fair; the other he referred to as disinterestedness, which means that the researcher should proceed objectively and "bracket personal biases and prejudices" (Merton, 1973 cited in MacCoun, 1998, html document). What this means is that the researcher investigates the phenomenon with an open mind and without prejudgement. This process requires the researcher to suspend personal viewpoints "to see the experience for itself" (Katz in Patton, 1990, p. 407).

This paper examines why the objective and neutral research paradigm may be termed problematic. It also discusses why I chose to step outside Merton's norms and use a subjective research paradigm instead. It will be argued that the use of research data based on the features of a subjective, value-based inquiry is more likely to produce findings which are meaningful and explanatory. The combination of consciousness and reflexivity may lead to a better controllability of personal biases which undoubtedly influence all research projects. I will conclude this paper with a brief overview of my personal history to highlight the interrelationship of professional interests and personal history.

Although the conventional image of a researcher is someone who neutralises her or his "irrelevant" personality, identity and viewpoint while conducting research, I posit that this is not possible. My central argument is that every research operates from within certain philosophical and socio-cultural assumptions that structure or influence the researcher's thinking; for instance, what the researcher studies, the focus of the research questions and particularly how the research is conducted.

Michael Patton, in Qualitative Evaluation and Research, refers to the researcher as "the instrument" in qualitative inquiry (Patton, 1990, p. 472). I would go further and say that the researcher is not just the instrument, but rather the person with the leading part in the project. What do I mean by this? It is my strong belief that "I", as the researcher, can only attempt to offer my understanding of "truth" and "reality", as virtually everything depends on the values that inform the way in which I, as a person in the capacity of a researcher, attach meaning not only to the findings or data I bring to existence, analyse and interpret but also, equally important, by the findings and data that I might ignore. For example, Sherryl Kleinman reflects on her feelings about an incident involving black and white students, where a black student made elitist remarks in a seminar which Sherryl observed. She explains:

Such incidents gave me twinges, although I tried to ignore them. At the time I believed that having the hypothesis that black students felt negatively about the egalitarian ideology meant that I was racist. If the white students had rejected the ideology and the black students had accepted it I am quite sure that I would have pursued the matter. I felt fine about portraying the white students as self-interested. My unexplained fears led me to leave out what I now see as an important part of my story. (Kleinman and Copp, 1993, p. 12) (my emphasis)

The point I am making is that I am not just a researcher, rather I am a person with a history, with my own ideology and identity. Therefore, I would like to suggest that no research can simply be taken at face value. All research is socially constructed.

The Quasi-Positivist Orthodoxy

Patton (1990, p. 55), following Merton's norm of disinterestedness, claims that one of the essential personal qualities of a researcher conducting qualitative inquiry is that of "neutrality" with regard to the phenomenon under investigation. Patton states that: "The investigator's commitment is to understand the world as it is" (p. 55). Does Patton therefore share Merton's belief in an "objective truth", one certain view of the world? Not exactly, as he relativises this statement by acknowledging that: "The ideas of absolute objectivity and value-free science are impossible to attain in practice and of questionable desirability" (p. 55).

Although many researchers, such as Michael Patton, still believe they can be neutral researchers and transcend part or all of their identities, Sherryl Kleinman was conscious of the danger of ignoring her personal believes, values and identities during the course of the research. She discovered in her investigation of a Christian ministry college, that she could not be the neutral, "non-Christian scholar", but that being Jewish and a woman became the unavoidable salient aspect of her subjectivity. However, she also states that she was not conscious of her race:

I worried about being an agnostic Jew studying devout Christians. ... Additionally, I was conscious of my gender. I was surprised at the high proportion of female students (about 30%) and examined how these women prepared to join a male-dominated profession. But I was not conscious of my race as an important identity (Kleinman and Copp, 1993, p. 10).

Thus, many researchers acknowledge that they enter the research process as more than researchers (McCoun, 1998; Margolis, 1998; Webb, 1998; Franklin, 1995; Lather, 1991b; McLaren, 1995; Kleinmann and Copp, 1993; Hughes, 1990).

In recent years, critics, many of them feminist scholars, have politicized, deconstructed, and redefined objective research paradigms. Many challenge the positivistic views of the research process on the basis of epistemological arguments and different philosophical ideas that challenge the acceptance of objectivity and established hierarchies, and privilege hegemonic realities. Feminist writers (Brooks, 1997; Deutscher, 1997; Saltzman Chafetz, 1997; Still, 1997; Lather, 1995; Taylor, 1995, to name a few) and critical postmodern educators (Giroux, 1995; McLaren, 1995; Shapiro, 1995) have led the attack on the belief in a stable, objective reality and, with it, in the objectivist roots of research. Many feminist and postmodern scholars take the view that a researcher's perceptions, experiences, language, culture, gender, race, class, age and personal history and so on, shape the political and ideological stance that researchers take into their research.

In response to these changing views, many social scientists have begun to ask for a more reflexive qualitative research account that considers the researcher's epistemic views, assumptions and emotions (see Margolis, 1998; Webb, 1998; Franklin, 1995; Kleinman and Copp, 1993; Hughes, 1990). Even though qualitative research traditions have often accepted an intrinsic research paradigm, not many studies, even those using postmodern perspectives, are conducted with a "subjectivist or reflexive orientation" (Franklin, 1995, html document). Although qualitative researchers may consciously choose an inductive research method with the intention of understanding participants and forming attachments to them through empathy and sympathetic introduction derived from personal encounters, many do not pay attention to their own personal epistemology and how their own personality and world view may shape the research project. Consequently, many qualitative researchers may act like "quasi-positivists", to borrow Kleinman and Copp’s (1993) taxonomy, and claim to be "the neutral researcher", though not neutral at all.

It is these concerns, in conjunction with the passion I developed for many ideas that were put to me in the process of a recent research project, which led me to attempt to locate myself and my personal subjectivity within the research project.

Gaining Clarity of Personal Biases

I have a strong personal and professional interest in alternative educational programs. In a recent project I investigated the relevance of student autonomy in Montessori schools. Progressive educational programs such as Montessori schools have traditionally stood as a response and reaction to mainstream educational practices. Mainstream education tends to either ignore notions of students' freedom and autonomy altogether, or uncritically assumes that students are free. Montessori schools have been in Western Australia since 1962, but few studies have examined them. The aim of my recent study was to describe, interpret and appraise the emphasis of child freedom in Maria Montessori's work and Montessori teachers' interpretation and application of this phenomenon in order to shed new light on Montessori education and educational matters in general. Central to Maria Montessori's educational framework was a carefully developed notion of what freedom might be for children along with ways this freedom might be developed within formal educational settings.

In this section I will discuss briefly what Patti Lather refers to as "value-based" inquiry as opposed to the more traditional Western model and give a brief overview of my personal history, an insight into my culture that sees itself interwoven and interdependent with my professional interest in student autonomy and agency and the power-relations between teachers and students.

The positivistic research paradigm is, as I have argued, generally characterized by an optimism regarding both the skilled competence of the researcher to discover "the truth" through the use of "foundational thinking"; that "all knowledge can be deducted from axiomatic knowledge in an objective way" (Fuller, 1998); and the researcher's ability to transcend personal biases. Problems with this approach initially emerged when researchers could not agree on what the foundation from which everything else should be deducted was. Over the past few decades, with the introduction of feminist and postmodern ideas, it became increasingly evident that there was no such stable foundation. Instead, there exist multiple theories and possibilities for everything and multiple factors or multiple levels for reasoning which are inherent in every theory. "The truth" cannot be discovered in an objective way, because there is, so feminist and/or postmodern positions hold, no "pure" objective reality. Instead meaning is socially constructed thorough context and usage of language. Patti Lather explains:

Across the disciplines, the 'postmodern turn' (Hassan, 1987) positions knowledge as contested and partial, ... an objective reason is being displaced by a consciously political and historical reason. Within this context, the 'politics of interpretation' (Mitchell, 1983); the politics of knowing and being known takes on urgency in our discourse about what it means to do social inquiry (Lather, 1991a, p. 153).

The reconfiguration of key research terms such as "data", "facts" or "reality" are inherent to the "value-based" research paradigm. For example Lather (1991a) defines research data in the following way: "Data might be better conceived as the material for telling a story where the challenge becomes to generate a polyvalent data base that is used to vivify interpretation as opposed to 'support' or 'prove'" (cited in Scheurich, 1997, p. 47). Similarly, what is "really" conveyed in a text or said in an interview, and what "facts" are used to support a particular view, is dependent on the specific perspective used. In Scheurich's view it "largely" relies on the researcher's epistemology and the research method used in the investigation of a particular phenomenon. He cites Kuhn (1970) who exemplifies this position by stating that if two groups of scientists are working out of two different paradigms, they are "practicing in different worlds, the two groups of scientists see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction" (in Scheurich, 1997, p. 47). The issue is the ideological dimension of the definition of specific terms such as "data", "facts" or "reality".

In response to these changing views, I chose a subjective, value-based research model for my most recent research project and I will continue to do so in the hope that this combination of consciousness and reflexivity may lead to a better controllability of my biases which undoubtedly influenced the research process and have led to my feeling "less constrained by the desire to maintain an 'illusion of objectivity'" (Pyszcynski and Greeberg (1987), cited in McCoun, 1998, html document).

It is my intention to provide you with some of what I brought to my recent research enterprise in the form of personal interests and biases in the hope to not only highlight the interconnectedness of my personal history with my professional interests but also to encourage many more researchers to name their social positioning and epistemological orientation and therewith make themselves visible and an active part of the research project. Although it is simply not possible to exhaustively name all of the conscious and unconscious "baggage" that I brought to the research, a brief overview will be provided. The title of my recent research project was: Montessorian Perspectives of Child Freedom in Theory and Practice: An empowering experience for students and teachers.

My Personal Cultural Framework

My twin sister and I were born into a relatively privileged middle class family in a little town in Switzerland. Both my parents were refugees, who fled Hungary's bloody revolution in 1956 when my mother was a child and my father a young adult. The family I grew up in was the kind of well-assimilated middle class family which believed in education as a powerful remedy against prejudice, which was all-present in Switzerland at the time. My mother was a professional woman, working in a school for gifted children (Gymnasium). In the early 1970s when mothers traditionally were homemakers and looked after the children, my mother thought that she had to fight for a more egalitarian system. She was very ambitious and determined to fight for gender equality and a better life for us than she experienced as a little girl of Hungarian refugees who did not speak the language properly. Consequently, education and financial independence took first priority in our family.

Growing up with a twin sister (we looked very much the same), with no other siblings created enormous pressures on us coupled with little freedom. Competition was the lifeblood of my early school years. Naturally my sister and I developed different strengths and weaknesses in different curriculum areas, but we were constantly compared and judged by the other's standards. My scholastic performance was average and therefore never good enough for my mother, who approved of nothing less than excellence. My self-esteem was very much undermined by this constant pressure, however well intended it may have been.

My hunger for more freedom came to light with my career choice of becoming a kindergarten-teacher. In the traditional Swiss kindergarten, "the garden where children grow like flowers unfolding" according to its founder, Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel (1782-1852), the children are allowed to move about, choose their own work and explore freely with minimal structural restrictions. Froebel held a vision of nurturing the children's innate desire to learn and discover things at their own pace and without competition and comparison in a harmonious and happy environment.

I was very active in promoting the advantage of such a system compared to the traditional lower primary schooling where competition between children and teacher-centered instructions were the norm. I was involved with kindergarten teacher training and a member of a sub-committee which looked at the possibility of extending the kindergarten concept into the lower primary years, which was commissioned by the local government, and the Kanton's teacher-training college, with the aim to make the transition from the two year kindergarten, which is now compulsory for every child before entering primary school, less stressful. Some of the teachers I have worked with over my four years of kindergarten teaching set up a "free school" in Solothurn, drawing on Rudolf Steiner's philosophy.

Since 1992, I have resided in Western Australia and have been teaching in various positions and schools. Searching for a suitable school for my now six year old son and being not entirely satisfied with what I experienced in mainstream education, I found a Montessori school near by. Interestingly, I found that the Froebelian kindergarten and the Montessorian school of thought have much in common, both advocate autonomy in children and both are opposed to excessive competition. Wanting to understand the Montessori philosophy of child freedom more, I decided to embark on my recent research project.

Conclusion

After reviewing, very briefly, my personal scholastic experiences and culture, it may become clear that my professional interests in student autonomy, agency and freedom, as well as alternative educational practices which are cooperative rather than competitive in nature, are to a large extent grounded in my personal history and personal experiences as a child. It is my personal belief that excessive competition and unfreedom the way I experienced it in my youth can have a negative effect on children. It is, therefore, not surprising that I was receptive to Montessori teacher's accounts on how happy the children in these environments are and how they like coming to school.

To conduct research without the positivistic, rationally explainable illusion of an objective reality, it is not only desirable but an absolute necessity to include the researcher and the researcher's personal history and to design a research method which will accommodate this position. As outlined in the introduction to this paper, the use of a positivistic research methodology which makes claims to objectivity poses problems because it will lead to incomplete or inappropriate interpretations.

Therefore, it follows that the purposes and processes of contemporary research must address certain issues of subjectivity. Eisner (1988) posits that "there is no such thing as a value-neutral approach to the world ..." (cited in Scheurich, 1997, p. 46). Lather (1991b), who agrees with Eisner, supplements this view by stating that the "focus has shifted from 'are the data biased?' to 'whose interests are served by the bias?' Questions of how to do 'good' openly value-based inquiry can be seriously entertained" (p.14). What is distinctive about feminist and/or postmodern research is not the use of a specific technique or strategy, but rather the use of various, and in themselves differing, theories and epistemologies. As extensively discussed, it is my strong belief that no specific epistemology or particular research inquiry can exclude the researcher from the research process.

My conclusion, therefore, is that it is not so important to decide on the "best" or "right" epistemology in terms of the question of discovering some sort of fundamental and foundational truth, rather it may be more important to pick an epistemology which best expresses the ideological position of the researcher. Researchers should abstain from viewing themselves as objective investigators. They need to be explicit about the ideological assumptions and beliefs they hold and about differences in interpretation between themselves and other scholars. In this way the researchers avoid becoming invisible, anonymous figures of authority. The use of research data based on these features of value-based inquiry is more likely to produce findings which are meaningful and explanatory.


References

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