There’s a principle that I learned in primary school maths classes which I think also belongs in research: the principle of showing my workings. “Don’t just give me the answer,” my teacher told me. “Show me how you got there. Then even if your answer is wrong, I can understand your thinking.”
With primary school maths, it was easy to show my workings. At my current level of academic writing it’s rather more complicated. As so often happens, others in my network are thinking about this at the same time as me, and Naomi Barnes aka @nomynjb published a blog post yesterday on a similar topic.
I think it is particularly important to show my workings because my next traditionally published book will be on research ethics. I have not yet come across a sole authored book on research ethics with a reflexive element. The closest I’ve found is Alice Dreger’s book Galileo’s Middle Finger, which is beautifully written, incisive, and about research ethics among other things. It is a page-turner which is very rare among research books. I want to write a book on research ethics as compelling and insightful.
Dreger shows her workings – or, as the qualitative researchers say, positions herself – throughout the book. Using a novelist’s technique, she drip-feeds the information to the reader. I’m not yet at a point where I can do that, and anyway, this is a blog, not a book. So you’re going to get the main points in a single download. Here goes.
I was born into a Catholic family. I lost my faith in my early teens, and have never got it back, though I guess one day I might reconnect with it. Or not. But I still hanker after rules and the apparent clarity they bring, and have to work to counteract my tendency to look for and follow an external imperative. I also hold many Christian values, such as valuing love, kindness, and compassion. And, like many Christians, I set myself high standards, frequently fail to meet them, and then give myself a hard time.
I was the oldest in my generation, so I’m independent, hard-headed, and intelligent. Now in my 50s, I’m beginning to feel my age, and most days there is more about that which I like than which I don’t like.
I am happily female, not very feminine, and thoroughly feminist. I can’t be bothered with make-up, hair dye, jewellery, or other trappings of femininity. I’ve never wanted to be a mother; I’ve never regretted not having children. But I am not a trans woman; I could probably claim the title ‘queer’, but have never felt the need.
I am bisexual. I have known this is what I am ever since I knew such a thing existed. It’s about who I am attracted to, not about what I do. I’m attracted to a person first, their gender second. I have always been bisexual: through times of celibacy, singledom, relationships with women or men or both. I will always be bisexual.
I am disabled, mostly invisibly. I have asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. My hands and feet are deformed but you have to look fairly closely to notice. My disabilities affect my life far more than you might guess from the outside. I have given up many things such as knitting, crochet, cycling, reading hardback books, driving long distances, DIY, gardening (these last two no hardship for me, but a bit tough on my partner). My focus, though, is not on what I can’t do, but on what I can do. And I can still do so many things that bring me joy. That’s what counts.
I am white and British. I’m not interested in genealogy, though I bet if I was, I’d find a big genetic mix in my heritage. I know that recent generations encompass English, Welsh, Irish and Scots lineages, and one side of my family has a strong suspicion of Jewish blood in there too. I have relatives buried in Wrexham churchyard; I’m entitled to wear the Sutherland tartan; and I’m told there is a community in the Mountains of Mourne with eyebrows just like mine. I like this mixing; mongrel status suits me fine. I like being indigenous – a term usually used in research to refer to people of colour, but it is what I am too. I love my country and her people: I see very many imperfections and injustices, yet overall I see more good than bad.
I have been with my partner for 20 years. He strengthens me and enhances my life. I aim, I try, to do the same for him.
I worked as a humanist funeral celebrant for 14 years, alongside my research work, from 1997 to 2011. This enhanced my understanding of grief and my appreciation of life.
There are many more workings I could show at increasing levels of granularity. But at the big picture level I think these are the key points I need to make. I want to weave these into my ethics book, to show my workings in a way that hasn’t been done before. I don’t know whether I can, but I’m going to try.
Some of the narrative may change. As an ethical researcher, I believe it is important to be open to changing, and willing to change, my mind, and to explain when and why any such change took place. So this is not a manifesto, it’s a statement of where I’m at with all this right now. (I wish our politicians could work this way – or, perhaps, that they could own up to working this way. Maybe one day.)
Traditionally, the academy has eschewed the personal. People who have tried to make explicit links between their lives, standpoints, beliefs etc and their research work have been written off as self-indulgent. Though that is not a view I hold in the abstract, I have read some work which has come across that way. And other work which has not – for me, the difference is in the analysis. Personal disclosure is all very well but there has to be a point beyond the narcissistic. In my book, I will be aiming to synthesise the data I gather from my own life with the data I gather from interviews and texts. I don’t yet know how to do this, or whether I can do it effectively, but I’m keen to find out. I want my readers to understand how I think, so they can see what has led me to any conclusions I may reach. I want to show my workings.