Words Will Never Hurt Me?

blog word cloud 7.10.15Last week I was privy to an interesting discussion in a Facebook group. The discussion was on quite a contentious topic, and one person (P1) left a comment saying they hoped those involved would acknowledge that we all have blind spots. A second person (P2) responded saying they wanted to call out the term ‘blind spots’ because it is ableist and comes with negative connotations in implying that people with visual impairment lack wisdom. P1 then disclosed that they themselves had a significant visual impairment, yet had no problem with the use of the term ‘blind spots’, and regarded it as a metaphor from driving rather than a discriminatory term. P1 asked P2 what language P2 would prefer to use, and P2 said ‘ignorance’.

Ignorance denotes a ‘lack of knowledge, education, or awareness’. For sure everyone lacks knowledge, education, or awareness, so in one sense it’s a statement of fact. However, it is also a term I have often heard used as an insult. As ‘blind spot’ is a metaphor, a little distance is introduced which in theory removes heat from the discourse – though evidently not always in practice.

Someone else (P3), who I know quite well in real life, has worked for years in senior roles in two charities for people with visual impairment. I asked P3 about this. P3 said that the beneficiaries of those two charities would have no problem with the term ‘blind spot’. In fact it is a term in common use among those beneficiaries, as it is for others. P3 told me their beneficiaries often use visual terms in speech even if they have no sight at all, saying to each other, for example, ‘Let me show you my new bag,’ or, ‘Have you seen Mary today?’ I have another good friend who has a physical disability such that their legs don’t function and so they use a wheelchair. This friend will cheerfully say to me, ‘Let’s go for a walk,’ or, ‘Shall we wander round to the pub?’ Of course these are not terms with negative connotations, but even so it seems to me that they could be construed as ‘ableist’ by someone with particular sensitivities.

The thing is, we all have sensitivities. Including me. I have grown to hate the current vogue for praising something by saying that whatever-it-is ‘never gets old’. I am getting old, rather faster than I would like, so I much prefer the valuing of maturity. (Especially when it refers to cheese, or wine, or ideally both together.) I also hate the casual ‘hope you’re well’ that seems to be the requisite opening for emails these days, as I live with two disabilities, rarely feel well, and am never going to be fully well again unless medical science really gets its act together. I get really fed up with people using the term ‘manning’ (the stall, the phones, the fort) when there are perfectly good gender-neutral alternatives (staffing, answering, holding). I have tried calling people out about these terms, but learned that it wasn’t worth the effort, and on reflection I think there are more important causes on which to expend my limited energies.

It is quite evident that there is no set of terms that meet with everyone’s approval. When we are able, it makes sense to find out which terms people prefer, and to use those terms where possible. It seems to me that it also makes sense for us to cut each other some slack at times. I am a wordsmith, I care about language, and I try for as much precision and fairness as I can muster from the imprecise raw materials of my craft. I know that the language we use in speech and writing affects the ways in which we and others think. So I do believe it is necessary to be as careful as we can with our words. Yet I also recognise that there are a lot of fights to be fought in this world, and the most important battle is not always over words and phrases.

Write For Your Readers

rules-1752406__480This is the third of three posts inspired by an exchange on Twitter with @leenie48 and @DrNomyn. The first two posts were (1) about why I hadn’t included theory in a previous post about how to choose a research method, and (2) about the relationship between methodology, method, and theory.

To recap briefly, @leenie48’s view is that we should not discuss research questions and methods without also considering theory. In an ideal world, I would agree with her. However, my view is that the time and skills required to work with theory are not always available to every researcher. For example, some people studying for pre-doctoral degrees, or conducting commissioned research, may not be able to include a theoretical component in their work.

The post I wrote about how to choose a research method was aimed at Masters’ students and novice practitioner-researchers. When I began explaining this to @leenie48, she said, ‘Perhaps it might be useful to point out advice is for specific readers. Bit sick of having to explain to new phd students that this kind of advice is not for them!’

This was a really useful piece of feedback for me. In my experience, people don’t often give this kind of feedback online. There seems to be a kind of convention among scholars that if you read something you don’t like/understand/agree with, you simply click on to something else. This feedback told me two really useful things. First, if @leenie48 is a bit sick of having to make such explanations, then other people will be too. Second, and more importantly, I have broken a very important writer’s rule.

When I’m teaching writing to doctoral students and early career academics, I tell them over and over again to think of their readers. Figure out who your audience is, I say, and make life easy for them. That gives great value to your work. Whether you’re writing for supervisors and examiners, or journal editors and reviewers, or commissioners and service users, or commissioning editors and the general public, the same rule applies. The easier you can make your readers’ lives, the more they will value and use your work.

I have broken this rule in my own blog. I’ve done so by writing posts for people at different levels without making that clear in any way. I haven’t used appropriate tags or spelled out my intended readership in my introductions to posts.

I responded to @leenie48 saying ‘You’re right, and I am sorry for causing you so much inconvenience. I’ll re-tag all my blog posts, though that will take a while as there’s a sizeable archive.’

I wish I could tell you I’ve done that already, but I haven’t yet had time. Writing and posting on this blog every week is always a scramble, and just now I am drowning in deadlines. But it is on my to-do list, and I’ll also tag all posts from now on as either: doctoral, masters, early career, or general.

Of course there are overlaps between the categories. My first research methods book, Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide, is primarily written for masters’ level and practitioner researchers. However, I have had positive feedback from third-year undergraduate students and early-stage doctoral students, particularly those who are unfamiliar with research methods. My second book, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide, is intended for doctoral students and early career researchers. Again, though, I’ve had good feedback from masters’ level students and even some Professors on this book. So ultimately you need to decide for yourself whether to read only the posts with one tag, or also investigate other posts.

Nevertheless, this does not absolve me from the responsibility of giving you that choice. So I will get on to the re-tagging as soon as I have time, and I thank @leenie48 for a much-needed kick up the bum. Also, if you’re writing anything, don’t do as I do, do as I say! Think of your readers and work to meet their needs.

Methodology, Method, and Theory

debatingLike last week’s post, this one was inspired by @leenie48 on Twitter. My post of the week before was on how to choose a research question, and @leenie48’s view was that I should not tackle that topic without considering theory. Last week’s post dealt with why I didn’t include theory in the previous post (I hope you’re all keeping up at the back). This week’s post, as promised, explains why I think theory sits with methodology rather than with method.

Some people think ‘methodology’ is just a posh word for ‘method’. This is a bit like how some people think ‘statistical significance’ is a more important version of ordinary everyday ‘significance’. As in, it’s completely wrong.

Methods are the tools researchers use to practice our craft: to gather and analyse information, write and present findings. We have methods for searching literature and sources, gathering and analysing data, reporting, presenting, and disseminating findings. Methodologies are the frameworks within which we do all of this work, and are built from opinions, beliefs, and values. These frameworks guide us in selecting the tools we use, though they are not entirely prescriptive. Therefore one method, such as interviewing, may be used for research within different methodologies, such as realist evaluation or feminist research.

Here, as almost everywhere in the field of research methods, terminology is contested. But most people agree that there are several overarching categories of methodologies, such as post-positivist, constructivist, and interpretivist, and that within those overarching categories there are more specific methodologies, such as post-modernism and phenomenology. There are debates about what each category and methodology is, and how different methodologies should be used. These debates are mostly based on theory.

As I explained last week, theory also comes in many forms and is widely debated. These kinds of debates keep some academics in full-time work and are much too complex to summarise in a blog post. What I can say here is that @leenie48 and I disagree on a fundamental point. She thinks it is not an option to ‘jump from rq [research question] to method choice with no consideration of theory’. I know it is an option because I have seen it done many times, and have done it myself as an independent researcher working on commission for clients who are not interested in considering theory or in paying me to consider theory. The kind of briefs I often work to say, for example, ‘We want to know what our service users think about the service we provide, please do a set of interviews to find out.’ The commissioners don’t want a literature review or any explicit theoretical underpinnings, they simply want me to use my independent research skills to find out something they don’t know which will help them take their service forward. In a different context, I have taught and externally examined Masters’ level students, in subjects such as business studies and advice work, who are learning to do research. Their projects focus on method, not theory. It is as much as they can do, in their small word allocation, to contextualise their work, give a rationale for the method they have chosen, and describe and discuss their findings.

Masters’ level students in some other subjects would need to engage with theory, as I did in my own studies for MSc Social Research Methods, and I cannot imagine anyone doing research at doctoral level without using a theoretical perspective. I agree with @leenie48 that theory is important and has a lot to offer to research. In an ideal world, theory would form an equal part of a triad with research and practice.

In a comment on last week’s blog post, Sherrie Lee suggested that theory may be always present in some form, even if it is not explicitly considered. I think she makes a good point. I would like to use theory explicitly in all the research I do, rather than just some of it, but I am not sure that day will ever come. Much commissioned research isn’t explicit about methodology either. There is a lot of practice-based, and practice, research that goes on in the world where people simply move straight from research question to method. While this is not ideal, it is pragmatic. I think @leenie48 and I will have to agree to disagree on this one.

Why Not Include Theory?

theoryLast week I wrote a post about how to choose a research method. It received a fair amount of approval on social media, and a very interesting response from @leenie48 from Brisbane, Australia, with a couple of contributions from @DrNomyn. I’ve tidied up our exchange a little; it actually ended up in two threads over several hours, so wasn’t as neat as it seems here. I was travelling and in and out of meetings so undoubtedly didn’t give it the attention it deserved. I couldn’t embed the tweets without tedious repetition, so have typed out most of the discussion; our timelines are accessible if anyone feels the need to verify. Here goes:

EH: Your post suggests one can jump from rq to method choice with no consideration of theory. I disagree.

HK:I teach, and write for, students at different levels. Here in the UK masters’ students in many subjects have to do research with no consideration or knowledge of theory.

EH: Perhaps it might be useful to point out advice is for specific readers. Bit sick of having to explain to new phd students that this kind of advice is not for them!

HK: You’re right, and I am sorry for causing you so much inconvenience. I’ll re-tag all my blog posts, though that will take a while as there’s a sizeable archive.

HK: That seems unnecessarily pejorative. I don’t regard practice-based masters’ research as ‘pretend’, but as a learning opportunity for students. Commissioned research and practice-based research is professional rather than academic. Not wrong, simply different.

EH: Then why not include theory?

HK: I’ve explained why I didn’t include it in my blog post, so I’m not sure what you’re asking here?

And that’s where the discussion ended, with me confused as @leenie48’s question was on the other thread. Having put this into a single conversation, though, for the purposes of this post, it makes more sense. I think @leenie48 was asking why not include theory in masters’ level or practice-based research.

My conversation with @leenie48 might lead the uninitiated reader to believe that theory is a homogeneous ‘thing’. Not so. Theory is multiple and multifaceted. There are formal and informal theories; social and scientific theories; grand and engaged theories; Euro-Western and Southern theories. These are oppositional theory labels; there are also aligned options such as post-colonial and Indigenous theories.

I studied a module on social theory for my MSc in Social Research Methods, and used hermeneutic theory (a grand-ish formal Euro-Western social theory) for my PhD. Yet I don’t think I understood what theory is for, i.e. how it can be used as a lens to help us look at our subjects of study, until well after I’d finished my doctoral work.

If you’re doing academic research, theory can be very useful. Some, like @leenie48, may argue that it is essential. It is certainly a powerful counter when you’re playing the academic game. Yet theory is, like everything, value-laden. At present, in the UK, the French social theorist Bourdieu is so fashionable that the British Sociological Association is often spoken of, tongue in cheek, as the Bourdieu Sociological Association. At the other extreme, social theories from the Southern hemisphere are often ignored or unknown. So I would argue that if we are to include theory, we need to engage with the attributes of the theory or theories on which we wish to draw, and give a rationale for our choice. I find it frustrating that so much of academia seems to regard any use of theory as acceptable as long as there is use of theory, rather than questioning why a particular theory is being used.

This kind of engagement and rationale-building takes time and a certain amount of academic expertise. If you’re doing research for more practical reasons, such as to obtain a masters’ degree, evaluate a service, or assess the training needs of an organisation’s staff, theory is a luxury. These kinds of research are done with minimal resources to achieve specific ends. I don’t think this is, as @leenie48 would have it, ‘pretend research’. For sure it’s not aiming to contribute to the global body of knowledge, but I can see the point in working to discover particular information that will enable certain people to move forward in useful ways.

I have still to tackle two other points raised by @leenie48: the ‘methodology vs method’ question, and the issue of writing for masters’ students vs doctoral students on this blog and elsewhere. So that’s my next two blog posts sorted out then!