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!

The Variety Of Indie Research Work

varietyOne of the things I love about being an independent researcher is the sheer variety of projects I work on and tasks I might do in a day. Yesterday, I was only in the office for the afternoon, yet I worked on at least seven different things. Here’s what I did.

First, I checked Twitter, and found a tweet with a link to a blog post I wrote about an event that is part of a project I’m working on with and for the forensic science community. This is a new departure for me, in that I haven’t worked with forensic scientists before, though the work itself is straightforward. I’m supporting a small group of people with research to identify the best way to create a repository for good quality student research data, and it’s surprisingly interesting. So I retweeted the tweet.

Second, I dealt with the morning’s emails. The arrival of a purchase order I’d been waiting for weeks to receive – hurrah! I formulated the invoice and sent it off to the client. Then some correspondence about the creative research methods summer school I’m facilitating at Keele in early July – just three weeks away now, so the planning is hotting up (and there are still some places left if you’d like to join us – it’ll be informative and fun). The most interesting email was a blog post from Naomi Barnes, an Australian education scholar who is considering what it means to be a white educator in the Australian school system. This chimes with the work I am doing on my next book, so I leave a comment and tweet the link.

While on Twitter, I got side-tracked by a tweet announcing #AuthorsForGrenfell, an initiative set up by authors for authors to donate items for auction to raise funds for the Red Cross London Fire Relief Fund to help survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire. I’d been wanting to help: my father is a Londoner, I have always had family in London, I lived in London myself from 1982-1997, and one member of my family is working in the tower right now to recover bodies. So it feels very close to home. But I’m not in a position to give lots of money, so I was delighted to find this option which I hope will enable me to raise more money than I could give myself. I have offered one copy of each of my books plus a Skype consultation with each one. My items aren’t yet up on the site, but I hope they will be soon because bidding is open already. If you’re one of my wealthy readers, please go over there and make a bid!

Then I spent some time researching aftercare for data. Yes, indeed there is such a thing. So far I’ve come up with two ways to take care of your data after your project is finished: secure storage and open publication. They are of course diametrically opposed, and which you choose depends on the nature of your data. Open publication is the ethical choice in most cases, enabling your data to be reused and cited, increasing your visibility as a researcher, and reducing the overall burden on potential research participants. In some cases, though, personal or commercial sensitivities will require secure storage of data. There may be other ways to take care of data after the end of a project, and I’ll be on the lookout for those as I work on my next book.

By now it was 6 pm so I did a last trawl of the emails, and found one from Sage Publishing with a link to a Dropbox folder containing 20 research methods case studies for me to review. They publish these cases online as part of their Methodspace website. I like this work: it’s flexible enough to fit around other commitments and, like other kinds of review, it tests my knowledge of research methods while also helping me to stay up to date. Best of all, unlike other kinds of review, Sage pay for my expertise. So I downloaded all the documents, checked and signed the contract, and emailed it back with a ‘thank you’. By then it was 6.30 pm and time to go home.

As the old saying goes, variety is the spice of life. I certainly like the flavour it gives to my work. Some days I work on a single project all day; those days are fun too. Yesterday I worked in my own office, today I’m out at meetings locally, tomorrow I’m off to London. It’s always ‘all change’ and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Social Media: Is It Just A Numbers Game?

jumbled numbersGoodness me, such a busy week, I almost forgot to blog. This time of year is often very pressured for independents and non-academics with 31 March being a crucial end-of-financial-year deadline by which many projects must be finished and invoices paid. So much so that I haven’t been around on social media anywhere near as much as usual.

Nevertheless, in the last couple of weeks, I have passed the 3,000 follower mark on Twitter, hit 200 followers on Instagram, and reached the magic 500+ on LinkedIn. Ding!

I’ve been on Twitter since 2009 and Instagram since 2014, so these figures aren’t particularly impressive. Publishers, for example, don’t start taking notice till you reach 10,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram. Part of the reason is I’ve never tried to attract followers, other than by being around and talking to people, and following those I feel a connection with. Others take very different approaches. I know a fiction writer on Instagram, someone I’ve met IRL a couple of times, who reached 10,000 followers in less than a year and is now coaching other writers on how to attract followers like honeysuckle attracts bees. She wrote a blog post with a few pointers, such as: choose, and stick to, a colour palette, so that when someone looks at your Instagram profile and sees your last nine photos, they give a coherent message. There were other tips, like how to schedule posts for maximum impact, all of which seemed entirely feasible to implement.

So, I thought, I could do that.

I’d probably sell more books that way.

But.

I can’t do that.

I simply can’t bring myself to be so contrived. It’s not me at all. The thought of choosing a colour palette, and scheduling my posts for maximum impact, makes me feel queasy.

One of the things I love about social media is the randomness. Yesterday I mislaid my landline handset, wailed on Twitter, and a woman from Brisbane told me how to find it. On Instagram I seek out interesting academics and I talk to a Romanian woman studying for a PhD in Japan, a Dutch academic in America, an Australian academic in America, and so on. The glimpses of their lives are fascinating to me; I hope mine are to them.

I should take the ‘colour palette’ approach; it’s sensible marketing. I should create and nurture a brand for myself. To an extent, this blog has a colour palette. The designer friend who made it for me asked what my favourite colours were; I told her; she liked and used those colours. But I don’t pick photos in those colours for my blog posts (though I did for this post, because I came across one on freeimages.com and it amused me), and I certainly can’t Instagram everything in purple, turquoise, and hot pink. It would be exhausting even to try.

I was musing about all this to a friend who is quite the social media expert.

“I just like, y’know, hanging out with people online,” I said. “I don’t want to do this ‘brand’ thing. I want the weird, the random, the serendipitous. I like making friends.”

“That,” he said, “that IS your brand.”

I guess he’s right. It’s not much of a brand, though, in marketing terms. It’s just me, bimbling around online like I do offline, forgetting things sometimes, doing my best. I could change; I could do this whole thing differently. Maybe, sometime in the future, I will. But, for now… I don’t want to put myself under the pressure of trying to present myself as something I’m not, something polished and shiny. It would be too much like having a proper job. So I shall carry on dropping in and out of social media as I please, chatting when I have something to say, and otherwise lurking or taking time out. That makes me happy. And while my approach may not sell as many books as the ‘colour palette’ system, it has made me some great friends and taken me all around the world. So, in my terms, it works just fine.

Review Of The Year 2016

2016By far the most popular post on the blog in 2016 was Ten Ways To Get Hold Of Academic Literature. In fact, thanks to @elfriesen making a great contribution in the comments, it should now be called Fifteen Ways To Get Hold Of Academic Literature. I’m glad this post has proved to be such a useful resource – though it may partly be the most popular because it was posted very early in the year: January 6th, to be precise.

Oddly enough, the second most popular post with readers in 2016 was in fact published in March 2015. It’s the post on Creative Research Methods, which outlines the structure and content of my book Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide. I’m surprised and delighted that this post is still so widely read.

The third most popular is my post on Getting Creative With Your Thesis Or Dissertation, published in July 2016. I’m not so surprised about this one, because I’ve had really good feedback about it, on Twitter, by email, and from people in my workshops. It gives examples of several doctoral dissertations and theses which have been put together in more creative ways than the traditional brick of paper full of dense academic writing. I’m continuing to collect such examples and will write on the topic again when I have enough to merit another post.

The fourth most popular is Ten Top Tips For Becoming An Indie Researcher, published in June. Again, I had a lot of positive feedback about this post. I aimed to provide realistic encouragement, i.e. to make the drawbacks of this lifestyle clear as well as the pleasures. Reading back over the post, I think I succeeded. A lot of people I’ve spoken to this year have been very interested in how I manage to survive and thrive as an indie. For me, and for others who I know, it’s a great way to live. But it has a lot of challenges, and it is definitely not right for everyone.

The fifth of the top five is a post from October, Devising Your Own Research Method. This post explains when, and how, you can create a new method. It’s primarily aimed at doctoral students, who tend to have more time to think about their methods than jobbing researchers do, though it may also be useful for early career and other researchers.

My own top five, in professional terms, don’t have an order of priority, so I’m going to put them in chronological order. The first was the Research Methods Festival at Bath in July, which was a terrific event. I met some great people and learned a lot.

The second was my recent trip to Melbourne, Australia, where I delivered a keynote speech and three workshops on creative research methods, and met some wonderful people in real life who I’d been talking to on Twitter for years. I’d never been to Australia before and it was an amazing experience.

The third was being commissioned to teach a 60-credit module on creative research methods for EdD students at Staffordshire University in the first half of 2017. I’m in the process of planning the module, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself and my intention is that my students will do too. If others want to follow our progress, you can find us on Twitter through the hashtag #StaffsEdD.

The fourth highlight of 2016 was working on the second edition of my book Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide. This is a heavily revised and updated edition, with a whole new chapter on methodologies, due for publication in April 2017.

The fifth highlight was being asked to facilitate a Summer School on Creative Research Methods for doctoral students in July 2017. This is being run by the Community Animation and Social Innovation Centre (CASIC) at Keele University, and will be held at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme and at the Keele campus. We’re in the process of putting the programme together now, and it looks terrific. We’ll be covering arts-based methods, research using technology, mixed methods, transformative research frameworks, and writing creatively for academia. There will be a range of presenters and lots of hands-on and interactive work. Booking opens in January, with a discounted early bird rate; follow me on Twitter @DrHelenKara if you want to find out more.

I’m going to rest this blog, now, till the New Year. I wish you all a happy holiday.

Positive Disruptive Practice

This blog post is part of a messy, asynchronous, stimulating conversation that I’m lucky enough to be part of, along with @debsnet and @nomynjb and @jennacondie and @cj13. The conversation was influenced by the man with the best Twitter name in the multiverse, @timbuckteeth, who started the #blimage process. The idea of that is to write a blog post inspired by an image, then challenge someone else to write a blog post inspired by a different image. I was challenged by @debsnet and I then challenged @nomynjb – but @debsnet was inspired by the spiderwebs image I’d picked for @nomynjb, so she wrote another blog post inspired by spiderwebs and incorporating that image. Then @nomynjb wrote her post, referencing @debsnet’s post, also incorporating that image, and asking, ‘Anyone want to blog about a spider’s web?’

best spiderwebsYes. I do.

The post by @debsnet is about ‘technology which connects’, and it’s also about disruption: breaking or bending rules. From making good use of accidents, to ‘colouring outside the lines’, @debsnet praises and celebrates the positive power of disruption. So does @nomynjb, though from a different angle. She traces the development of mass asynchronous communication from Gutenberg to today’s boundary-crossing multimedia, and suggests that people who are breaking the Gutenberg rules are the ones who help us all move forward.

This so resonated with me. I grew up in a wordy household: my father was an English teacher, we didn’t have a TV, and I lived in a world of conversation and storytelling. Disruptive use of language – puns, neologisms, etc – was encouraged. My mother taught me to read when I was three, mainly I think to equip me to amuse myself while she dealt with my newly arrived sister. Since then I have never been without a book on the go and often have half a dozen half-read: a literary novel, an escapist novel, short pieces of non-fiction, long non-fiction, poetry, and a research methods book, so I can pick up and read whichever suits my mood. I also started writing very young and have never stopped. I’m in love with text, and am a compulsive communicator. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I was an early adopter of blogging, starting in 2005, and I’ve been on Twitter since 2009; like @debsnet I find it helps me learn to be more concise. I was a bit more reluctant about Facebook and LinkedIn, but eventually got involved in 2010. I am on Pinterest but have never really got the hang of it, though I’m doing better with Instagram; I’m not a very visual person, but Instagram is helping me learn to see more beyond the oh-so-compelling text.

Many of my offline non-social-media friends and colleagues think I’m amazingly digitally skilled. I know this is not the case. I’ve never Tumblred or Flickred, I didn’t LiveJournal or MySpace, I don’t SnapChat or WhatsApp, and I know there are a hundred others I can’t even remember – if I ever heard of them in the first place.

In @debsnet’s post, she wrote about how she’s using and valuing Voxer. I’d never heard of Voxer, which evoked a familiar feeling of near-despair. Another one! I can’t keep up! Other people I know online are upping Periscope with enthusiasm. I want to join in with all this and I have loads of ideas for content but I struggle with the process. For example, I’ve been trying really hard with YouTube for over a year now, and I’m rubbish at making videos. I can see that if I spent several hours a week working on it, I would slowly improve, but I’m struggling to find the time or, perhaps more accurately, the motivation. As with writing, I enjoy the editing process, but find the first draft a chore. With writing, you only have to do one first draft, but with video, you (or, at least, I) have to do loads of them till you get one that’s good enough to edit. And it’s so complicated: you have to juggle light, and sound, and visuals, and appearance, and performance. Every time I play back something I’ve recorded, I can see what’s wrong with it, but I don’t have the skills to fix it quickly and effectively like I can fix clunky text, so I get frustrated. And no, I’m not being a perfectionist; if I show my videos to my friends, they say things like, ‘Why are you so wooden? You’re not like that on the mainstream media or when you speak at conferences,’ and I want to go and hide in a hole and cry.

I agree with @nomynjb that we need to break the Gutenberg rules of privileging unchangeable print and linear modes of communication. I have loads of ideas about how to do this. For example, I want to make and embed short videos and comic strips in my blogs, and I want to know how to do all this on my phone, on the move, as well as from my laptop at a desk. I long to embrace the new technologies, not still be struggling with the old ones, and – as @nomynjb put it – ‘access this new technology for its potential, not for its usefulness’. But I don’t have the skills and I can’t afford to pay other people to help me. I can’t even afford the software I want to use for comic strips.

For every iota of skill I acquire, a whole new online platform develops. I find this hugely frustrating! I want to be in the middle of the interwebs, connected to everything, because I can see, and hear, and almost feel and smell and taste, the opportunities and the fun and the creativity available to those who can use technology for its potential. I long to plunge in and disrupt and play. But, without the skills I need to move toward the centre, I’m stuck on the edge.

Then again, there’s still scope for positive disruptive practice on the edge of the web, and in text-based communication. Much of my last book showcased the work of people who bent the rules of research methods, and I’ve just co-written a paper on disruptive methodologies. So maybe it makes sense for me to let go of my longing for the technological playground and, instead, use technology for its usefulness and play to my textual strengths. Also, I suspect nobody, or very few people, can actually keep up with all the technological developments. So perhaps the answer for most of us is to practice positive disruption wherever we usefully can.

Data

blimageLast week I received a #blimage challenge from @debsnet aka the édu flâneuse. When I came to the photo she had posted to inspire her challengees, it only took me a moment to link those overflowing hands with the data we researchers love to gather.

Data is a Latin plural word meaning ‘things that are given’, though it is used in English as plural or singular (e.g. ‘a piece of data’). In English it refers to information of various kinds: numbers, words, facts, opinions, pictures, tweets – the list is long. Social scientists can amuse themselves for hours by arguing about what constitutes data. There is a popular saying that ‘anecdote is not data’ although, when a qualitative researcher collects anecdotes from interview and focus group participants, data is exactly what they become.

Different types of researchers have different ideas about what constitutes data. To an anthropologist, an interview transcript may be only interesting for its textual content, while for a conversation analyst, the length of the pauses may be a fascinating aspect of that data. Some researchers treat focus group data just like interview data, while others see the interactions between people in the focus group as an enriching layer of extra data. For some people, data is collected; for others, it is constructed. I use ‘gathered’ when I want to encompass both perspectives.

Then there is ‘big data’: data generated by national governments, or by technology, which is so copious that it requires whole new methods of analysis and new words to describe its size like exabyte, zettabyte, or snakebyte (I might have made up one of those). Big data challenges the etymological suggestion that data is ‘given’ because big data is often a by-product of other activity, such as using social media or loyalty cards. This is an ethical minefield. For example, people may not realise that their data is of value to the companies running the facilities they use, and it can be difficult to track individuals down to seek consent for their data to be used in research.

You can do all sorts of things with data. For example, you can prepare data, code data, analyse data, synthesise data, visualise data, present data – and, if you’re like me, you can love data. In fact, I adore data! A new dataset to explore is so exciting because I never know what I might discover. I guess it’s the same feeling an archaeologist gets when they’re starting a dig, or an antiques dealer opening a box from a house clearance. There might be treasure in here! And even if there isn’t, even if there are only mundane things, I will still have seen something I hadn’t seen before, and maybe learned something new, or at least increased my experience.

You can also abuse and misuse data, by picking out the parts that support the argument you want to make, rather than preparing, coding, and analysing data as rigorously and honestly as possible. We are all susceptible to biases such as confirmation bias and hindsight bias, and there is only so much any one of us can do to counteract these. This is part of the reason for the scholarly peer review process, where others can scrutinise your work to check for bias. It is also why researchers encourage each other to track the links in our writing from research design, through data collection and analysis, to findings and conclusions, so that our processes and influences are clear to readers and they can make their own mind up about any biases they may perceive in our work.

It’s not only individual researchers, though, who abuse and misuse data. Research commissioners in every sector regularly bury data-based findings that don’t align with their political or organisational aims. And the media is notorious for putting spin on such findings. This has led to the establishment of independent fact-checking organisations such as Fact Check in the US and Full Fact in the UK.

It is easy to develop conspiracy theories about the ways in which governments, corporations, and the media use and misuse data. It is harder to do the tough research work necessary to counteract this, as far as we can, by producing firm findings, based on enough good-quality data, and presenting those findings in clear and understandable ways. To do that, we have to gather our data carefully, with a solid rationale for why we gathered it in the ways we did, so that we can be confident about the status and limitations of our data and about the findings we draw from its analysis. This is not easy – but it is possible, and it is our responsibility as researchers to do this work to the best of our abilities.

best spiderwebsNow, a #blimage challenge for Naomi Barnes: I look forward to seeing what she makes from this picture. And if anyone else would like to use it for inspiration: help yourself!

Previous blog posts

For the last couple of years I have been a blog cuckoo, laying my wordy eggs in other people’s blog nests.  Here is a round-up of the posts I’ve made elsewhere.

I began on the British Library‘s Social Science blog, writing on ‘What do practitioners need to know about research?’

Then I went to the Policy Press blog and wrote about the covert censorship of Gold Open Access.

On Eva Langsoght’s blog, PhD Talk, I wrote about managing the research process.

Then on Sukh Pabial’s blog I wrote on how to unlearn separatist learning.

On the NVivo blog I wrote about how to add value to your research with diagrams and models.

Most recently I’ve been back on the Policy Press blog, beginning a series on ‘a year in the life of an academic writer’.  So far I’ve covered me and my books, why another blog on academic writing?, where a book begins, how much pre-writing research you need to do, three compromises you have to make when writing a book, the difficult second book in a genre, dealing with reviewers’ comments, and impostor syndrome. And now I intend to continue that series here. Though I may still write for other blogs from time to time. Maybe even yours.