Indigenous Research Methods: Another Reading List

I thought it was time to share more of the books from my shelves. As with my previous post on this topic, this post is a reflection of my personal collection, built from the recommendations of students, colleagues and people on social media, as well as my own explorations. The more I have read and worked with Indigenous scholarship, the more convinced I have become of the importance of including these perspectives in my own work wherever they are relevant. I am glad to be able to use my own power, such as it is, to amplify the voices of scholars who are much more marginalised than me.

Books on Indigenous research methods are very different from books on Euro-Western research methods. Books on Euro-Western research methods are akin to recipe books: combine these things, like this, and you will probably get that result, unless some contextual factor gets in the way. Books on Indigenous research methods don’t start with what to do and how to do it, they start with stories, and thinking, and sharing, and knowing, and learning. One key difference is that Indigenous research is designed to serve existing relationships, and if it is not likely to at least maintain and ideally strengthen those relationships, it is not deemed to be worth conducting. In the Euro-Western paradigm, we teach novice qualitative researchers to ‘create rapport’ with participants, to put them at ease – in effect, to make instrumental use of our friendship skills to obtain information from people we may not ever see again. Euro-Western researchers have begun to question how ethical this is. Indigenous researchers offer us some unmissable clues to the answer.

I am not, and I will never be, an expert on Indigenous research. Since my book on research ethics came out – with its subtitle of ‘Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives’ – I have received several invitations to speak about Indigenous research and to peer-review journal articles written by Indigenous scholars. I always refuse the first, and I only accept the second if the journal editor can assure me that the other reviewers will be Indigenous scholars (which, to date, no journal editor has been able to do). As a white English person I already have too much power in this post-colonial arena. I do not plan ever to use any of it to set myself above or take advantage of the Indigenous scholars who have taught me, and are teaching me, so much through their writings.

These books could be described as more theoretical than practical but, in the words of Kurt Lewin, the inventor of action research, ‘There is nothing as practical as a good theory.’ Lewin was a Jewish German psychologist who immigrated to the US as an adult in 1933, so he had experienced and understood oppression. He was also, perhaps as a result, much more interested in applied research which could make a positive difference to social problems than to research that might generate knowledge for its own sake. In the Indigenous research literature this distinction is not relevant, made or discussed, because knowledge is conceptualised as collectively owned, in contrast to the Euro-Western paradigm where knowledge is conceptualised as a form of individual property.

I could say a lot more about the similarities and differences I perceive, but I need to get to the books! The first is Talkin’ Up To The White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism by Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Professor of Indigenous Research at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia. This was recommended by various people on social media, and I didn’t get around to buying a copy until last year, but I’m not sorry because I got the 20th anniversary edition with a new preface. It is a book of relevance to every white woman and anyone who uses feminist theory. Although it was written over 20 years ago, it is still highly, urgently topical. The author explains how white women dominate the feminist agenda; invites us to notice and interrogate our white privilege; and suggests we need to figure out how to give up some of that privilege in the interests of greater equality – which, after all, is where feminism came in.

Syed Farid Alatas is Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore. His book Alternative Discourses in Asian Social Science: Responses to Eurocentrism points out how and why Euro-Western social science doesn’t fit with Asian realities. The book covers the whole of Asia and all of the social sciences, and – despite its title – argues that alternative discourses alone are not enough, particularly if they are created in the same mould as the Euro-Western social science discourses so prevalent in Asian universities. Alatas explains in forensic detail how Asian academies are still colonised by Western approaches and curricula. He calls for a ‘liberating discourse’ which will help to popularise Asian ideas and perspectives.

Antonia Darder is a Puerto Rican and American scholar, artist, poet and activist. She has edited a collection called Decolonizing Interpretive Research: A Subaltern Methodology for Social Change. The foreword, by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, notes that ‘dominant theories … have spectacularly failed to transform the lives of subaltern communities and have instead reinforced privilege and inequalities across all developed and developing countries’ (p xii). In her introduction, Darder points out that an insistence on empirical evidence is a colonialist approach and, in close alignment with Alatas, calls for a reversal of privilege to foreground Indigenous philosophies and approaches.

Applying Indigenous Research Methods: Storying with Peoples and Communities is edited by Indigenous American scholars Sweeney Windchief and Timothy San Pedro. The editors begin by acknowledging that there is more in the literature about what Indigenous research methods are, and why, than about how they can be applied. This book sets out to correct that imbalance – and says quite clearly on the back cover that it is designed for use and teaching across Indigenous studies and education. Any Euro-Western researcher who is looking for methodological novelty they can use in their own work will not find that here. What they will find instead are inspiring stories of how research can be when it is understood and conducted holistically in and for communities of people who share a system of values which have been developed and tested over millennia.

Indigenous Canadian scholars Deborah McGregor, Jean-Paul Restoule and Rochelle Johnston have edited Indigenous Research: Theories, Practices, and Relationships. This also focuses on how Indigenous research is conducted in practice and includes inspiring stories to demonstrate some ways this has been done.

Shawn Wilson, Andrea Breen and Lindsay DuPré have edited Research and Reconciliation: Unsettling Ways of Knowing through Indigenous Relationships. The editors are two Indigenous researchers and one white settler. They explain the troubled complexity of the concept of reconciliation, which means different things to different people and can be co-opted for colonialist purposes. The editors are overtly working towards twin purposes of creating intellectual discomfort in some arenas and, in others, creating and protecting spaces for researchers to work as authentically as possible. And, again, the contributions are inspiring stories – though sadly, unlike all the others, this book doesn’t have an index.

There are more links between the last three books than their presentation of stories. These books seem to speak to each other, the stories intertwining and sometimes disagreeing, going back and forth and around again but always making progress. Like a conversation. And they are all very readable, written with dialogue and storytelling, poetry and images.

Lastly I am going to mention again a book I covered in my previous post: Indigenous Research Methodologies by Professor Bagele Chilisa from the University of Botswana. I am mentioning this book again because the second edition is now out and well worth buying and reading, even if you already have the first edition.

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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.

Concentric Circles for Gathering Research Data

concentric-circlesMost people, when they think about gathering primary data for research, think of the ‘Big Three’ methods: questionnaire surveys, interviews, and focus groups. This is rather limiting when there are so many other methods that can help to answer research questions. One example is concentric circles. They are used quite frequently in market research, and have also been used in social research for several decades, yet I am frequently surprised to come across people who have no knowledge of this approach.

Concentric circles are generally used to investigate people’s relationships with other people, objects, or phenomena. There are two main ways to use concentric circles. One way is to put something at the centre – in market research, usually a product or brand – and ask the participant to make a cross, or drag-and-drop a digital image, to a point within the circles that they feel represents their closeness to that product or brand. So, for me, if the brand was Nestlé I’d put myself right on the outer edge, whereas with a product such as the Co-op’s fairly traded wine, I’d be close to the centre.

The other option is to put the participant at the centre, and ask them to use the concentric circles to map relationships such as the people or agencies who support them, with those they feel closest to placed nearest to the centre and vice versa. This can be done in evaluation research as part of a pre-post design to document changes. For example, if part of the point of a service is to act as a gateway or signpost to other relevant agencies, it might be useful to ask users of that service to map their relationship with other agencies at the first point of contact, and again after a suitable period of time. That would help to assess the impact of the service in increasing users’ links with other agencies.

The concept of this is easy for participants to grasp, perhaps because the circles provide a recognisable structure but are not prescriptive. They are appealing because they give the participant a lot of choice and flexibility in how they respond. This avoids difficulties that can be raised by a standard type of research question such as, ‘How supportive is your spouse or partner?’ Some participants would find a question like this difficult to answer, say if their spouse or partner was unsupportive, or abusive, or recently deceased. If such a participant met this question in a survey, interview, or focus group, at best they would provide no or inaccurate data, and they could suffer serious embarrassment or upset. However, with the concentric circles, a participant can choose which of the people in their lives they include in the discussion.

Perhaps because of their ease and sensitivity, concentric circles have been used effectively in research with children, the elderly, and people with learning disabilities, among other groups. They are rarely the only method used, but they add an interesting and useful dimension to an investigation. In fact, the potential applications of concentric circles are many and varied. For example, they could be used in:

  • Nutritional research to explore people’s relationships with different foodstuffs
  • Tourism research to investigate people’s relationships with different modes of travel
  • Sports research to assess people’s relationships with different types of exercise

And that’s just off the top of my head.

Completed concentric circles can provide powerful illustrations for research reports and presentations, although care should be taken to ensure that participants and others who may be mentioned cannot be identified as a result. One option here is for a researcher to recreate a participant’s concentric circles with different names and/or with changes to other identifying details.

I’ve just put in a proposal to a potential client including concentric circles. I hope they like the idea. Do you use concentric circles? Or do you think you might use them in the future?

Devising Your Own Research Method

yesI’ve had several emails recently from people asking whether they can devise their own research method. The answer is yes – in the right circumstances.

If you’re an undergraduate or a Masters’ student, you’ll have difficulty convincing your tutors that it’s a good idea for you to devise your own research method. They’re likely to say, with some justification, that you need to learn about existing research methods and practise doing research first. The possible exception is if you’re studying for a Masters’ degree in research methods and you want to use your dissertation to try out something new. But otherwise you probably need to leave the devising of a new method for your doctoral study or professional research.

Devising your own research method very rarely means creating a whole new method. Mostly it means tweaking an existing method, or layering two methods together, or some other form of adaptation. For example, Jacqueline Belzile and Gunilla Öberg, from the University of British Columbia, took a new look at focus group data. They found that it was usually treated in the same way as interview data, i.e. the content of the text was the focus of analysis while interactions between participants were generally ignored. Belzile and Öberg came up with new ways to analyse interactions in focus group data, and so moved analytic methods forward.

This usefully demonstrates that devising your own research method does not and need not apply only to data gathering. You can also experiment with writing, as I have done alongside many others, and there’s loads of room for creativity in presenting and disseminating findings. Art installations, theatrical performances, interactive multimedia – these are just a few of the options available to anyone who wants to go beyond the conventional conference presentation, thesis, journal article, or research report.

However, my inbox suggests that data gathering is the phase where people are most inclined to be experimental. And by ‘people’, I mean doctoral students. When I was doing the background reading for my book Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide, I found that a surprisingly high proportion of papers on innovative methods were written by people who had developed those methods during their doctoral studies. This applied right across the methodological spectrum, from people developing new scales or algorithms, apps or computer games, or ways of mixing methods, to people developing new arts-based techniques. I myself developed a new method of gathering data using oral storytelling during my own doctoral studies. I guess this is at least in part because doctoral study provides enough time to research and develop methods – for those who have the inclination.

Some doctoral students find that their supervisors are nervous about the idea of a new method. The key to soothing supervisory anxiety is to construct a solid argument for the methodological move. So, let’s say a student, Ali, wants to research the effect of living close to mainline railway lines on outdoor social opportunities. Ali decides to create two three-dimensional models of small towns, identical except in one respect: one of the towns has a mainline railway running through the middle while the other has a stream with a path alongside. Ali also makes a collection of small figures and objects (barbecue, picnic blanket, bicycles etc) that participants can place on the model to show what kinds of outdoor social opportunities they would expect to see in which locations. However, Ali’s supervisors favour traditional methods of data collection such as interviewing. Ali needs to come up with some kind of precedent to demonstrate that the plans are viable, but there is no direct precedent – in fact, Ali can’t find anything anywhere in the methods literature about people using three-dimensional maps or model towns for qualitative research.

This means Ali needs to do some lateral thinking. There is some information in the methods literature about using maps with research participants, and there is also information about using objects to support interviewing. Ali collects and reads both sets of literature and uses the arguments therein to build a new argument in support of the planned method. Very sensibly, Ali also identifies some potential weaknesses of that method, and outlines plans to pilot and review the method as the first stage in its development.

So, if you want to devise a new method, whether for academic or other research, start by reading widely in the methods literature. Be prepared to think laterally, and to use a variety of search terms. At the methods frontiers, terminology is often unclear, and it would be embarrassing to claim you’d invented a new method then find several other people had invented it first but called it something different. Also, allow enough time to test your method thoroughly, through a pilot or a series of pilots, before you use it for real.

Devising a new method of gathering data – or, more likely, extending the boundaries of an existing method – is not for everyone, and it is certainly not necessary to do this to gain a doctoral qualification. But it can be great fun and very satisfying.

Why And How To Say No

noPeople in our line of work, whether academic or altac, are often at serious risk of over-commitment. This can happen for a number of reasons, including disorganisation, pressure from other people, and the inability to say ‘no’.

Disorganisation is often made up of the best intentions, lack of foresight or planning, unrealistic expectations, and inability to understand how long different jobs actually take. It can be truly difficult to figure out how long it will take to do a given piece of work, but a useful strategy is to make your best guess then add fifty per cent. So if you think you could definitely get an article written in six weeks, tell anyone who needs to know that it will take you nine weeks. One way to keep your expectations realistic is to take care to factor in all your existing commitments – which, don’t forget, include your social life and holidays as well as work. Also, remember that the empty spaces in your calendar in the months to come will fill up as the dates come closer. People often say to me things like, ‘I’m really busy this month and next, but I’ll have lots more time after that.’ I think, ‘No you won’t, you poor deluded fool, because by the time you get there “the month after next” will be “this month” and you’ll be just as busy as ever.’

People often over-commit from the best intentions. They want to help, or they are being offered interesting projects, and they think they’ll find a way to get it done. Often they do find a way, but that can be at the expense of their happiness, their relationships, and their health. I know, personally, two senior academics who have been reduced to taking sizeable portions of sick leave due to over-commitment in the last year alone. Part of this is because of the structure of academia and the ever-increasing demands placed on its staff. The only real solution to that is collective action. Yet, without wanting to sound all neoliberal, there is also scope – and, I would argue, responsibility – for individual action in the interests of protecting our own well-being.

Some people seem completely unable to see what is around the corner. One fairly senior academic I know moved from a research job to a teaching job, and was then astonished to discover that time-consuming preparation and marking were required. Another, a parent of two young children, seems continually surprised by the need to provide care for them. Perhaps over-commitment breeds over-commitment because, when you’re currently over-committed, it’s hard to find the time to give proper thought to potential future commitments and their likely implications. But finding that time is the only way to escape the over-commitment trap. And the only way to find that time is to learn to say ‘no’.

Saying ‘no’ can be really difficult, particularly if the person asking is, for example, senior to you, or someone to whom you owe a favour. So, to begin with, try learning not to say ‘yes’ immediately. Say something like, ‘That’s a really interesting proposition. Can I think about it and get back to you? I need to check my other commitments before I can give you a firm answer.’ Then if you decide you don’t want to say ‘yes’, you can say, for example, ‘I’d love to help but right now I don’t have the time to do the work well, and I don’t want to do a bad job for you.’

When you owe a favour, even this can feel very difficult. It can help simply to acknowledge the fact that you owe a favour. ‘I know you did X for me, and I am still very grateful. I do want to return the favour but I’m afraid it’s a really difficult time for me right now, as I am already fully committed for the next few months. Is there some other way I can pay you back?’ Being up front like this can feel scary for some people, but it is a great way to diffuse the anxiety that unspoken worries can create, and therefore it is worth the effort.

The wider pressure to ‘be collegial’ is another difficulty faced by those working in academia, whether from inside or outside institutions. For example, I recognise that I can’t expect people to peer-review my articles without offering to peer-review the articles of others. However, I can decide how many articles I am able and willing to review, per month or semester or year. Given that there is a need to review articles which are not and never will be fit for publication, as well as those that are or could be publishable, I might decide to review two articles for every article I submit. Or I might decide I can manage one per month, or two per semester, regardless of how many I write myself. The number you can manage will, of course, depend on your other commitments, but the basic principle is the same. You need to think the whole thing through, make a decision, then stick to that decision – and explain it to people where necessary. The same could apply with other regular one-off tasks such as examining theses, reviewing book proposals or typescripts, writing forewords, and so on. You have the right to set a limit on any such task you’re being asked to do more often than you can comfortably manage – and to enforce that limit.

There is an ethical point to this, too. We forget to notice that if we don’t look after ourselves properly, we can’t do our jobs or look after other people. I love Deborah Netolicky’s memorable description of ethics as the ‘unsexy undergarments’ of academia. I think we should pay attention to ethics all the time, just as we remember, every day, to wear our undergarments. People who over-commit are a danger to themselves, risking their health and happiness, and that can damage their families and friends as well. They are also a danger to their colleagues: I know from experience, as someone who is quite good at managing time and workload, that a collaborator who misses deadlines can cause great stress in my life. So for our own benefit, and for the benefit of our colleagues, families, and friends, we have an obligation not to over-commit, and that means learning to say ‘no’.

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.

The Art Of Asking

theartofasking_imageFollowing on from last week’s blog post, I’ve been reflecting on the art of asking, why it can be so difficult, and how to make it easier.

I used to find it difficult to ask for help. I am naturally independent, and grew up on second-wave feminism which preached self-reliance. Asking can be hard because it’s a risk: you’re making yourself vulnerable, exposing your wishes or your needs, and the person you are asking might say ‘no’. You could experience that ‘no’ as a rejection or a slap in the face, as derogatory to your very being in the world. Alternatively, you could reflect that nothing major has changed, you’re still in the same position you were in before, and you have lost nothing. Or you could land up somewhere in between.

Asking can be easier in professional than personal contexts. Asking a librarian to help you track down a book, or the IT support desk to help you solve a techie problem, should be stress-free. You’re entitled to ask and it’s their job to help. But when you’re an indie researcher, those organisational networks of obligation don’t exist. So asking for things in professional contexts can be weird, even paralysing: why would anyone want to help me? Why would anyone be willing to put themselves out on my behalf?

I found myself on a steep learning curve in asking when I developed rheumatoid arthritis a couple of years ago and needed help with opening jars and bottles, moving furniture, doing DIY etc. The writer Laura James expresses the necessity of this eloquently and, like her, I have become shameless about asking for help. This has probably helped me learn to ask in other areas. Amanda Palmer’s wonderful book also provided a timely shove in the right direction.

I’ve learned other things as a result of learning to ask for help. For example, some people are incredibly helpful. Professor Rosalind Edwards is one of these people. I met Ros at a conference in Leicester in early 2014 (which, incidentally, I got to go to because I asked, on Twitter). The previous week I’d been to a meeting at the British Library, where I’m on an advisory panel for the Social Welfare Portal, and Ros’s name was mentioned as someone we could ask for help with publicity through her role as Co-Director of the National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM). So when I realised she was at the conference, I went to ask her for help on behalf of the Portal, and found out that she’s warm and helpful and funny. We chatted on Twitter in the weeks and months following the conference. Another kind and helpful person, Kandy Woodfield, invited me to be on a panel at the 2014 Research Methods Festival, which Ros helps to organise, so we met again then and had a lovely chat on a bench in the sunshine.

A couple of months ago I decided that I would really like to be a Visiting Fellow at NCRM. I had a look online, but couldn’t find evidence of any opportunities. So I asked Ros. She said NCRM didn’t have visiting fellows, but they’d been thinking about whether to start. I said was there any chance they could start with me? She went away and talked to the other directors, and they said ‘yes’.

They said ‘yes’!

So as from this very day, I am a Visiting Fellow at NCRM. Because I asked. I wouldn’t be one, otherwise.

Another incredibly helpful person, Gemma Noon, is currently Impact Evaluation lead at Calgary Public Library. I met her online in the noughties, we met in person once before she emigrated from the UK, and we’ve kept in touch. She stunned me by inviting me to give a keynote in Canada, all expenses paid – my first international speaking engagement! I didn’t even ask! But I did ask Gemma whether she had any contacts with local universities, and she put me in touch with Carol Shepstone at Mount Royal University, and I asked her whether she would like me to do any work for them while I was in the area, and she said ‘yes’. Then, at the creative research methods conference a couple of months ago, I saw Barbara Schneider present her excellent research. Barbara works at the University of Calgary, so I asked her whether she would like me to do any work for her while I was in the area – and she said ‘yes’. So in late October I’m off to Canada, to work for the library service and two universities in Calgary.

They said ‘yes’!

Some of this, of course, is sheer luck, and being in the right place at the right time. And there is an old saying: ‘the harder you work, the luckier you get’, and I do work hard, so I figured that was the other influencing factor. I sent Ros a draft of this post, as a courtesy because it features her, and she told me firmly that my analysis was incomplete. She wrote,blush

“Of course, we don’t just give out fellowships because we get asked, and I bet you wouldn’t be invited to Calgary if it wasn’t because people think you are rather good at this research thing. You miss that bit of the story!”


Even so, if I hadn’t asked for help, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m also finding that the more I practice asking, the easier it becomes. I now regularly ask people for help: old friends and new, professional contacts, random strangers on Twitter. Of course they don’t all say ‘yes’ – but a surprisingly large number of people are able and willing to help.

If the prospect of asking repels you, ask yourself this: how do you respond when someone asks you for help? Are you generally willing to help others? I bet you are; it probably makes you feel good. And if that’s the case, why aren’t you willing to give other people that feel-good sensation by asking them for help in turn? Go on, give it a try – the results can be surprising and delightful.

Centre for Methodological Research

Last autumn I was delighted to receive a personal invitation to the launch of the new Cent2014-10-12_1413075996re for Methodological Research at Durham University. Research about research – now that really floats my boat!

The invitation said ‘The aim of the Centre is simply to foster the methodological imagination.’ That appealed to me, because I think imagination is both essential to research and undervalued by researchers. They had two international speakers: Professor Teun Zuiderent-Jerak, from Linköping University, talking about ‘sociological experiments in healthcare’ (cross-disciplinary = interesting, to me), and Professor Charles Ragin from the University of California, who I know from his work on Qualitative Comparative Analysis, talking about ‘noise and signal in social research’ which also sounded interesting. And the email ended, ‘We would very much like you to be involved in this given your expertise and interest in methodological research,’ which was flattering.

Beyond that, I didn’t know what to expect. I was a bit nervous about going to Durham in mid-December, figuring it would probably be three feet deep in snow by then, but in fact it was a mild and pleasant day. I reached the venue on time, spotted a couple of people I knew, and was soon deep in conversation over the sandwiches.

There were about 40 people present, most of whom seemed to be from the north-east. After lunch we headed into a comfortable lecture room and settled down for the talks. Several people from Durham University gave brief introductions, saying the usual things about how delighted they were etc etc. Then we heard from the first speaker, who was indeed interesting, followed by time for discussion.

The discussion was interesting too. There was lots of talk about the importance of being collegiate; working with colleagues across disciplinary boundaries; breaking out of the old silo mentalities. But all the talk was about making these changes within academia. I sat on my hands for as long as I could, but eventually one of them shot out from under my bottom and up into the air. When I was called upon to speak, I made a polite but fairly impassioned plea for people to think beyond the academy walls; pointed out that someone already had, because I’d been invited; and tried to make the case for the contribution that independent researchers outside the academy can and do make to social science research. My comments seemed to be quite warmly received, and I felt cheered, and more optimistic.

After a tea break, we heard from the second speaker, who made some good and different points. Then there was more time for discussion. There was lots more talk about the importance of being collegiate; working with colleagues across disciplinary boundaries; breaking out of the old silo mentalities – and guess what? Once again, all the talk was about making these changes within academia. I didn’t even try to sit on my hands this time, and when I was called upon to speak, I said reproachfully, ‘You’re doing it again!’ This time I went further, and talked about practitioner researchers and community researchers as well as independent researchers, and stressed that ignoring the work of all these people would cause the Centre to miss a number of key dimensions of social research as it exists in the world today.

I also mentioned the need for academics to find resources for work with non-academic researchers.

I wonder whether my words fell on any hearing ears.