#SOCRMx Week 7: Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research

The past two weeks in the Introduction to Social Research Methods MOOC (SOCRMx) have covered ‘How to Lie with Statistics’ (Week 6 Quantitative data analysis) and ‘Interpretation and Trustworthiness in Qualitative Data Analysis’ (Week 7).

Lots of resources have been provided for the Week 6 topic on quantitative data analysis. I have saved them for future reference, should I ever go down that track. It was interesting to see that more course participants got involved in discussion in the Week 6 forums. I’m not sure if that’s because a positivist approach comes more easily to those new to research, or whether it was because once again the resources were extremely good and the tutor for this week – Rory Ewins – actually engaged in the forums and provided feedback!

The resources for Week 7 on qualitative data analysis are very familiar given that all my research has taken this approach, but once more the resources provided on what we mean by trustworthiness and how to code qualitative data are helpful and thought provoking. Again I have saved these resources for future reference when I can explore them with more time. I think both these topics require and deserve more time than one week to get to grips with.

The topic of qualitative analysis reminded me of an excellent video that was shown in the first week of the course under the title of theoretical considerations in research design. This is a SAGE research methods video and therefore not open access, but if anyone from SAGE visits this post, I would urge them to make this video publicly available. I think both novice and experienced researchers would find it hugely helpful.

The video shows John Scott (Professor of Sociology, Plymouth University), Malcolm  Williams (Professor in the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University) and Gayle Letherby (Professor of Sociology , Plymouth University) discussing objectivity and subjectivity in social research, having published a book about this in 2014:

Scott, J, Williams, M & Letherby, G. (2014). Objectivity and subjectivity in social research, SAGE Publications Ltd., London.

These are the notes I made from watching the video.

John Scott starts by drawing on the work of Kant and Mannheim to discuss how subjectivity, objectivity, relativity and truth have multi-faceted meanings. We see the world differently according to our social location (our perspective) and we construct knowledge relative to that location. But if this is so, how, as researchers, can we present a truthful representation of the world. One way we can do this (which Iain McGilchrist has also discussed in his work on the Divided Brain) is to try and synthesise different standpoints (alternative perspectives) to achieve a better model for understanding the world.

The three authors each approach research from different perspectives. Malcolm Williams adopts a socially situated objectivity approach, Gayle Letherby a theorised subjectivity approach and John Scott, is somewhere in the middle of these two perspectives, and the point was made that it’s not necessarily a question of either/or, as shown by mixed methods approaches.

Malcolm Williams sees objectivity as a value which is socially constructed. The pursuit of truth is a key research value and he argues that a necessary condition of objectivity is to begin with subjectivity.

Gayle Letherby recognises the personhood of research and the complex relationship between researcher and respondent. From this perspective research is subjective, power laden, emotional and embodied. A theorised subjectivity approach is concerned with how identity plays out in the research process. Gayle Letherby tells us that interrogation of the self in research, with reference to the ‘other’, gets us closer to a position that we might call objective and that autobiography is always relevant. We need to interrogate our biases, but we should avoid demonization of subjectivity. Subjectivity is not a redefinition of objectivity, but starts from a different place. Objectivity and subjectivity are interrelated.

Whether we take a subjective or objective approach, social science research does have validity and needs to be defended. This does not mean that one account is as good as any other. Researchers must be responsible and explain how we got what we got and how what we did affects what we got. Research always involves a view from somewhere and we need to write about our subjective positions. Where did the research question come from? Why was a particular approach adopted? Can we justify why our findings are important? What is our ethical position? Have we acknowledged that ideas about knowledge can’t be separated from ideas about power? (Foucault’s work is relevant here) The social and political role of research means that there is no escape from issues of power.

Scott, Williams and Letherby conclude that the validity of knowledge depends on having:

  • Open societies (Karl Popper)
  • An ideal speech situation (Habermas)
  • Free discussion (Mannheim)
  • Leaving power outside the door as much as possible.

#SOCRMx Week 4: ‘half-way’ tasks and reflections

(Click on the image to go to source.)

This post should have been made at the end of last week. We are now at the end of Week 5 and I am attempting to catch up.

We are now half-way through this 8-week Introduction to Social Research Methods course. I continue to be impressed by the content, but the course doesn’t really lend itself to much discussion. I am grateful that it is open and that I have access to the excellent resources, but the course has been designed for Edinburgh University Masters and PhD students – the rest of us must fit in where we can.

There are two tasks for Week 4. I have completed one – rather hurriedly – but will report on both.

The first task for Week 4 was to consider one of the research methods we explored in Weeks 2 and 3 and answer the following questions in a reflective blog post.

  • What three (good) research questions could be answered using this approach?
  • What assumptions about the nature of knowledge (epistemology) seem to be associated with this approach?
  • What kinds of ethical issues arise?
  • What would “validity” imply in a project that used this approach?
  • What are some of the practical or ethical issues that would need to be considered?
  • And finally, find and reference at least two published articles that have used this approach (aside from the examples given in this course). Make some notes about how the approach is described and used in each paper, linking to your reflections above.

So far, I have explored the resources related to Surveys, Working with Images, Discourse Analysis and Ethnography. All have been extremely useful and I have written posts about the first three. I will move on to Interviews next and hope to explore the remaining methods (Focus groups, Experimental interventions, Social network analysis and Learning Analytics) before the end of the course.

I have decided not to do this week’s reflection task which requires answering the questions above. For me these questions will be useful when I am working on an authentic research project, but I don’t want to spend time working through them for a hypothetical project. As I mentioned in a previous post I tend to work backwards on research, or at least backwards and forwards, i.e. I get immersed and see what happens rather than plan it all out ahead of time. That doesn’t mean that the questions above are not important and useful, they are, but for me they are ongoing questions rather than up-front questions. This approach to research doesn’t really fit with traditional Masters or PhD research.  I did do a traditional Masters but felt I was ‘playing the game’ in my choice of dissertation topic.  My PhD by publication was a much better fit with the way I work, but even that was playing the game a bit! My independent research has never felt like ‘playing the game’. It has always stemmed from a deep personal interest in the research question.

The second task for Week 4 was to review a “published academic journal article, and answer a set of questions about the methods employed in the study”. I have completed this task, but not submitted it for assessment, since I am not doing this course for assessment. The assessment is a set of multi-choice questions.

At this point it’s worth mentioning that there are a lot of multi-choice quizzes in this course and that I am hopeless at them! I rarely ever get a full score, although I think I have answered these Week 4 task questions correctly. Most of the quizzes in this course allow you to have multiple attempts and sometimes I have needed multiple attempts. Thank goodness for a second computer monitor, where I can display the text being tested at the same time as trying to answer the multi-choice quizzes. Having two monitors is essential to the way I work and even more essential for my research work.  I’m not sure that multiple choice quizzes do anything for my learning, other than to confirm that I have completed a section. I would prefer an open controversial question for discussion, but in this course there is so much content to cover that there would be no time for this.

But again, some excellent resources have been provided for this week. Particularly useful is reference to this open textbook : Principles of Sociological Inquiry – Qualitative and Quantitative Methods with specific reference to Chapters 14.1 and 14.2.

I am copying this helpful Table (from the open textbook) here for future reference: Table 14.2 Questions Worth Asking While Reading Research Reports

Report section Questions worth asking
Abstract What are the key findings? How were those findings reached? What framework does the researcher employ?
Acknowledgments Who are this study’s major stakeholders? Who provided feedback? Who provided support in the form of funding or other resources?
Introduction How does the author frame his or her research focus? What other possible ways of framing the problem exist? Why might the author have chosen this particular way of framing the problem?
Literature review How selective does the researcher appear to have been in identifying relevant literature to discuss? Does the review of literature appear appropriately extensive? Does the researcher provide a critical review?
Sample Was probability sampling or nonprobability sampling employed? What is the researcher’s sample? What is the researcher’s population? What claims will the researcher be able to make based on the sample? What are the sample’s major strengths and major weaknesses?
Data collection How were the data collected? What do you know about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the method employed? What other methods of data collection might have been employed, and why was this particular method employed? What do you know about the data collection strategy and instruments (e.g., questions asked, locations observed)? What don’t you know about the data collection strategy and instruments?
Data analysis How were the data analyzed? Is there enough information provided that you feel confident that the proper analytic procedures were employed accurately?
Results What are the study’s major findings? Are findings linked back to previously described research questions, objectives, hypotheses, and literature? Are sufficient amounts of data (e.g., quotes and observations in qualitative work, statistics in quantitative work) provided in order to support conclusions drawn? Are tables readable?
Discussion/conclusion Does the author generalize to some population beyond her or his sample? How are these claims presented? Are claims made supported by data provided in the results section (e.g., supporting quotes, statistical significance)? Have limitations of the study been fully disclosed and adequately addressed? Are implications sufficiently explored?

Finally – some of the course participants have completed the first task and posted their reflections on their blogs. See

Now to see if I can make a start on Week 5 which finished today!

#SOCRMx: Week 4 – Discourse Analysis

 (Click on image for source)

In Week 4 the Introduction to Social Research Methods course requires participants to move on and 1) reflect on a chosen method, and 2) test our ability to identify specific information about methods in a given research paper. I hope to get round to this but I am behind and am not ready to do it yet. I still want to explore some of the methods that I haven’t had time to engage with yet and take advantage of the resources provided.

In this post I will share my notes from watching Sally Wiggins’ video introducing Discourse Analysis. I have not attempted to complete the associated task, or to synthesise the other resources and information provided by the course.There are many more resources in the Week 2/3 materials of the course site. And some participants have tackled this as a course task. See for example these blog posts:

http://lizhudson.coventry.domains/general-blog-posts/research-method-option-1-discourse-analysis/

https://screenface.net/week-3-socrmx-discourse-analysis/

http://www.brainytrainingsolutions.com/discourse-analysis-facebook-conversation/#.WfL87hNSxTY

http://focusabc.blogspot.co.uk/2017/10/discourse-analysis-in-focus-example.html

Discourse analysis is not a method I have used, but it seems to be relevant to the research I have done and my interests.

My notes

Discourse analysis is a method for collecting qualitative data through the analysis of talk and text. It constructs rather than reflects reality from the premise that talk is a social, and talk and writing are never neutral.

Sally Wiggins in her video introducing discourse analysis tells us there are 5 types:

  1. Conversation analysis
  2. Discursive psychology
  3. Critical discursive psychology
  4. Foucauldian discourse analysis
  5. Critical discourse analysis

She explained that conversation analysis and discursive psychology approaches look at the detail of discourse (with a zoom lens), whilst critical discursive psychology and Foucauldian discourse analysis are interested in a broader perspective (wide angle lens). Critical discourse analysis is between these two. Before using discourse analysis as a method, we must decide which lens to use.

Conversation analysis (CA): uses tape recorders and other technologies to capture the detail of conversation. All aspects are captured, including body language, to explore how social interactions work. CA is all about illuminating the things we take for granted, all those intricate everyday social actions, and exploring them in great detail.

Discursive psychology (DP): examines the detail of interaction but also explores issues such as identities, emotions and accountabilities. Like CA it also uses technologies, such as video, to record interactions, but is used to explore how psychological states are invoked.

Critical discursive psychology (CDP): seeks a perspective which is somewhere between the zoom and wide angle lenses, blending the detail of interaction with broader social issues. It can’t be reduced to a line by line analysis, but instead examines patterns in the data in terms of culturally available ways of talking (interpretative repertoires). It explores familiar ways of talking about issues that shape and structure how we understand concept in a particular culture. It uses interviews and focus groups to explore everyday, common sense ways of understanding and issues produced in everyday talk.

Foucauldian discourse analysis (FDA): emerged from post structuralism. It takes a wide angle perspective on how discourses are connected to knowledge and power. It draws on textual and visual images, such as advertisements, as well as conversations, interviews and focus groups. FDA is interested in the implications of discourse for our subjective experience, how discourse and knowledge changes over time and how this effects people’s understanding of themselves.

Critical discourse analysis (CDA): takes a wide angle perspective and is the most critical form of discourse analysis. Its foundations lie in critical linguistics, semiotics and sociolinguistics. CDA seeks to reveal hidden ideologies underlying particular discourses, and how discourses are used to exert power over individuals and groups. CDA is used when we want to focus on a social problem of some kind. It draws heavily on semiotics and how words and images create to convey meaning in particular ways. It tries to unpack layers of meaning. CDA has a political vision, e.g. it is used to explore how individuals or groups are marginalized or dominated by other groups in society. It uses broad texts and images and seeks to expose ideologies that underpin a particular discourse. CDA shed light on social inequalities and how these are produced through certain discourses, but it also illuminates ways to challenge these discourses.

Just a minimal amount of wider reading around discourse analysis reveals there to be a wealth of literature related to this research method. I suspect it is not a method to be taken up lightly. I would have liked further examples of research questions that have been addressed using each of the five types of discourse analysis. Of the five types, I am most drawn to critical discourse analysis and critical discursive psychology.

#SOCRMx – Introduction to Social Research Methods MOOC. Week 1

 

Source of image

I am currently participating in two MOOCs – the #openedMOOC run by David Wiley and George Siemens, and this one – Introduction to Social Research Methods, run by Jeremy Knox and his team at Edinburgh University.

I have made a late start on both MOOCs because I was away for the first half of the week. I am hoping that working on two MOOCs won’t be too ambitious.

I have already written a blog post about the #openedMOOC and have now worked through the materials for Week 1 on the Introduction to Social Research Methods. To end this week we have been asked to think about and blog our responses to five questions. Here are the questions and my thoughts:

What kind of topics are you interested in researching?

Most of my research to date has centred on learners’ experiences in connectivist massive open online courses, or open online learning environments. I have been particularly interested in how the espoused principles for learning in these environments – autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness – are experienced by participants. I have also been interested in how learning emerges in such environments which can be experienced as chaotic. Whilst there is now a lot of published research on MOOC learner experiences, we still don’t know enough about how these environments, in which learners determine their own learning paths, impact on their identity and development as learners. What is the quality of learning that occurs? How would we define or recognise that? I am also interested in the role of the teacher in these environments. How do these environments impact on the role of the teacher?

What initial research questions might be starting to emerge for you?

Currently I am working collaboratively on a position paper. Does a position paper count as research? It feels like research to me – research of the literature and the position that others have taken in relation to the research question that interests us. So far we have been working on this paper for a year and the direction of the paper continues to shift as we become exposed to new literature.

I like the fact that this question refers to research questions starting to emerge. For nearly all my research the question has initially been very vague – more like a pique of interest or a sense that something has happened in the learning environment that is not fully understood. And sometimes a more interesting question arises when the data starts to be analysed. This has happened to me more than once.

Currently since I am participating in two MOOCs, I am already intrigued by how they differ from each other and why. Whether or not this will lead to any interesting questions I don’t know as yet, but I am keeping an open mind.

What are you interested in researching – people, groups, communities, documents, images, organisations?

I like working with people. I am fascinated by how people behave in online environments and I am particularly interested in more vulnerable learners – those for whom the environment is not easy, those who can easily get shouted down by the louder voices.

Do you have any initial ideas for the kinds of methods that might help you to gather useful knowledge in your area of interest?

To date I have always preferred a qualitative approach. I like talking to people or reading what they write. I like to see alternative perspectives emerge. I agree with Stephen Downes (2014), when he says that lots of research ‘sees what it expects to see’ and with Scott, Williams and Letherby (2014) when they say (in the Week 1 video) that we have to beware of confirmation bias. So I am interested in “speculative research approaches, which recognise the potential impact of uncertain futures on education and the need for alternative approaches to research (Ross, 2015; Ross, 2016; Wilkie, Savransky & Rosengarten, 2017).” (Mackness, 2017). How might we do things differently?

What initial questions do you have about those methods? What don’t you understand yet?

I have always manually coded data. I have never used a tool like NVivo for data analysis. This is principally because I am an independent researcher, not affiliated to an institution, who doesn’t get paid to do research and these tools are not free. Having said that, I enjoy the manual data analysis, but it is very slow. It would be interesting to try out a tool like NVivo.

Do you perceive any potential challenges in your initial ideas: either practical challenges, such as gaining access to the area you want to research, or the time it might take to gather data; or conceptual challenges; such as how the method you are interested in can produce ‘facts’, ‘truths’, or ‘valuable knowledge’ in your chosen area?

I am not doing this course for a certificate –and I won’t be starting a research project during these 8 weeks, but I am keen to learn from others how they are approaching their research projects and I would be very willing to work with someone who would like a research partner for the duration of this course.

References

Downes, S. (2014, May 26). Digital Research Methodologies Redux. Seminar presentation Delivered to ESTeaching.org, Tübingen, Germany, online via Adobe Connect. http://www.downes.ca/presentation/341

Scott, J, Williams, M & Letherby, G. (2014). Objectivity and subjectivity in social research, SAGE Publications Ltd., London

Ross, J. (2015, April 13). ‘Not-yetness’ – Research and teaching at the edges of digital education.  http://jenrossity.net/blog/?p=12935

Ross, J. (2016). Speculative method in digital education research. Learning, Media and Technology, 1–16. doi:10.1080/17439884.2016.1160927.

Wilkie, A., Savransky, M. & Rosengarten, M. (2017). Speculative Research. The Lure of Possible Futures. Routledge

Mackness, J. (2017). ‘Learners’ experiences in cMOOCs (2008-2016)’ PhD thesis