Drake and Heath (2008): A tale of woe

According to the authors, this chapter (from Sikes & Potts’ Researching Education from the Inside) begins to explore ‘some of the strengths and limitations of being an insider researcher’. Strengths?! It’s a catalogue of misery; a relentless battering of challenges, problems, worry, suspicion and conflict. Where are the opportunities? Where is the passion, the sense of achievement and the joy in having made a difference?! Interestingly, Drake and Heath admit that they were – to an extent – told what the participants thought they wanted to hear. Their interview techniques – active listening and rapid interpretation – could very easily have communicated their intentions (it sounds like they only asked their subjects to elaborate on the negatives).

Provided you manage to shake off the depressive cloud that hangs over this piece, there is some interesting stuff in here – i.e. lots of stuff I found myself questioning.

My first question is whether it is necessary or useful to continue to talk about a split between ‘academics’ and ‘practitioners’; ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the academy, etc.. Like half the participants in Drake and Heath’s study, I am a lecturer at a University. I am on an academic contract. I am a teacher and course leader and an ECR (‘early career researcher’). I am a doctoral student. If/when I produce ‘knowledge’, is this really happening outside the academy?

My second question is whether a practitioner researcher, having identified an area for development within the department’s area of work, might really be accused of being unprofessional. Why on earth would anyone think that? What other motive could you possibly have other than wanting to improve practice (especially if you are conscientious enough to undertake a doctorate – of any description). Maybe I am being naive (or wilfully ignorant, as someone called me once), but it makes little sense to me.

My third question is about the supposed tension between research and practice that professional doctorate students have to manage. Here’s another way of looking at this; research and practice actually go together very well indeed, in that enquiring deeply into teaching practice (hopefully) improves the teaching practice. For ‘pure’ researchers, who may be researching, for example, homosexuality in track and field sports, while teaching an undergraduate unit in qualitative research methods, the tension may be more problematic.

Essentially, what this chapter brought home to me was how exceedingly fortunate I am to work in an institution where I feel supported, valued and respected, and where I have space to grow. It did also, perhaps, underline the message of Anderson & Herr’s (1998) paper on the exploration of validity as a concept. What it didn’t do, in my opinion, is communicate ways of dealing with the ‘problem’ of being an active, insider participant in a study. Two of the three strategies given (changing jobs, and conducting the project elsewhere) would surely be more appropriately described as avoiding it.

As an aside, I did find this sentence amusing:

“In our study, people who had completed their doctorates recognised that managing time successfully did not just happen by chance.” (p139)

No… really?! 🙂

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