Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Faculty Follies - social researchers, beware of roosting chickens

Sometimes chickens come home to roost.

Last year one of my students came across a research report in which he was the principal subject of the investigation. The social researcher who investigated him was supposed to keep him informed about her findings, and let him know when and where her findings were to be published. She didn't. She published without checking her findings and interpretations with her only subject. (He only became aware of her report when he accidentally came across it when he was searching "the literature" for something else.) In retrospect, it is no wonder she avoided "validating" her findings and interpretations with her subject. Her findings were a complete and unbridled fantasy.

The study involved the subject (a teacher-education student) self-authoring a "picture-storybook" during his practice teaching. The "storybook" exercise was supposed to "increase the likelihood of moving teachers to more critical reflection". It would do this by enabling the subject and researcher to engage in a "dialogic interview" and to "co-construct an alternative or negotiated reading" of the picture-book, which would in turn help to foster his plans "for a non-hegemonic approach to... higher order thinking". The paper "argues" that the interviewer could have recognised more visual-verbal gaps and silences in the dialogue and manipulated those "textual spaces" to "help the student teacher become more critically reflexive". (Actually, the subject has told me that his thoughts during "the gaps" were: "WTF am I wasting my time here for when I could be surfing"?)

I happen to know the subject of this study very well, and I know of no-one who is less likely to need assistance in adopting a critically reflexive stance. He is a relentless skeptic and deep thinker. The researcher on the other hand... the Svengali who is there to "help the student teacher become more critically reflexive" and "non-hegemonic" seems to me to be a typically compliant product of institutionalised academe, and therefore something of a KUPD hegemon herself.

The study was funded by the Australian Research Council Large Grants Scheme, and has presumably been subject to peer review in prospect (approval of the grant) and retrospect (publication of the results). And yet, to my certain knowledge, and the certain knowledge of the subject of the study, it is complete nonsense. My suggestion for anyone who is ever the subject of qualitative research by a social scientist, is to search on the researchers' name at intervals in order to find out when the research is published. Read the research. If you think the researcher has misconstrued, misinterpreted or even fabricated your responses, write to the granting institution and the host institution (usually a university). Let them know your opinion of the study and insist on a written response.

Subject review of social research is in the end a much better means of quality control than peer review. Peer review can be little more than institutionalised group-think.