A trail of crumbs… ‘doing’ research

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Since last November, I have carried out endless searches for articles that resonate with my desire to practice research in a manner consistent with developing my systems practice.  Whether it about being a systemic research practitioner or a research-oriented systems practictioner, I don’t think it really matters.  My main driver was that T847 was part of my ‘trajectory’ of developing my systems practice – and I wanted that to be about the practice/praxis of my research, not just the content/topic.

Every so often, I found a ‘gem’ – the needle in the haystack that helped distill things.  Sometimes this was the product of my own labours, other times a gift from Arwen, another student carrying out similiar inquiries to myself.  It may be that I was not a ‘good’ searcher, but it seems those hits were quite few and far between.

So I thought I would pull together all the ‘gems’ in one place so that I can remind myself what it was about them.  This post may also offer others on a similiar journey to me, to reduce their own searching hours by offering a platform to start from.

The ‘why’ of my research

As you can see from this blog, one of the early issues I grapped with was ‘why’ I was doing the research at all.  At one level, it was an easy ‘to get my MSc’ but at another level, it more of a quest for purpose.  The saviour was this article:

Ulrich, W., 2001. The quest for competence in systemic research and practice. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 18(1), pp.3–28.

It helped by making me clarify the domain of practice I wanted to improve.  It also highlighted the contested notions of ‘expert’ and ‘competence’.

The ‘position’ of the research

I also needed clarity on the ‘niche’ that my research occupied.  There was this inherent tension between its contribution to an academic discipline AND its value to practitioners (either those directly involved/affected OR those more broadly linked to the domain of practice).  I think I thought that this would be easy, but actually it was much more complex.  Just today, I came across this article:

Corley, K.G. & Gioia, D.A., 2011. Building Theory about Theory Building: What constitutes a theoretical contribution? The Academy of Management Review, 36(1), pp.12–32.

which really helps to highlight the fact that ‘utility’ and ‘furthering the field’ is not easy to get right.

I also worried that I would end up claiming a ‘theoretical contribution’ when actually it was my insufficient searching/awareness of existing literature that made me perceive a gap when there wasn’t really one.  I see this can be a common mistake in research:

Huy, Q.N., 2012. Improving the odds of publishing inductive qualitative research in premier academic journals. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 48(2), pp.282–287.

In the end I realised that my research was ‘only’ at Masters level.  I did not have to know the whole field nor was I expected to – nevertheless it was always a nagging worry that I had missed something.

Getting going – designing.

I felt that taking a linear, step by step approach to doing my research did not really fit with systems practice.  In the early stages I had little to conceptualise what I was up to – how to get a ‘feel’ for the whole.  Although I came across it a little bit too late for my research process, the following helped:

Maxwell, J.A., 2005. Qualitative research design: an interactive approach Second ed., London: Sage Publications.

This is a book – I didn’t buy it but came across it on the publishers website – included in the ‘sample materials and chapters’ is Chapter 1 – A model for qualitative research design as a pdf [accessed on 20 May 2012].  This was a really helpful way of getting a feel for the whole.

Literature review.

It seemed easy to just get carried away – finding and bookmarking lots and lots of references but without any sense of purpose.  Every so often, I kind of lost track of what I was doing it for – and that made me a little scattergun, rather than systematic in the way that I went about it. I kind of got through this on a wing and a prayer at the time but later when I found the Maxwell book (full ref above) I gained understanding on what I should have been doing through reading Chapter 3 – Conceptual Framework: What do you think is going on? [accessed 20 May 2012].  This helped not just in understanding the purpose of all the reading but also to make me consider other contextual aspects of the research – including my own ‘subjectivity’.

Action research

Because of all the learning about social learning in TU812, the whole idea of action research appealed to me – I had some sort of ‘gut feel’ that it would resonate with systems thinking in practice though I knew very little about it.  Before I started T847 I bought this book:

Coghlan, D. & Brannick, T., 2010. Doing action research in your own organisation, London: Sage Publications.

Just because the title seemed relevant to what I thought I was going to do.  It is a great book, I found it really useful.  The irony is it did not inform my actual T847 research in a direct way, but it has informed some things I have been involved in at work.  It did however lead me to also buy this book:

Reason, P. & Bradbury, H. eds., 2006. Handbook of Action Research Concise Paperback ed., London: Sage Publications.

because a lot of the references pointed that way.  Reason and Bradbury was great – the Editors remarks in the intro really resonated with me

“our purpose is to contribute to the ongoing revisioning of the Western mindset – to add impetus to the movement away from a modernist Worldview based on a positivist philosophy and a value system dominated by crude notions of economic progress, towards emerging perspectives which share a ‘postmodern’ sentiment” (page xxiii)

I really wish I could have immersed myself in it more than I did.  A few select chapters were influential in terms of how I did my research.  Now I have time again, perhaps I will get to read it properly and see what I could have done!

Qualitative research

I knew from the start that whatever I did my research data would be qualitative.  I just couldn’t imagine any sort of research question I would be interested in that was quantitative.  But it seemed easy to get lulled into underestimating the significance of this choice – it was more than just a question of ‘what data do I need’, it was a fundamental epistemological choice – underpinned by discussions of research paradigms.

I developed my thinking about paradigms in a bit of a magpie way – a bit from here, and a bit from there – so there is no single “read this” reference.  I summarised some thinking in this post which also links to posts I did prior to that about research paradigms using different sources as springboards.  I think that one of the things I learned is different authors do emphasise different distinctions, so the language in the field of ‘research paradigms’ is not neat and straightforward.

When it came to ‘method’ – the actual practice of research.  I got into my main ‘frenzy’ of looking elsewhere for guidance into what I was going to do when I was doing it.  I did go round and round in circles a little – but it seems that most of the time two key books are the ‘bibles’ of this field.

Patton, M.Q., 2002. Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods Third ed., London: Sage Publications.

Miles, M.B. & Huberman, A. Michael, 1994. Qualitative Data Analysis: An expanded sourcebook Second ed., London: Sage Publications.

These are expensive books.  I didn’t buy them.  Fished into them via Amazon look inside and Google books.  I even spent 10 mins stroking a copy of Miles and Huberman in my local Waterstones one day!  There is a Miles and Huberman journal article which is quite helpful.

Miles, M.B. & Huberman, A. Michael, 1984. Drawing Valid Meaning from Qualitative Data: Toward a shared craft. Educational Researcher, 13(5), pp.20–30.

And, finally back to the Maxwell book – and Chapter 5 – Methods: what will you actually do? which again was insightful – and easy to access!

The key area I spent ages searching around was the bit of research called “analysis” – on the surface it was quite easy to think ‘now I have data, I need to analyse it’ but actually understanding what you are doing, when you do it – in terms of praxis was really important to me.  I did quite a few blog posts on this – even adding lots of comments to my own blogs as my thinking developed and my quest for understanding it continued …Thinking about coding, My Research as an ‘event’ in a longer stream of inquiry, Sensitising concepts, Research round-up – where am I now?

And finally…research ‘quality’

This was more about the ‘language’ of research and how the traditional understandings of key terms associated with positivist research are changing over time.  The references I used to write this post were really helpful and once I had pulled that altogether, I had a much clearer idea of where I stood.  In the end, I chose to ‘exit’ from the word validity and write my project in terms of its ‘credibility’.  I also acknowledged that ‘credibility’ will arise in a social dynamic – it is as much to do with how the reader interacts with the research paper as it is to do with what I have done.  I felt comfortable with that stance.

So I think that is it.  All of it wrapped up together!

5 thoughts on “A trail of crumbs… ‘doing’ research

  1. Helen

    What a very kind post for future would be systemic researchers. Would that we had had even the tip of the iceberg of your list.

    You have shared some of my touchstone publications but have omitted the Chia paper you shared with me, which was massively helpful. (From Modern to Postmodern Organizational Analysis, 1995) and I loved the idea in Urry & Law that research is both a product of and an input to social realities (Enacting the Social, 2004).

  2. I have another item to add to this list…
    Marshall C. and Gretchen G.B. Designing Qualitative research, Sage Publications
    from the looks of Amazon – this is now available in a fifth edition (2010) – see http://www.amazon.co.uk/Designing-Qualitative-Research-Catherine-Marshall/dp/141297044X/ref=tmm_pap_title_0

    But the real reason for mentioning it here is that Chapter 2 The “what” of the study: building the conceptual framework from the third edition is available online at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Designing-Qualitative-Research-Catherine-Marshall/dp/141297044X/ref=tmm_pap_title_0 and is a really helpful overview of getting started on thinking about your research.

  3. Pingback: Just Practicing − Assignment One: write a research proposal

  4. Hi Helen, thanks for writing this up, I will bookmark this page and return to it surely in a few months time.

    I am currently doing TU812 and I am also fascinated by Action Research and wondered if it would be useful later when doing T847 or T802 … or even as part of my professional practice at work. I really wish that there was another STiP module at the OU (Action Research, Design and Evaluation all seem like good candidates!)

    Since I most likely have a year to go I thought it might be worth reading up on, and experimenting with in the meantime. Would you recommend “Doing action research in your own organisation” or the Sage handbook as a good start? Would these be useful even for EMA/TMAs or are they too ‘heavy’?

    • Hi Armando
      Thanks for your interest in the blog. Action research has a number of intellectual influences in common with systems thinking, particularly linked back to the work of Argyris, Schon and Lewin, so there are many reasons to be fascinated with it.

      If – and only if – you have time outside of your current OU studies, it is worth reading the Coghlan and Brannick book as it considers the practicalities of AR and not just the theoretical basis. It is now in a newer edition and the book has a website with short videos of David Coghlan. Sage handbook is much ‘heavier’. An early edition of it has a chapter by Ray Ison on Systems thinking and action research. You can get that for free at http://oro.open.ac.uk/10576/1/Ison.pdf

      I don’t think reading these materials now would add much to your study of the current modules. It’s best to stick to really getting to grips with module materials which is what you are assessed on. Nevertheless if you do have time, it is always worth reading around your interests.

      Best of luck

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