Sharon Walker is a second-year PhD student at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge. A few weeks back, she wrote this perceptive blog post about methodology, reflecting on her own own research and on how every methodological approach is attached to a way of seeing the world. If you are in the early stages of planning your study and working on your research design, you might find Sharon’s reflections particularly helpful.
As I come to the end of my first year of the PhD and to the stage of handing in my first-year report, I wanted to share my thoughts on developing the methodology for my research. I should say, before commencing, that my methodology is a work in progress, and that I have a sense that it will not become ‘fixed’ for a little while to come.
My research is a critical analysis of the UK government’s widening participation policy agenda. As a result, I have been faced with two particular issues: defining policy and understanding the relationship between ‘macro’ level policy decisions/agendas and their enactment at the ‘micro’/local level. In addition, given the focus of my research on race equality, I am also interested in understanding the relevance of policy to notions of power.
On the surface, these may seem like relatively straightforward endeavours, that is, defining policy, explaining governance and outlining how the ‘macro’ relates to the ‘micro’. This might well be the case, but how does one investigate policy enactment at the local level in such a way as to understand everyday perceptions of policy, as well as how the original goals of policy are realised, transformed, and negotiated in every day settings?
My particular interest in policy is with policy discourses – the language that is available to us to speak about a certain policy at any given time. How did that way of talking come to be how it is? What does that way of talking prevent us from seeing or from talking about? What meanings do we bring to that policy as a result of the language that is available to us? How do we produce new meanings?
Widening participation, in the UK and internationally, is known for having different, sometimes conflicting discourses, some of which are couched in terms of equality of opportunity and social justice, whilst others in the language of individualism (choice), competition and markets. In addition, there may be other discourses at play though hidden from view. An example of this is racial discourses – the everyday ways that we talk about ‘race’.
In order to research the discourses of widening participation through the everyday activities of widening participation at the local level, my research will involve an ethnographic study in higher education settings. I am interested to investigate the range of ‘work’ the term and concept widening participation’ achieves in the academy. These are the roles, meetings, events, documents, and other artefacts that it creates. In terms of methodological approach – the way in which I aim to gather knowledge about my research questions — an ethnography seemed most fitting. This is largely because I am interested in the everyday social interactions, meanings and perceptions of those working within a widening participation remit.
As a methodological choice, to say that I was doing an ethnography was not enough given the many ways in which one might conceptualise or frame an ethnography. Each methodological approach has a theoretical thread. This, in turn, is attached to a way of seeing or understanding the world. For example, do I believe that there is an external world that is ‘outside of’ human experience? Do I believe that human experience is all there is? I discovered that I need to carefully follow those threads such that I do not adopt an approach to gathering knowledge that is at odds not only with how I understand the world, but also with the theory informing my study. For example, it might become difficult, if I discover that my chosen methodology (or methodologies) is at odds with the critical theoretical framing of my study. Some methodologies, I discovered, do not sit very well with a critical approach, due to its political nature (although, arguably, all research is political); that is, it assumes, in many ways, the ‘thing’ it seeks to research.
The other challenge ahead of me, is relating the world of the local with the national discourses that circulate around widening participation. Given the fact that ways of talking about phenomena do not simply appear out of nowhere, I am concerned to understand the historical formation of these discourses, as well as sediments of meaning that sit beneath the surface of our contemporary ways of talking about access and participation in higher education. Finding approaches to gathering knowledge and analysing what is found is interesting, albeit challenging.
The final point I would like to make is on the issue of time. I can assure you that this first year of your studies, if you are a PhD student, and this only year if you are an MPhil student, will fly by. I will encourage you to make the best use of your time and to avoid cutting corners in any way.
With this in mind, there will be a pressure to express your research questions at quite an early stage. This can sometimes feel daunting but is worth the effort of your time. It is likely, very likely, that they will change throughout the course of the year. If, like me, you are embarking on an ethnographic study, it is likely they will change throughout the entire course of your studies! However, this is not an issue and should not prevent you from taking the bull by the horns in the early stages of your research. Instead, for the first iteration of your questions, look carefully at the issue that you want to study, and ask yourself: Why am I here (a question you might ask at many points throughout the year!)? In other words, what did you come here to investigate? Based on what you now know from the literature, brainstorm a range of questions, even the seemingly silly ones as they will help you to refine your thinking as well as to group and re-group your questions.
Finally, following that stage, ask yourself, what knowledge you can realistically gather about the subject at hand within the given time-scale? It is at that point that you will be better equipped to think about your methodology; or, in other words, you need to explain to others why the approach (or approaches) that you aim to use are the best way to gather the desired knowledge compared to other approaches.
I wish you the very best with your studies!
Sharon Walker is a second-year PhD student at the Faculty of Education and Wolfson College in Cambridge. She has a particular interest in issues related to “race”. Originally a Key Stage 1 & 2 teacher (specialising in the teaching of literacy skills) and an English language teacher, Sharon has also worked in the development sector, and for several years as a research assistant in higher education, including as an evaluator on a maths education project. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.