There's a big difference between optimizing systems to avoid re-inventing the wheel and becoming a repeat offender in the world of research methodology. I met another student of governance, natural resource management, and community engagement (though she's working on her PhD) here in Toowoomba and we had a long philosophical chat about our research approaches. She started out with interviews, but the limits placed on her by IRB approvals and such made the approach cumbersome and unduly formal. She talked a lot about Foucault and his experiments with discourse and discourse analysis. Our conversation made me interested in attempting to wade through some of his dense texts. She suggested starting with The Foucault Effect. Other suggestions, folks?
One of the problems I'm facing in my interviews is that while I have a set of topics and questions I want to ask each participant, I find myself sacrificing the structure for what seems like a better flowing conversation in which I weave the topics in as things unfold. However, this means that the question order in each conversation is different, some questions are answered in the course of the conversation without being asked, etc. Also, for the sake of conversation and dialogue I sometimes add things that are not scripted and could be problematic. For example, if I voice an observation of my own in an effort to delve deeply into a topic, does that skew the conversation in a certain way that complicates or even invalidates the data? For the majority of the time I am asking questions and listening, but my lack of experience means that I can't always find a way to word an idea as a question or in a way that avoids blatant assumptions. Am I introducing too much of my own judgement into the situation and compromising the integrity of the data? Or is it the opposite-- that I'm collecting better, more nuanced data because of this approach? Hard to know.
Also, the whole idea of having a preconceived set of questions seems to call into question my grounded theory strategy (letting the data tell me the story rather than seeking to support a hypothesis). I'm starting to question the quality of data that come out of fabricated conversations. My new friend said she proposed using "creative" or "natural" interviews (more open-ended and free form, less structured), but the academic institution that she's working through didn't consider that an appropriate research method.
She was interested to hear about the Clinton School's approach of trying to marry theory and practice. We discussed the definition of "engaged research" and whether those claiming to do it really fit the bill. On a random Google search, I found an interesting blog post that lends insight from one researcher who claims to do engaged or participatory research but recognizes the difficulty many face in making the research useful and understandable to the activist or marginalized community they study.
What are we missing or gaining by playing by the rules that many institutions set to ensure that research is rigorous and ethical? For example, due to her restrictions my friend changed her methodology from interviews to participant observation. She attends meetings and other events, takes notes, and tries to fade into the background as much as possible. What is she missing by her limited ability to engage in dialogue with the people involved? On the flip side, I have had so many informal side conversations, observations, and other experiences here in Australia that have contributed to my understanding of the water planning issue and I am now struggling with the question of how/whether to include that information in the study. I can't ignore it, but it was not systematically (or necessarily ethically, by IRB standards) collected.
Both my friend and I are furthering our education to better understand the situations of our communities in order to be of continually better service to them. It's great to meet like-minded folks and share experiences, expound on shared quandaries, and feel supported and understood. I'm looking forward to many more meta discussions with her!