The “Thing-ness” Problem

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Hesse-Biber, S. (2015). Mixed Methods Research: The” Thing-ness” Problem. Qualitative health research, 25(6), 775-788

Welcome to the new academic year. I can’t help feeling that advocates of mixed methodology remind me of the united reformed church. Set up to transcend the binary between catholic and protestant, they simply add another division rather then a conclusive reconciliation. Mixed methodologists might reasonably claim to be pragmatists rising above the paradigm wars afray. This stance does not in itself mean that the deep differences surrounding methods and methodologies are resolved. It means that a new dimension has been added to the debate. Or rather, that some quite traditional ways of working have been rebranded and added to the debate.






The EdD experience: liberating, rewarding and exhilarating

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It’s one of those points that I always come back to.

All research is autobiographical. By that what I mean is, not that the research is about the researcher in an egotistical self-centred way but rather that any written (other media apply) research report is a narrative of how and why you came to a series of conclusions about a the world. As such, when you present what you have learnt from your research, there are always three interwoven narratives:

  • the personal
  • the professional and
  • the epistemic
  • (the political is not a distinct strand; it is threaded through all three)

The professional and the epistemic are frequently told, the personal often ignored – laundered out of existence.

I found it so interesting listening to our year two EdD students presenting their EdD thesis proposals at the weekend. All presented three narrative strands.  They seem to have adopted a position that I am only just beginning to  articulate – a position expressed by Thomas (2010)

Thomson, P., & Walker, M. (Eds.). (2010). Ch 32 Last words: why doctoral study?  The Routledge Doctoral Student’s Companion: Getting to grips with research in education and the social sciences. Routledge.

In this chapter Thomas outlines three myths of doctoral study. Myth One: Learning to do research is about the acquisition of a set of tools and techniques.  

We ended the day with colleagues drafting a single paragraph of what with more time might have become a Professional Doctoral Researcher’s Manifesto.

(inspired by Back, L., & Puwar, N. (2012). A manifesto for live methods: provocations and capacities. The Sociological Review, 60(S1), 6-17.)

There was a stunned silence when Mike Parker  (aka Mr Post-it Note) read his piece

The Doctoral Researchers’ Manifesto:

As a doctoral researcher it is important that the student prepares  for submersion in an unknown area – and allow the waves to wash over you. There will be times when you feel like you are drowning – and the surface seems distant – there are also times when you will feel like to have been marooned; but trust in the ship to take you to your destination. You will know when you have arrived as the natives will speak your language and share your currency – the meeting of minds will be liberating, rewarding and exhilarating. Remember no man is an island… Every journey has to start somewhere – enjoy the ride!



Research as an analytical day dream

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Everybody loves a good detective story.

Usher (1997) uses one as an extended allegory  about  modernist and postmodernist research. 

In another of Umberto Eco stories, The Name of the Rose (1984) a monk, William of Baskerville, is called in to solve a number of inexplicable murders in a monastery with a library that contains the most extensive collection of books and manuscripts in the Christian world. This quest then becomes entangled with a quest for the book whose identity is unknown yet whose possession is the motive for the murders. 

The plot of the novel is centred on the library – a library which is itself a labyrinth with many hidden secrets, the foremost being the mysterious book around which the action revolves. the library is where all knowledge is to be found – if you know how to find it – and only someone like a detective, the epistemological research par excellence with deeply penetrating observation and highly developed powers of reasoning can unlock the secrets of the library-labyrinth and thereby know the ‘truth’ (the identity of the murderer and the book).

The detective is an apt metaphor for the modernist social researcher. (S)he seeks the one and only truth as some sort of quest – a missing piece 0f a puzzle that – once found – makes the picture whole; she is unable to rest until it is found. 

In the Name of the Rose, the epistemological hero, Baskerville – fails in his quest. He discovers the truth (a truth) by chance. He stumbles upon it rather then discovering it through a successive chain of logical reasoning. Indeed, there is no deep structure, no master plan, no coherent unifying plot, no discernible pattern nor grand design underlying these murders. 

The champion of empiricism solves the mystery through the  misinterpretation of the evidence and the occasional irrational leap prompted by a dream and a grammatical error.

I really enjoy Usher’s use of these stories. They convey something about the research as a process that implies much more then technique, method or methodology. In these stories the modernist epistemological question of how are we to know the world is overtaken by the postmodernist concern with ontology ‘what is the world and what is to be done it it’ p29 


Usher, R. (1997) Telling a story about research and research as story telling, Ch 3 in McKenzie, G. W., Powell, J., & Usher, R. Understanding social research: perspectives on methodology and practice (No. 16). Psychology Press.

Phenomenology explained by the muppets

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Epistemology s the study of how we know or of what the rules for knowing are. But, assuming for a moment the stance of a postmodern writer how I see (my epistemology) must precede what I see (my ontology).

How I see shapes, frames, determines and – even creates what I see (Scheurich,1997) p29 that’s why we can talk about ‘beer goggles’ or ‘rose tinted glasses’!

For the postmodern researcher – textuality, fictionality and narrativity or story-telling are all dimensions of research. This may be illustrated through the novels of Umberto Eco (Usher, 1997).

Eco’s novels provide a metaphor for the epistemological quest that drives the modernist project, a quest for knowledge of deep underlying causes, for unitary meaning and the total explanation of phenomenon.

In Foucault’s Pendulum three protagonists though their work as publishers of esoterica, become intrigued by conspiracy through writings that purport to explain history in terms of a grand plan, cleverly hidden by its authors – the epistemological quest taken to its ultimate (and irrational) end. On the assumption that the more unlikely the connection made the more convincing the plot which ensues, they set out to devise a plan of their own using random compeer-generated associations. When the group committed to a conspiracy theory of history hears of the plan it proceeds to hunt them down for their hidden knowledge. the more they protest that there is no plan in reality, the more the group believe there is. They end up meeting bizarre deaths at the hands of this group for a knowledge which does not exist.

The story may offer some insight into the dis/connections between knowledge and power. It certainly questions the modernist separation. While the actual ‘plan’ is a nonsensical fiction – it is nonetheless extremely powerful in its effects in ways unplanned, unpredicted and undesired by the protagonists. Might it be that ‘knowledge’ which claims to explain the world in terms of deep structures and underlying meaning is dangerous and must be treated with caution lest it overwhelms those who create it and those who become subject to it?

Insight is more meaningful than the mastery of understanding.

McKenzie, G. W., Powell, J., & Usher, R. (1997). Understanding social research: perspectives on methodology and practice (No. 16). Psychology Press.


Dada’s Methodology: ‘explosive teeth flaring up in every direction like fire!’

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“Love” (1962) by Marisol

Martyn Hammersley is proud of his capacity to irritate and unsettle.

The rather unexpected academic spat that takes place between him and Delamont et al (2010) across successive editions of Qualitative Researcher illustrates the caustic nature of the exchanges this playful devil’s advocacy can generate.

While I don’t often agree with Hammersly (2008) I do like the insight he inspires. It is unsettling because Hammersley is an ethnographer.  Surely he appreciates that ositivism is dead. It has simply not survived the critical onslaught of post-positivist methodology and a new orthodoxy has taken hold. The qualitative researcher has won and nobody counts anything anymore.  This is a caricature, after all what is the current policy inclination for ‘what works’ in education if not positivism? And surely one of the ways of interpreting Abbott (2001) is by saying that methods associated with qualitative research can be squeezed into a quantitative methodological frame. I’m inclined to wonder whether Hammersley is really – after all – a shy positivist in qualitative clothing.

But, despite being interested in his work I am not a fan … Questioning Qualitative Inquiry – was an interesting, illuminating, unsettling and enjoyable (re)read. Not only that, in  bits it was funny. His introduction quotes a series of letters written by the American Comedian, Woody Allen. In what he calls a fantasy, Allen writes a piece entitled, ‘If impressionists had been dentists.’ This ‘fantasy’ is a series of imaginary  letters from van Gogh to his brother Theo in which he recounts his troubles as a dentist The exchange opens with this letter:

Dear Theo 
Will life never treat me decently? I am wracked by despair! My head is pounding. Mrs Sol Schwimmer is suing me because I made her bridge as I felt it and not to fit her ridiculous mouth. That’s right! I can’t work to order like a common tradesman. I decided her bridge should be enormous and billowing and wild, explosive teeth flaring up in every direction like fire! Now she is upset because it won’t fit in her mouth! She is so bourgeois and stupid, I want to smash her. I tried forcing the false plate in but it sticks out like a star burst chandelier. Still, I find it beautiful. She claims she can’t chew! What do I care whether she can chew or not! Theo, I can’t go on like this much longer! I asked Cezanne if he would share an office with me but he is old and infirm and unable to hold the instruments and they must be tied to his wrists but then he lacks accuracy and once inside a mouth, he knocks out more teeth than he saves. What to do? 


The humour of this exchange emerges from the transposition of an attitude or temperament of the artist onto a patently functional activity: dentistry.

The underlying point Hammersley is making is connected to the role, purpose and audience of educational research. He is an ethnographer (with strong empirical leanings) but contrasts a ‘scientific’ approach to research with the advocacy of ‘Dadaist’ qualitative research.

I can’t allow Hammersly to stand without challenge. I am and remain of the position that he clearly has openly acknowledged fantasies of control and limitation (of what counts as  quality in educational research). I suspect he would – by some unintentional fluke of coincidence  – restrict  entry to the academic field to the tightly bound by adherence to a set of rules in his own likeness, I am so much more interested in the wild profusion. My hunch is we are so far away from what even begins to be definitive answers as we are so far away from even defining appropriate questions or without questions points of exploration.

Latter offers an amusing take on this. Hammersly addresses the question – if the researcher were an artist, what sort of artist would she be, and Latter remains in this vein. If the researcher were a drink, what sort of drink would she be, or if not drink, then game or if not game a celebrated figure …

The researchers in this paradigm would drink.

Positivist: Scotch on the Rocks (conventional, hard liquor for hard science, hegemonic

Interpretivist: California white wine, (natural, convivial, social and interactive)

Critical Theory: Vodka (the revolutionaries drink, fiery and subversive)

Deconstructivist: Zima (defines categorisation neither wine, nor beer, nor hard liquor; trendy)


Abbott, A. (2001). Chaos of disciplines. University of Chicago Press.

Delamont, S., Atkinson, P., Smith, R., da Costa, L., Hillyard, S., & Pilgrim, A. N. (2010). Review symposium: MARTYN HAMMERSLEY, Questioning Qualitative Inquiry. Qualitative Research10(6), 749-758.

Hammersley, M. (2008). Questioning qualitative inquiry: Critical essays. Sage.