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.






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.

freedom, ontology, ethics

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I am rather struck by this quote at the moment; it is like having the refrain of a popular song buzzing around my brain. One that I am unable to stop thinking about.  it has a poetic symmetrical and a simplistic lyricism. I am still trying to work through what the second half means. Is ethics really the considered form that freedom takes?  There is a sometimes forgotten phrase that completes the sentence:  “…. when it is informed by reflection”

(Foucault, 1997b, p. 284).

On reading. Slowly.

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I would probably read much more quickly if I made less detailed notes or if I didn’t have this constant desire to stop every few minutes and after making a cup of coffee write in my DayOne Journal or blog. But having been reminded of Ball’s (2006) paper, The necessity and violence of theory – I couldn’t not re-wind and re-read it. I’m glad I did. Ball offers a personal account of how and why he has developed his interest in the work of Foucault (like Foucault Stephen Ball is not a Foucauldian) and Bourdieu. He also offers a run down of how and why Bourdieu’s writing on class is so important to educational researchers.

If there is a binary that seems to permeate education discourse it is this division between theory and practice. As educational researchers we are – supposedly at least – locked into practice rather then theory. What is education after all if not a practice driven enterprise. I think this is an important and revealing strain in educational discourse – one that frequently reveals itself. To describe oneself as a ‘theorist’ is an attempt to assume an elevated position above the murky grimy handed ‘practice’ of education (how else can I interpret it in the light of Bourdieu’s notion that all our social interactions are driven by a thinly disguised lust for power and ascendancy).

And yet, as Ball (2006) has reminded me this morning:

Bourdieu sought to work between binaries rather than be constrained to make false choices between poles—his social model is articulated between objectivism (construction of a discourse within which to converse with other sociologist about the object) and subjectivism, his epistemology is enacted between scientism and theoreticism, which implies that one can grasp reality without “touching it” (Karalayali, 2004, p. 365).

More importantly – as Ball’s paper so strongly illustrates – it’s impossible to understand the world from within one or the other lens alone. To be locked into theory (madness) or locked into practice (foolishness) is to touch reality without grasping it. Or else to grasp something other than reality.

In a week where the right wing press likes to inform us that we no longer need the Labour Party – Stephen Ball’s discussion of recent developments in class theory and more specifically Bourdieu’s writings on class and their relevance for educational researchers is a welcome necessity.


Writing from the margins – a few left over thoughts from (not quite a) week end 2 #HullEdD

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The quote below is from something a read a while ago. It is the opening sentence of a paragraph, that has been floating around n my head for months. I have never quite found a moment to refer to it.

‘The idea of objects having a social life is a conceit I (Appadurai) coined in 1986 in a collection of essays titled The Social Life of Things. Since then, I (Appadurai) has have continued to be engaged with the idea that persons and things are not radically distinct categories, and that the transactions that surround things are invested with the properties of social relations. Thus, today’s gift is tomorrow’s commodity. Yesterday’s commodity is tomorrow’s found art object. Today’s art object is tomorrow’s junk. And yesterday’s junk is tomorrow’s heirloom.’

Appadurai, A. (2006). The thing itself. Public Culture18 (1), 15. 

There are some things you read that for some reason capture your imagination. Perhaps they are well phrased or present an unexpected line of argument.  I have not read very much of Appandurai’s work but I liked this idea of ‘things’ having a social life – dependent on the social transactions they are caught up in. I like the idea of the social life of which they are part having the capacity to transform them.

I connect this to the idea of written notes scribbled in the margins of what you are reading. These tiny little thought pieces – or perhaps conversations between you and the writer of a text – can be transformed into a paragraph and illustrated. They are of enormous value. Not only do they plot the development of your ideas from doctoral candidate to post-doctoral researcher – they represent your personal engagement with a text. They may well be junk (if treated as such), but junk if carefully collated might well of more value then you realise. More importantly, they have a name.