‘Sometimes, even if I stand in the middle of the room – no one acknowledges me’

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While reading: Denzin, N. K. (2009). The elephant in the living room: or extending the conversation about the politics of evidence. Qualitative Research9(2), 139-160.

It is unlikely that anyone would argue that policy-making or education practice should be based on anything other than evidence. The issue is in referring to ‘evidence’ advocates of this approach tend towards a narrow belief in research evidence derived from narrowly defined notions of what does and what does not count. Typically research based on positivist methodology is preferred. I get a distinct feeling of déjà vu. Positivism and quantitative methodology are not equivalents as such,  they just overlap with remarkable consistency.

The debate about quantitative or qualitative method – in sociology at least – is a long standing one. In 1926 Lundenberg p61 wrote:

The case method is not in itself a scientific method at all, but merely the first step in the scientific method … the statistical method is the best, if not the only scien- tific method …the only possible question … is whether classification of, and gener- alizations from the data should be carried out by random, qualitative, and subjective method … or through the systematic, quantitative and objective proce- dures of the statistical method.

Some years and several conversation later, Becker argued,

life history, when properly conceived and employed can become one of the sociologist’s most powerful observational and analytic tools. (Becker, 1966: xviii)

Denzin’s narrative weaves these together more meaningfully. In 2014,  the conversation continues. In response to the current popular debate around Randomised Controlled Trials in education, Dylan Wiliam points out

[…] it is worth noting that RCTs were not required to establish that smoking causes cancer. If we truly wanted “gold standard” evidence that smoking causes cancer, we would have to solicit volunteers for an experiment, divide them into two groups at random, prevent one group from smoking, and ensure that all the members of the other group smoked a certain number of cigarettes per day for a significant length of time (say around 20 years) and then compare the prevalence of cancer in the two groups. Needless to say, this was not the approach adopted. Instead, researchers looked for a way of establishing a causal relationship without an RCT (Hill, 1965).

Denzin’s narrative – interrupted by Dylan William, weaves these quotes together more meaningfully. And then, along comes the elephant:

Consider the parable of the blind men and the elephant.  Lillian Quigley (1996):

In my children’s book, The Blind Men and the Elephant (1959) I retell the ancient fable of six blind men who visit the palace of the Rajah and encounter an elephant for the first time. Each touches the elephant, and announces his discovery. The first blind person touches the side of the elephant and reports that it feels like a wall. The sec- ond touches the trunk and says an elephant is like a snake. The third man touches the tusk and says an elephant is like a spear. The fourth person touches a leg and says it feels like a tree. The fifth man touches an ear and says it must be a fan, while the sixth man touches the tail and says how thin, an elephant is like a rope.

There are multiple versions of the elephant in this parable. Multiple lessons. We can never know the true nature of things. We are each blinded by our own perspective. Truth is always partial.

To summarize:

Truth One: The elephant is not one thing. If we call SBR* the elephant, then according to the parable, we can each know only our version of SBR. For SBR advocates, the ele- phant is two things, an all-knowing being who speaks to us, and a way of knowing that produces truths about life. How can a thing be two things at the same time?

Truth Two: For skeptics, we are like the blind persons in the parable. We only see par- tial truths. There is no God’s view of the totality, no uniform way of knowing.

Truth Three: Our methodological and moral biases have so seriously blinded us that we can never understand another blind person’s position. Even if the elephant called SBR speaks, our biases may prohibit us for hearing what she says. In turn, her biases prevent her from hearing what we say.

Truth Four: If we are all blind, if there is no God, and if there are multiple versions of the elephant then we are all fumbling around in the world just doing the best we can.

*Scientifically based research (SBR), or evidence-based movement (EBM)

My take on this is entirely personal. Given that I frequently refer to my preferred style of data analysis as akin to an ‘analytical daydream’, I can see little to gain from qualitative researchers even trying on the methodological straight jacket implied by SBR. More importantly, it misses the question. Teaching is not a technical process of pedagogic intervention leading to predefined learning outcome. Likewise, at what point has any policy maker anywhere ever been interested in what actually works. Policy is politics. Evidence is also politics.

Denzin’s paper aptly illustrates the extent to which all the reservations levelled at qualitative research are evident in qualitative approaches.  It is only when truths are settled and accepted by all that flux, change, contestation and controversy subsides.

In the meantime, the question that needs to be answered is not what works in education, but what matters?