Relationship between doctoral research and professional life
Criticisms of research in education especially are legion, most particularly that as research is frequently undertaken by researchers and not by practitioners, it does not address real concerns nor does it facilitate the construction of an evidence base on which practice can develop (Hargreaves, 2007). Yet when practitioners do undertake research they must, despite starting from a position of knowledge and insight into what is important, take extra care to rebut attacks for not being sufficiently distant and therefore critical. The relationship between the doctoral study and the professional setting raises several important issues for practitioner researchers, with the most important being the question of whether ‘insiders’ can achieve any meaningful degree of critical distance from their workplace or their colleagues. But it is the development of this critical position with respect to research and the research setting that defines doctoral-level study. Potentially this puts the insider in a place that requires the researcher to tread a fine line between the prevailing academic norms and values of the university with the norms and values of the workplace, for the researcher must be critical of the practices revealed through their study, whilst potentially continuing to engage with them. Lave (1988) argues that ‘situated learning’ is not just learning in a location but is a socio-cultural cognitive activity positioned within the context and entirely related to it. These ideas are developed through a study of different occupational practices (of tailors, quartermasters, midwives, butchers in supermarkets, and of alcoholics) conducted with Wenger. Lave and Wenger (1991) argue that ‘becoming a’ requires a transformation of all the individuals involved, with mastery not located in particular individual experts but in the organisation of the occupational practice. Wenger (1998) then argues that a community of practice develops internal coherence according to the people engaging in it. Learners need access to the community of practice and this means learning the ‘technology’ of the practice to connect with the history of the practice and to participate in its culture. Within these communities there
is a rapid flow of information and implied knowledge of what other members know. Scott et al. (2004) suggest that insiders are located within a shared way of looking at the world, and professionally this world would be the world of practice. Professional doctoral researchers are negotiating learning in at least two communities of practice. These are the professional setting that the research sets out to illuminate and the higher education setting in which academic practice must be demonstrated. These researchers must successfully position themselves in a watershed that brings both of these sets of practices together, whilst recognising that the communities of practice themselves do not remain fixed and that part of this ‘unfixing’ is connected to the nature of new knowledge, the arrival of practitioners with new ways of working and the adaptations of practice that take place in accommodating these. It is therefore not difficult to envisage that a professional doctorate researcher searching for an appropriate position may encounter various challenges. ‘Becoming’ is entirely related to where the researcher decides to position themselves. Insider researchers often choose their project as a result of several years of experience of working with the issues. The doctoral process moves researchers from real-world observations into designing research and developing theoretical concepts to frame them. Insiders often have assumptions and ideas about what they expect to find out, and on the basis of experience as a practitioner, they may also have a theoretical stance before beginning their doctoral project. Research in the workplace is likely to be small scale involving few people. This closeness may seem to compromise the researcher’s ability to critically engage with information, and so they need to devise means of stimulating reflexivity whenever possible, as an important aspect of ‘self-triangulation’ of their interpretations of their data. Explicitly locating oneself and one’s ideas in the research project and exploring what that means for the project is an approach that leads to reflexivity. In this chapter we explore the complexities of practitioner research, suggesting that fluidity of position is the inevitable trade-off that comes from researching things in situations that one already knows quite a lot about. Being able to take existing knowledge and build theory through research design and analytical explanation characterises successful doctoral practice. The ways that power is distributed throughout professional settings affects both the need to do a doctoral degree, and the approaches that doctoral researchers take with respect to it. Professionals undertaking research are inextricably intertwined with their colleagues in ways that are germane to their thinking about the research project. First, colleagues on whom students are dependent for data have different and
unknown personal motivations with respect to ultimately similar institutional performance ends. Second, position as a researcher is entwined with other positions in relation to people at work: maybe manager, teacher, friend and assessor. Last, as the stimulus for the research emerges from questions arising at work, it is difficult to think of ways to consider these questions without explicitly addressing the fact that there is a relationship of sorts between all the individuals connected with the issues under investigation. One way of conceptualising research enquiry is by ‘making the familiar strange’ (Goodson, 1992). Doing so immediately places the practitioner researcher at a distance from the cosy ‘shared understanding’ that characterises professional life. To start from the premise that insiders have a shared way of looking at the world is not to understand the micro-politics of any organisation. So we offer an analysis of the way power, as conceptualised by Foucault (1977, and explained in Gutting, 1994), operates in the professional and academic setting and suggest that research activity in these settings is an instrument of power. This leads to consideration of insider-outsiderness, and what it means to inhabit the hyphen. Finally in the chapter, we apply these ideas to relationships with colleagues and what it means to become a practitioner researcher.