On Being a Self-reflexive Researcher

I’ve had one of those days. One of those days where if something can go wrong, it’ll go wrong.

Some people are born self-reflexive, some people learn self-reflexivity, and some have self-reflexivity thrust upon them. I’m not sure where I sit in that, though today I’ve certainly had it thrust upon me. This post, then, is my reflections on the messy world of social research and in the spirit of self-reflexivity I intend to write this in a stream-of-consciousness style. You have been warned.

As regular readers will know, and as you may have guessed from the blog title, I was trained in politics and IR, with some sociology as well. I place myself on the non-positivist side of things, and I am keen to get out of the ivory tower when I can. The current project I’m working on involves poverty research. It’s something I’m intensely interested in, but when it is combined with qualitative fieldwork, it certainly gets you out of your ivory tower.

With the interviews that go well, you get some fantastic material and you meet some of the most inspirational, strong people you could hope to meet. The research I’m working on deals with how people, usually those who have experienced a crisis of some sort, make ends meet. I am amazed at how some of the people I’ve talked to are still going; I fear I would have crumbled if I was in their situation. As interesting are the less successful interviews.

Today two meetings fell through. One because a participant had decided during the process that they might not want to participate further. A second because there had been a mix-up with the times, so that when I was scheduled to meet person x, person was on their way to meet me. Of course in social research these things happen. But when things go wrong you can’t help but think about yourself, your role as a researcher, and of course your position of influence.

Doing research with elites and experts is one thing – in many ways the participant has the power. When dealing with vulnerable people however you are the person with the power. And it only takes one misinterpretation on either party’s part for issues of power relations to rear their heads. There is a massive leap of faith for people on low incomes, or who are reliant on state support, to take part in the research of middle-class, comfortably well-off academics (yes, even early career researchers – in fact, I think that even academics on zero-hour contracts are much better off than the people involved in poverty research) who are entering a world they do not have to experience on a day-to-day basis (of course, many academics will have endured various forms of hardship themselves, but an academic job is not a badly paying one, even if we don’t feel we are paid enough!).

Imagine someone who finds it hard to make ends meet getting the bus, and spending precious money. When the cost of bus fare is significant, there must be a reason for taking part. Of course it may be the incentive (we give vouchers). But so far with the people we have interviewed, many have taken part because they want to tell their stories, or they want to contribute to changing the system. I suspect no-one is taking part because they want to contribute to the furthering of the boundaries of knowledge.

And this is something else I find myself thinking about. Those who want to help change things; is taking part in social research the best use of their time? Don’t get me wrong, I am of course deeply appreciative that they think it is worth their time to talk to me. But even policy relevant research doesn’t always affect/effect policy change. And again it makes me think about my career. I love being an academic. But the reason I studied politics/IR/sociology is because of my interest in and passion for understanding and trying to alleviate somehow social problems. The reason I carried it on as a career is because I thought I could get the best of both worlds. Effect some change, whilst indulging in scholarly pursuits. I couldn’t be a social worker for example because I think I’m too empathetic. I’d get too involved too many times and burn out far too quickly. This way I can have some distance when I need it.

But of course this leads you to undertaking research with a (necessary) sense of detachment. You can’t get too close, and because of this you can’t fully understand someone’s life and hardships. Of course, however, if you get too close you can’t analyse the situation. So, as an academic who wants to be an activist in some form, you have to deal with quite a large catch-22. I’m not sure you can be both simultaneously.

I love academia, and I love social research. But sometimes you are reminded that social research is not the cold, clinical world research in general is predicated upon. In fact, you have to be reflexive and indeed reactive to survive. You also need to learn from your experiences, but the world is such that it is unlikely that the same thing won’t happen again and again.

[if you remotely enjoyed this article, you might enjoy the likely better written post on being a reflexive teacher]

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