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Values and standpoints

A few weeks back I wrote about “The narrative turn” and the different perspectives there have been, and continue to be, on narrative research. Since then I have been giving some consideration to the “paradigm wars” – basically the contentious argument between quantitative and qualitative methods – and seeing some parallels between the two. Some of the arguments made against that form of narrative research which focuses on stories and life histories are remarkably similar to those posited against qualitative methods more generally. Similarly, those who rail against these methods appear to be looking for ways of making their qualitative work more structured and science-like so as to better match the values attributed to positivism and quantitative methods. I’m enjoying reading various articles and observing the fisticuffs taking place.

However, by reading these articles, I realise increasingly that I need to identify where I position myself – and why.

Some time ago I read Howard Becker’s classic paper “Whose side are we on?” and was somewhat cheered to find a case being made for recognising that no research is truly value-free – though the values espoused may vary. More recently, I have been looking at some of Arthur Frank’s writing and I’m finding “The Standpoint of Storyteller” helpful. In this article, apart from addressing Atkinson’s criticisms, Frank distinguishes stories from narratives, considers his standpoint and what brought him to that position, and makes some useful comments on the difference between his standpoint and that of the more traditional medical sociologist.

Importantly, Frank reminds us that people do not tell narratives – they tell stories. Story telling is about relationships – stories are not spoken into a vacuum, but require listeners – and listeners respond to the story as they hear it and relate to the story teller. He goes on to speak of the recuperative value of story telling – telling the story can help a story teller to place a distance between themselves and the event or condition the story focuses on (I guess this moves into the area of construction and objectifying reality…). Stories are more than data – too much focus on narrative and analysis can lose the relational context of the story telling. The researcher who is privileged to hear stories is also ethically and intellectually obliged to recognise and enter into relationship with the story and the storyteller.

In identifying his standpoint, Frank turns to his own story and his life and academic experiences. He arrives at a place which is about change – his position is not about describing the experiences of people who are sick but about making changes so that sickness can be experienced differently (I hope I am summarising him correctly there!). He says “To take a standpoint means to privilege certain aspects of what your biography shares with others.” There is nothing value-free here!

Frank goes on to differentiate the “ill person” and the “patient” – a “patient” is an “ill person” but an “ill person” is not a “patient” much of the time. Frank’s focus is on the “ill person” rather than the “patient”. Whereas Atkinson is a medical sociologist who views the doctor patient relationship, Frank focuses on the person. For Atkinson, the transaction between doctor and patient is important, but for Frank it is largely irrelevant. Similarly, outcomes are different – Atkinson is asking what can be learned to benefit the medical encounter and Frank is asking how the world looks from the perspective of an ill person.

This is relevant to me as I look at the participants in the autistic domain. How do I view the parents and children? Who am I speaking to? Am I relating stories or giving people a voice? What are the values underpinning my research and where do I stand?

Becker, H. S. (1967). Whose Side Are We On? Social Problems, 14(3), 239-247.
Frank, A. W. (2000). The Standpoint of Storyteller. Qualitative Health Research, 10(3), 354-365.

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