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At the boundary

I am currently reading Clandinin and Connelly’s book ‘Narrative Inquiry’. A section on the place of theory has caught my eye. I think I can see its relevance to me, but just testing it out.

The scenario Clandinin and Connelly use to introduce the topic, is a book review, where one of the authors worked with another reviewer on the task of writing a review. Clandinin suggested approaching the review from the perspective of stories of school life and linking these to themes from the book to examine how the ideas within the book might be relevant in practice. Her colleague’s approach was to establish an interpretive frame and to examine the book’s ideas in the light of this framework. This inevitably led to tension.

Clandinin and Connelly then discuss more generally the tension over the place of theory in narrative inquiry, using literature review as an example. Traditionally, doctoral theses contain a literature review chapter near the beginning of the work. This chapter is used “to structure the inquiry, identify gaps in the literature, outline principal theoretical lines of thought, and generate potential research possibilities.” In other words, the literature review provides a structure and framework for refining the research question, designing the study and analysing and interpreting the data. Clandinin and Connelly suggest that rather than privileging existing literature in this way, an alternative approach is to “weave the literature throughout the dissertation from beginning to end in an attempt to create a seamless link between the theory and the practice embodied in the enquiry.”

Reflecting on this, I am reminded of some of the discussions taking place under the #phdchat hashtag on Twitter. These discussions have drawn together a number of research students from different disciplines and institutions on different continents. While much of the discussion has been of a very practical nature, there is also discussion around methodologies, managing and analysing data, etc. One such question has been whether or not literature is data. My instinctive response to this is in the affirmative. Reading Clandinin and Connelly is making me think this through a bit – and making me look at my own approach.

Over the past two and a half years, I have read far more academic literature than at any other time in my life. What I have read has varied from some quite dense theoretical tomes to case studies and descriptive pieces. However, my research area is one that I have a familiarity with through my own experiences over several years involvement in the domain. In deciding my general research focus, I am as much, or more influenced, by what I know experientially as by what I can learn from literature, but the literature has raised questions and issues that I would not have been aware of from a purely experiential position.

Having started with a fairly general research focus, exploring the learning journeys of those responsible for supporting and caring for children and young people with a diagnosis of Aspergers or HFA, I am finding there is a theme emerging from interviews, which is also present in the literature, namely that of a metaphor of fight or struggle. From some perspectives, this struggle can be seen as part of the learning journey, and from others, learning in its various guises, can be seen as one of the roots of struggle. So rather than taking a particular framework or theoretical model from the literature and applying it to the context – and this would be a legitimate option – I am identifying an emerging issue and identifying a number of related themes from the narratives. These themes are leading me to return to the literature to examine them in more depth. Although what I am doing is emerging from the narrative, the theoretical concepts are providing a framework to attach those themes to and to explore them further, thus weaving together experience and theory.

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