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Identity memo 1

A colleague on #phdchat has drawn my attention to a chapter in Maxwell (2005) on conceptual frameworks. I found this an interesting, informative and challenging read, particularly enjoying the use of diagramming techniques to understand the theoretical and conceptual underpinnings of a research project. This reflected some of my experience in refining my ideas and I will return to using mapping in the near future. As interesting, and in some ways more challenging, was the recognition of personal experience being an important part of a conceptual framework. Maxwell cites a number of writers including Reason (1989) and C. Wright Mills (1959) to support the view that life experience is valid. Reason’s introduction of the term “critical subjectivity” lends weight to the view that it is possible to be both subjective and objective.

Amongst the many suggestions made in the chapter is one of writing a note, or identity memo, reflecting on the development of ones own interest in the research topic, or aspects of the research topic. This seemed a helpful notion to me as a couple of aspects of my research are tapping areas which I have had a long term interest in. This posting reflects on the first of these, the whole area of what I have referred to as ‘ownership’ but which in academic speak seems to be ‘agency’ – but it may be that ownership is just a facet of agency – let’s see.

I am not sure whether my thinking about ‘ownership’ belongs initially to undergraduate days or first employment. My first degree was a combination of academic and professional education, leading to a degree in Applied Social Studies and a Certificate of Qualification in Social Work. There was a strong emphasis on psychodynamic psychology, which I realise now was focusing on ‘deficits’ in people with problems, rather than their strengths. I reacted quite strongly to this approach, being unable to reconcile it with the real world people were living and struggling in. Perhaps fortunately, one of my placements was more concerned with societal change than with changing individuals, and when I graduated, it was perhaps inevitable that I gravitated towards community development. It seemed to me that the basic tenets of community development – not doing things for people, but working together to achieve change – made more sense and also fitted better with my personal faith position as a Christian.

Through a series of community work posts, I became more increasingly convinced that it was important for people to both own their problems (wherever they came from) and also to own the means of tackling those problems and resolving them. I was influenced by the disability movement and the insistence that disabled people were not to be pitied but were perfectly able and capable of doing more or less anything given appropriate resources and removal of the attitudinal and physical barriers which restricted them. As a social services team leader in the early 1980s, I insisted on holding meetings bringing together people, who were our clients only because of age or impairment, and the service providers, from my own organisation and others, to agree together on appropriate ‘care packages’ – if somebody wanted to use the 3 hours a week home care service we could offer to get their house cleaned rather than their shopping done, that was their decision and right and we did not have the right to tell them what they needed. I did not see why professionals should make decisions for adults who were capable of making their own decisions if given the opportunity to do so.

Moving on, I held senior positions in 2 voluntary organisations. In one of those, the primary focus was on negotiating a contract for the provision of services – a notion which has become normal, but was then being trialled by a few local authorities with a few voluntary organisations. My concern was that this would lead to a commercialisation of the voluntary sector, removing some of its scope for innovation and challenge of the state, but also an awareness that underpinning the transfer of services from the state to the voluntary sector was an economic imperative to save money and I was not prepared to engage in fund-raising in order to do the work of the statutory sector. In the second organisation, the situation was more complex. It was a pan-London, church-based organisation with a network of projects throughout London. Funding was a mixture of local authority grants, money given by churches and a diocesan grant. Over the years, the projects had become more professional and local church groups were questioning why they should fund these activities, especially when they were unable to gain much information about what was being done in their name because of client confidentiality. Although the work was of high quality, it was removed from the churches with the unintended consequence that local churches neither owned the work nor felt any obligation to engage in social action themselves as they were already funding the projects to do this on their behalf. My view was that it was essential to return ‘ownership’ to the local churches and to enable them to identify what was appropriate social action in their areas, if necessary reconfiguring the professional projects. It was a very difficult time as it felt as though I was dismantling rather than building.

Time moved on. I became a mother and spent a few years living abroad. When I returned to the UK, I knew I could not realistically return to my previous career. I retrained, gained new interests, and developed an interest in educational technology. But my personal life was taking me in a different direction as it became clear my son had SEN. I was able to use my knowledge and skills to gain an understanding of the system and to ensure my son got the help and support necessary for him to achieve his potential – I owned the problem and exercised my agency. I knew other parents were not necessarily able to do this – they were effectively disabled – and became involved in voluntary initiatives to enable other parents to act.

I am not anti-professional – I have been involved in professional employment of one sort or another most of my adult life. I am against professionals disabling others when they could be informing and enabling people to take control of their own lives and own their problems and difficulties so as to engage in action to become the people they want to be. I still remember the amazement expressed by a social worker on a holiday project when she saw ‘inadequate parents’ organising activities and taking responsibility for large groups of children. By focusing on the positives, the difficulties can be overcome, albeit with struggle.

So my perspectives on ownership/agency are a mixture of personal belief, gut feeling, work experience, observation…

Maxwell, J. A. 2005. Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach, Sage Publications, Inc.

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