Age old debates and the perils of endless reflexivity

DSCN0930(Photo taken at the Ashmolean Museum)

Nothing like an assigned reading about the use of blogs in research (Wakeford & Cohen, 2008) to convince me that blogging is a worthwhile pursuit and not just semi-productive procrastination.

The authors reminded me that blogging is supposed to be ‘of the moment’ and so I’ll share with you what’s on my mind right now. It’s not any breaking news, since as a grad student I have no time to be on the cutting edge of anything (I’m holding out for cyborg-like newsfeeds that run in your sleep), especially due to a December-long affliction of traditional study panic dating back to the 1800s. Instead, today I am throwing textbooks around about what I perceive to be lasting conflicts within the social sciences: the value of quantitative versus qualitative research, the importance of subjectivity, and ways of developing methodological rigor. All of which are extremely important but seem to have the capacity to place giant roadblocks in the path of research.

I get it, not all questions can be solved and not all methodological battles can be settled, but at some point we, as researchers, owe it to society to get over our disagreements and produce research that matters. It seems that for decades the quantitative adherents have relentlessly badgered qualitative researchers about producing ‘real’ research until qualitative research had no choice but to become primarily about proving its worth. As a result, every paper or book spends a great deal of time unpacking the epistemology, ontology and reflexive role of the researcher, which is not what I’m complaining about – it’s definitely important! It is undoubtedly true that every social researcher approaches people from his or her subjective standpoint, situated within certain political crossroads of gender, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, etc. It’s also important to recognize how the study of people is different from the study of plants, animals, constellations, kittens, etc., because as people we ascribe meaning to our actions in ways that are not always observable or testable in relation to some scientific law.

In fact, it would be abhorrent to come across a published paper that does not admit these things. That being said, I can’t remember the last time I read a quantitative paper that dedicated even a paragraph in the methods section to note that they were gunning at this particular problem from a positivist epistemology assuming the existence of one, ultimate truth that can be known through science. While quantitative papers sometimes give a nod to researcher bias (often in footnotes admitting to funding partners with certain interests), there is little reflection on why certain statistical tests were run while others were omitted or why some survey questions might have caused biased responses because they reinforced a power imbalance between researcher and participant. Overall, there is very little imperative for quantitative researchers to reflexively examine every step of their research. This is certainly not right, but while qualitative researchers are filling their papers to the brim with reflexivity, they can come across as apologetically trivializing the outcomes of their research as quantitative scholars forge ahead mainly on the power of numbers alone.

Alright, I might be painting a bit of an extreme picture so I’ll bring it back to the level of my research. On this snowy day when deadlines hurtle closer despite my urge to hibernate, I want nothing more than to complete the methodology section for my thesis. As I will be collecting a myriad of data but focusing on interviews, I view my project as mainly qualitative. I’ve spent time reflecting on the way I will inevitably be the filter through which my research participants’ messages will pass in order to be analysed. So, even though we’ll be talking about ‘real’ things (like Facebook) in the ‘real world’ (the Internets), these accounts pass through our subjective understanding of such things. For me, it then makes sense to approach this research from a ‘critical realist‘ standpoint. I’m also looking at a lot of background literature about interactionism, and so I know a sort of constructivism (acknowledging that people create ‘social facts’, such as norms and social practices) will be important. From there I started looking at whether what I’m doing is inductive or deductive and although I’ve grounded my questions in the literature, it’s pretty inductive in gathering perspectives and developing concepts that haven’t been examined before. And so, as the roadmap goes (see Figure 1.1. “Shoddy MS Paint Methodology Roadmap”), I think I can apply a ‘grounded theory‘ approach in my data collection and analysis.
Take two Fig 1.1
I know at this point you’re saying, “Stef I don’t want to read your pre-thesis ramblings” – but I’m almost there with my point: as I started to look into grounded theory, I stepped on a landmine of decades of debates. I thought I would use ‘constructivist grounded theory’ because it seems to support my efforts to be reflexive about my roles as a researcher. But as I scrolled through the reams of Google Scholar results, all I could see were researchers flinging arguments back and forth. Constructivist grounded theory is too subjective and makes it all about the researcher, according to the ‘classic’ grounded theory proponents. Conversely, ‘classic’ grounded theory is too positivist for the constructivists. Both have their retorts about being ‘just right’; it makes my brain hurt. What’s supposed to happen with good, academic critique is that iron sharpens iron and, as these conversations evolve, so does a better way of doing things. Unfortunately, after a couple of hours of trying to see if the debate had any endpoint, I am still at a standstill about which toolkit I can safely apply.

So that is the point: as the cursor blinks on my dissertation paper and I imagine the examining committee asking why I chose a certain type of grounded theory approach, I really feel that reflexivity should not work us into paralysis. It is undoubtedly important: solid, honest, useful research is only borne out of our ability to trace back to the origins of claims we make and to admit the effect of our decisions in knowledge production. However, if squabbling over this task prevents actual research from being carried out, then we will never get around to actually accessing knowledge that can make a difference.

Citations and things:
Most of these thoughts came out of articles I read in Denzin & Lincoln’s (2001) Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research.
I read about classic grounded theory in Strauss & Corbin (1998) “Basics of Qualitative Research : Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory” as well as other descriptions of Glaser & Strauss’ original development of grounded theory as described by Robson (2011).
Constructivist grounded theory is discussed by Charmaz (2003)
Glaser’s (2002) response to Charmaz

One thought on “Age old debates and the perils of endless reflexivity

  1. I totally agree with you! I think it’s crazy to have such a great method and to read the arguments back and forth. Let’s just do research!!!!


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