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Research Methods

  1. Introduction

  2. Participant Observation and Field Notes

  3. Narrative Construction and Analysis: Web-based, Radio, Creative Arts and Interviews



Bazanger and Dodier (2004: 10).  stress the open-endedness of ethnographical research. The researcher is flexible and responsive to new evidence and lines of enquiry, rather than following a rigid pre-arranged schedule and research plan.  My approach to data collection is consistent with the bricolage approach discussed earlier.  It includes the use of multiperspectival research methods. As Kincheloe (2001:682) says, using multiple frameworks and methodologies, researchers are empowered to produce more rigorous and praxiological insights into socio-political and educational phenomena.  The data collection methods used in this research are flexible depending on the context of a given situation.  They include participant observation and narrative analysis of online discussion forums, student assignments, digital storytelling, digital archiving, radio, interviews and the creative arts.


Participant Observation and Field Notes

Van Maanen (1973: 408) describes participant observation as a method of qualitative research, which is appropriate for gathering data on interactions and relationships through the recording of behaviour, conversation, and experience in situ.  The aim of participant observation is to produce a ‘thick description’ of social interaction within natural settings.  Hopefully, in the process a more adequate picture emerges of the setting as a social system described from a number of participants’ perspectives (Geertz, 1973; Burgess, 1984, quoted in Smith 1997:1). The ethnographer is seeking to find meaning in the encounters and situations.  In the postmodernist approach researchers also influence and affect the research setting and are very much a part of it (Angrosino, 2005: 230).  The researcher is part of the production of knowledge.  It is this co-production of knowledge which forms one of the core aspects of discovery in this research.  The details of the research approach and the positionality of the researcher are often modified as the research proceeds. If the researcher starts the investigation with a specific hypothesis s/he may impart misconceptions into the setting. The participant’s view cannot be known until the investigation begins Robson (2015: 323).

Where possible the proceedings of all courses, events and workshops were recorded, notes taken and saved in Nvivo[1]. Those involving the eight key participants were also transcribed.  The recordings provide data about what transpired but there is a certain amount of selectivity in the field notes (Atkinson et al., 1992: 355).  The field notes are about what I consider to be relevant or might be relevant to the questions I want to answer.  I noted for instance evidence of power differences in different settings, including between myself and other participants. I endeavoured to be aware of how I addressed this and how it influenced the data gathered.  I was careful too to record the broader socio-political and cultural contexts and societal power structures in which the learning was taking place (TESOL, 2012: 1).  The field notes also include a wider set of factors such as notes on facial expression, tone of voice, spatial and environmental considerations.  They include my own actions, questions and reflections and notes which link my observations to the theoretical frameworks in this thesis.    Recording one’s personal feelings in field notes has been contested (Emerson, et al., 1995: 6) but critical ethnography is inclusive of personal accounts, reactions, reflections and anxieties (ibid).  Ethnographical research is not just about those being studied, but about those who are doing the studying.  In this research, both I and the participants are co-constructing knowledge, experience and ways of participating.  Therefore, field notes which record my own reflections and experiences are not just valid, but are part of the research findings.


Narrative Construction and Analysis: Web-based, Radio, Creative Arts and Interviews

Narrative in essence is the stories of our lives and the stories of the lives of others.  Narrative analysis refers to a family of methods for interpreting texts that have in common a storied form (Riessman, 2008: 11).  With a vast range of methodologies available for our collaborative research, it soon became evident that constructing and analysing stories would be a key method for gathering data.  Gottschall (2013: title) contends that as “storytelling animals” we use stories to help us to navigate life’s complex social problems (ibid:198). When presented with tools and opportunity to use web-based technologies, the creative arts and radio, storytelling with a political purpose emerged strongly as a way of grappling with development education.  The interviews and student assignments also provided rich narrative landscapes.  However, it is in the storytelling that we can really feel “the ethnographic imagination” (Willis, 2000: title).  Moreover, we find, as Riessman says “the narrative impulse is universal” (2008: 21) and transcends factors such as gender, age and culture. The narrative develops through collaboration between researcher and respondent or storyteller and listener.  It allows access to the respondent reality via their socially constructed stories.

Some of the stories are told through the use of web-based technologies, including digital storytelling, digital archiving, blogging, websites and online discussion fora.  Digital storytelling (DST) at its most basic core is the practice of using computer-based tools to tell stories. DST is “…an incredibly powerful way to foster creativity, engage community, transform perspectives, and support students and teachers in reflecting on their lives and learning process”.  (StoryCenter, 2017: 1).  Digital stories are 3–5 min visual narratives that synthesize images, video, audio recordings of voice and music, and text to create compelling stories (Gubrium, 2009: 186).  As I deepened my reading, I came to feel most comfortable with the term “Transformative storytelling for social change”, since this was the ultimate vision for the work (Transformative storytelling for Social Change, 2019). As an emergent technological method in social research, digital storytelling adds to the picture of inquiry.  As a community-based participatory research (CBPR) method, it may be used “to investigate individual, group sociocultural understandings… while also increasing community members’ participation and input on studies of … community concerns” Gubrium (2009: 470).  In some cases the digital stories are enhanced further by the creation of a digital archive[2] or a website.  Individual stories join with other stories, histories, policy and activist messages.  There are other rich sources of web-based narrative too.  An online student discussion forum took place as part of an intercultural exchange and offers an opportunity for deeper analysis of participant expectations, understanding of the core concepts, learning needs and experience of the project as a whole.  It is a space for planning, implementation and evaluation of the work of the project.  Student assignments are also used with the online group and questions asked in the assignments allow for reflection on understandings and learnings.

One of the collaborative projects introduced students to the core concepts of DE using the creative arts.  Student teachers worked in their second level classrooms on DE themes and displayed their artefacts at an exhibition called ‘A Journey through Development Education’, at the Glucksman Art Gallery, UCC.  I introduced one case study student to a Yazidis family, living in a refugee camp in Iraq and her second level students developed their project around the story of this family and the genocide of the Yazidis people.  Making a replica of the family’s tent, students could physically experience what it was like for ten people to live in this small space.  Meeting them on facebook they could see photographs of conditions in the camp and hear their real-life story.  This led to a broader discussion about the Yazidis people in Iraq and about refugees and displaced people globally and locally in Ireland.  The students also used radio to tell of their learning story.  I met and interviewed them and their teacher in their classroom for a radio programme about the Yazidis people.

For ethical reasons and in order to understand the needs and experiences of participants there were a number of points in the research where I interviewed participants on a one to one basis.  For the online participants I use skype to interview both individuals and as a focus group at the end. All the interviews were synchronous and each participant was given access to a computer at a mutually beneficial time in a private room at the Action Lesotho offices. With local community partners I used face-to-face semi-structured interviews to understand the expectations, from the research workshops, of the minority ethnic group in year one. I also interviewed students and community partners who participated in the digital story-telling workshop in year 2, in order to understand more fully their experience of the workshop.  These interviews form part of the construction of narrative.

Finally, because of my involvement with a community radio, I have access to a radio station where I present a monthly programme called the Global Hub which focuses on development and human rights issues at home and abroad.  Most of the participant collaborative projects in this research participated in a radio show in some way.  In some cases the project was given a full hour of airtime.  Students and community partners were involved in choosing content and speakers, drawing up the schedule, learning about interview technique for radio, researching and presenting.  This was another rich source of narrative analysis.

The narrative analysis in this work explores and seeks meaning in the words, audio and visual components of these stories.  I also see the process of making the stories and the consequent relationships formed between participants, as part of the stories told.  Both the process and the product are important.  As Riessman says (ibid: 11), “narrative analysts interrogate intention and language – how and why incidents are storied, not simply the content”. Like all aspects of this research project, it also takes the broader societal context into account.

[1] Nvivo is a qualitative data analysis (QDA) computer software package produced by QSR International. It has been designed for qualitative researchers working with very rich text-based and/or multimedia information.

[2] A digital archive is a repository that stores one or more collections of digital information with the intention of providing long-term access to the information. An example in this project is