Research Methods for Information Research

8. Some methodological matters

8.2 Illuminative evaluation

There are other possibilities offered by the kind of thinking that led to ‘grounded theory’. When pursuing our national research project on the contribution of school libraries to teaching and learning, for instance, we were faced with particular issues of educational evaluation50. This led us to adopt the approach advanced by Malcolm Parlett and various collaborators under the rubric of ‘illuminative evaluation’51. They rejected what they characterised as the approach of the traditional evaluator (relying on quantitative methods to test the extent to which pre-set objectives were being met). Instead they offered a flexible methodology that capitalizes on available resources and opportunities and draws upon different techniques, in order to:

“study the innovative programme: how it operates; how it is influenced by the various situations in which it is applied; what those directly concerned regard as its advantages and disadvantages; and how students’ intellectual tasks and academic experiences are most affected. [Illuminative evaluation] attempts to discover and document what it is like to be participating in the scheme, whether as teacher or pupil; and … to discern and discuss the innovation’s most significant features, recurring concomitants and critical processes. In short, it seeks to address and to illuminate a complex array of questions.”

In putting forward this approach, Parlett and his colleague Hamilton52 stress that no research methods are immune from prejudice, experimenter bias and human error. They favour cross-checking in data collection methods (‘triangulation’ in social science research jargon) because all evidence-collection methods have inherent weaknesses which may distort the results. In terms of reporting the evidence and conclusions, they offer the concept of ‘recognition of authority’ as more helpful than ‘objectivity’ and ‘generalizability’ in weighing up evidence (this is close to the notion of ‘resonance’ which I use as shorthand for ‘recognition by practitioners of what is being described in a research report about a setting in which they work’).

Many library and information researchers insist that their research approaches are borrowed from, or built upon, social science research. If this is so, do we have something to learn from how social science researchers view their own work and its fundamental problems?

50. STREATFIELD, D.R. and MARKLESS, S. (1994) Invisible learning? The contribution of school libraries to teaching and learning Library and Information Research Report 98 London: The British Library Research and Development Department ISBN 0 7123 3283 9

51. PARLETT, M. and DEARDEN, G. (eds.) (1977) Introduction to illuminative evaluation: studies in higher education Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, USA: Pacific Soundings Press and Guildford, UK: Society for Research into Higher Education.

52. PARLETT, M. and HAMILTON, D. (1972) ‘Evaluation as illumination: a new approach to the study of innovatory programmes’; republished in PARLETT, M. and DEARDEN, G. (eds.) (1977) q.v.
http://www.anrecs.msu.edu/research/gradpr96.htm