Research Methods for Information Research
7. Beyond research methods
7.4 Listening to the research evidence
Anthropologist Nigel Barley recorded a delightful story about his efforts to tease out the marriage system of a remote Indonesian tribe by talking to a young man in a village. This culminated with the man going off to check his facts and coming back with the evidence – not explanations offered by elders in the village but “his thesis on the marriage system, examined and approved at the University in Ujung Pandang. He was an anthropologist”22.
When I started doing social research I was urged to adopt the stance that whatever situation I was looking at was ‘anthropologically strange’. The essence of this approach is to avoid making the assumption that you already know what the research evidence will tell you. This can be difficult to sustain in an environment where government research funding, in particular, is increasingly viewed as providing the means to manage rather than challenge policy – often expressed by funders as a set of ‘expected outcomes’ that will provide officials with straightforward levers and mechanisms.
All this is nothing new: it is now almost two decades since officials at the then UK Government Department for Education tried to persuade our research team that we should recommend that the Department produce a set of training materials for school governors as the Government contribution to equipping them for local management of schools. The fact that this suggestion flew in the face of all our research evidence about what governor trainers actually needed (mainly the time and resources to do the job properly) didn’t seem to exercise the officials at all. Training materials would be easier to provide… We refused to change our report and so were rather surprised to be invited to do the next tranche of research in the same area a year later. Perhaps this illustrates the need for a healthy tension between researchers and policy makers and to resist the too-ready assumption that evidence-based practice is an unproblematic step onwards and upwards. What evidence and who is doing the interpretation?
Maintaining the detachment of the anthropologist is important if new insights are to be obtained but this is inherently difficult. Care is needed to avoid projecting your assumptions, interpretations and values and having them reinforced, whether you are doing this through poorly prepared questionnaires or in unexpected ways such as Nigel Barley’s encounter.
There are two main keys to avoiding prejudice (literally) in conducting research. One lies in seeking alternative interpretations of emerging findings. Inviting practitioners to challenge the proposed research programme and later to help interpret what emerges before the final report is written, are now a little more common in information research, but much more could be done to mediate the views of the ‘researcher as expert’ and ensure that applied research is relevant to the needs of practitioners.
The other key rests in becoming thoroughly familiar with your research data and allowing yourself to be guided by what the evidence is telling you. My salutary experience in this area came about a few years ago when we were doing research on the Effective school library.23 Twenty years of information research had led me to recognise a regular roller-coaster effect in the life of any research project. The work begins with an upward flow (funding in place and getting on with the job) before sinking steadily downwards as the fieldwork generates more and more research information (‘How will we ever make sense of this?’); then, as you start to write the research report, connections present themselves and elements start to fall into place, leading to another upward surge.
I had become so used to this pattern that when I sat down to synthesize our experience of observation and interviews in twelve primary and secondary schools it was really disconcerting to find that the upward surge was missing – the report was leading nowhere! I started again, but with no better results. At this point I spent a weekend with my fellow-researcher bouncing ideas around, until the horrible truth dawned – we had lost our research detachment and had allowed ourselves to accept the received wisdom of the field, as propounded by government education inspectors, school heads and teachers, schools library service managers and school librarians. The accepted view was that all schools would greatly benefit from provision of learning resource centres to support pupils/students as independent learners – what we now call the ‘Holy Grail Model’. Our research findings were telling us that all schools are different in how they go about teaching and in the extent to which they support independent student learning, especially at secondary level. If schools are so different why should the same model of library provision work everywhere?
Once we had detached ourselves sufficiently to ask this question our evidence began to make sense. We soon came up with a ‘horses for courses’ approach to school libraries which recognises that the ‘all singing, all dancing learning resource centre’ is fine for secondary schools where supporting independent learning is really taken seriously. On the other hand, this type of library provision is largely irrelevant for traditional ‘chalk and talk’ schools where the main emphasis is on teaching rather than supporting learning. Many schools fall between these two extremes (and different departments in the same school often have differing views about teaching and learning). What was really satisfying was that, when we published the research and ran workshops for school librarians to present these views, participants regularly told us that they no longer felt guilty about failing to enact the Holy Grail model in their school and, as a result, were now able to achieve more.
22. BARLEY, N. Not a hazardous sport London: Penguin 1989. ↩
23. STREATFIELD, D.R. and MARKLESS, S. Invisible learning? The contribution of school libraries to teaching and learning Library and Information Research Report 98 London: The British Library 1994. ↩