Research Methods for Information Research

8. Some methodological matters

8.3 Socially constructed research methods

It is by now commonplace to recognise that ‘reality’ as envisaged when thinking about users of services, the services they use and how they use them is socially constructed and specific to particular situations. For this reason, researchers spend much time in trying to understand how people use information in their life and work, on the (largely untested) assumption that it is better to design services to fit the behaviour of people than to expect people to change their behaviour radically to fit system requirements. Of course, the idea of the social construction of reality as expounded by Berger and Luckman53 goes deeper into questioning how and to what extent people who operate in different milieu can really communicate with each other. At this point, consideration of research methods moves from an instrumental question to one about ways of getting sufficient depth and understanding to at least form provisional impressions of people’s life worlds and where, for example, providing e-books and journals might begin to figure in them.

There is, however, a further dimension to be considered. What of the research methods themselves? Are these instruments to be wielded neutrally by researchers who are striving to be objective or at least to treat their research subjects as ‘anthropologically strange’? Not according to the adherents of the bricolage. The concept of bricoleur was borrowed from anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss by Denzil and Lincoln for an influential chapter in the second edition of the Handbook of qualitative research.54 Levi-Strauss55 saw the researcher as a ‘Jack of all Trades, a kind of professional do-it-yourself’. Denzil and Lincoln refined their earlier view in the third edition of the Handbook56 by claiming that:

“The many methodological practices of qualitative research may be viewed as soft science, journalism, ethnography, bricolage, quilt making or montage. The researcher, in turn, may be seen as a bricoleur, as a maker of quilts, or, as in film making, a person who assembles images into montages.” (Denzil and Lincoln, p.4)

In effect, the supporters of the notion of bricolage are extending the notion of social constructivism to the researchers as well as their ‘subjects’. Joe Kincheloe and various collaborators57 go the logical step further and explicitly extend the idea to the methods used by researchers (and managers when performing in a research or evaluation role). To add my own interpretation, once we move beyond the central idea that social science research is based on observing, asking questions and making inferences from the apparent products of human activities, we cannot hide behind particular techniques or methods as inherently better, more scientific or more accurate than each other. In the words of Kincheloe and McLaren58:

“The bricolage views research methods actively rather than passively, meaning that we actively construct our research methods from the tools at hand rather than passively receiving the ‘correct’, universally applicable methodologies.”

This is because:

“Researchers’ interactions with the objects of their enquiries … are always complicated, mercurial, unpredictable, and, of course, complex. Such conditions negate the practice of planning research strategies in advance.”(Kincheloe and McLaren, p. 317)

Where does this leave the information researcher in the early 21st century? The two key precepts for everyday practice (whatever that means) are that:

  • we should never lose sight of our complex roles of actors within the research environments that we inhabit. This should lead us to question our research motives, values, methods and ‘evidence’ at every turn
  • we are never likely to fully understand any research or practice setting in which we work. Much of our work will never move beyond the snapshot and even when it does there is always likely to be more to understand and misunderstand, interpret and misinterpret.

53. BERGER, P.L. and LUCKMAN, T. The social construction of reality New York, USA: Doubleday 1966.

54. DENZIN, N.K. and LINCOLN, Y.S. (Eds.) The handbook of qualitative research 2nd. ed. London: Sage 2000

55. LEVI-STRAUSS, C. The savage mind Chicago, USA: U of Chicago P 1966.

56. DENZIN, N.K. and LINCOLN, Y.S. (Eds.) The Sage handbook of qualitative research 3rd ed. London: Sage 2005

57. e.g. KINCHELOE, J.L. and BERRY, K.S. Rigour and complexity in educational research: conceptualizing the bricolage Maidenhead, Berks. Open U. Press 2004

58. KINCHELOE, J.L. and Mc LAREN, P. ‘Rethinking critical theory and qualitative research’ in DENZIN and LINCOLN, op.cit. pp. 303-342.