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Concerning myself and my practice.

#[p12] CHAPTER 1. A story of myself.

Recounted below is my autobiography, dated 17 December 1995, written long before the final shape of the thesis began to develop. I present it in its original form with only very minor editing[1].At the time of first writing, I had some (perhaps simplistic) notion that an account of me and my biases would act as a kind of corrective to the distorting lens of my personal mode of research. At one point, the sub-title for this section was "calibrating myself as research instrument". I was still heavily influenced by "scientific" thinking and had not appreciated the "self-inventing" (MacLure 1993a p.376) nature of such narratives.

Some critical comments on autobiography in general, and this one in particular, complete the chapter. The purpose of this account is to introduce me and my concerns to the reader. It lays some of the groundwork for a later discussion of a personal form of inquiry I intend to explore, and also a consideration of identity and a perspective on one of its roles in research.

1. My story (17.12.95).

I begin this writing with some trepidation. My concerns over exploring personal information and the role of emotions in academic work are explored in chapter 9.

In blanket terms I am a white, middle-aged heterosexual man, with a semi and two children, in a secure profession. However.....

I was brought up on a large council estate on the outskirts of Newcastle in the 1950s. Fields began at the end of my street. As far as I was aware they continued unbroken to Scotland. This was a very English environment, but in my mind's eye I was on the Blue Mountain Railway and could see the Himalayas from the toilet window of a married quarters' bungalow. My parents spent their happiest years in India and talked endlessly about it. We ate curry.

#[p13] Pa loved the regular army. It gave him a home. He left school at fourteen and went down the pit. He was, however, the most well-read man I knew for many years. He joined up, became an officer and lived for the Raj but held Ghandi to be one of the century's greatest leaders. He also admired Tony Benn. He "would not have a word said against the Queen" but hated "Royal hangers-on". His army life was one of travel and sport, he "never fired his rifle in anger" except to shoot the colonel's dog during a rabies outbreak. He was immensely strong and had been a boxer, but never hit me.

He returned home after the war to be a very low grade civil servant and dig his garden. Much later I held his hand all night as he was dying and squirted water into his mouth from a plastic syringe. It is one of my most treasured memories.

I love Ma and she loves me. Simple as that. My childhood was very secure. George Orwell catches this beautifully in "Coming up For Air" as he describes life before he first world war:

It was more like some kind of natural process. You knew that breakfast would be on the table tomorrow morning in much the same way as you knew the sun would rise (Orwell, 1939 p.50).

I was the youngest of four and probably indulged. I was well-behaved (or at least, never got caught). Orwell again:

...later on we went bird nesting. We had a theory that birds can't count and it's all right if you leave one egg, but we were cruel little beasts and sometimes we'd just knock the nest down... We used to catch toads, ram the nozzle of a bicycle pump up their backsides and blow them up till they burst. That's what boys are like, I don't know why. (ibid p. 68)

Although I was never cruel to toads and perhaps not a typical boy, I do seem to remember, with some shame, pulling the wings off a particularly beautiful insect. I hope the memory is a reconstruction.

Recently I found out that I actually failed the 11-plus, but somehow went to Grammar school anyway. My birthday is August 31st, I was not only the youngest in my year group but probably the slowest developer. Perhaps the school made allowances. I was bright and bookish with a terrible stammer, but popular. I wrote a great deal but in a very illegible script. I had a lot to say but could not communicate it easily in speech or writing. I loved #[p14] science - I still do. Relaxation on holiday for me is to read New Scientist. Carl Rogers expresses this well:

I love the precision and the elegance of science ... I can lose myself in the contemplation of this elegance...I have, deep within me, a feeling for science (Rogers 1968 cited in Kirschenbaum and Henderson, 1990, p.265).

Many children at school came from "well-to-do homes". I envied their clothes and their confidence. Although middle class now, I can still feel inferior to a "good accent". As a psychologist working with many professionals this caused me great anxiety. I learned to cope.

University was physics and parties. It was the sixties. I was naive (I had literally never been inside a restaurant, as opposed to a cafe, and never used a phone, no-one had one at home, there was nobody to ring) but surrounded with friends. I developed a deep regard for the physics of the nineteenth century, the last science I truly understood. James Clerk Maxwell was my hero. To be able to take the equations describing the fields around such humdrum objects as a charged-up plastic comb and a coil of wire attached to an Ever Ready battery and, several pages of sophisticated maths later, to produce the formula for light, seemed to me to be a thing of almost religious beauty.[2]

The second year was somehow missing. Friends clubbed together to buy a house. The grant was relatively generous, you could manage if you lived on beans for a year. The experience did little for the digestion and even less for academia. I still have nightmares about sitting finals without one third of the coursework. I scraped through, thanks, I believe, partly to one reasonable answer on Maxwell's wave equation. I needed a job but had no ideas, so drifted into teaching.

My training college taught the History, Sociology, Philosophy and Psychology of teaching but never taught teaching. I was a disaster. They had to provide me with separate lessons on how to teach, it wasn't on the syllabus and I couldn't figure out how. Strangely, though, my stammer stopped as soon as I set foot inside a classroom, despite all the stress.

#[p15] I was an idealistic teacher. I wanted to teach Nuffield Physics and interest the children. I did not want to use corporal punishment. Unfortunately, the school where I began my career, in Salford, had different ideas and I was an abject failure. Only another teacher who has lost control of a class knows the pain and humiliation involved. The rest of the world can't imagine it. I will draw a veil over that episode. Suffice it to say I began to use corporal punishment, badly. The more stressed I became the less it worked and the more I used it. To a good liberal-minded socialist this was torture indeed. One year I finally began to use the slipper effectively. I chose the quietest boy at the start of term and "beat him soundly". The rest were terrified: if that was what you got for doing nothing ...! I gained control and began to teach. I think the boy forgave me.

I moved back to the North East and at my next school was quite effective, taught well and even helped the poor devils pass O-levels and A-levels. One year I decided to give up all types of corporal punishment (from the formal cane to the informal "thump"), and to begin to value my worst pupils and give them my best work. I began to think about classroom management. It worked. My teaching improved. My self esteem rose several notches and my results didn't suffer. I counted myself a successful teacher, then had the courage to leave. Reading "Dibs" by Virginia Axline and finding a Chinese boy crying at the back of the class because he could not understand a word of what was said, turned me towards psychology. The reality of psychology, however, was not psychotherapy, I learned to give tests. After a psychology degree and an educational psychology Masters I was still a scientist.

About this time my two children were born. I loved them from the start. I loved their smell and the feel of their bodies. I woke if they made the slightest cry. But they also drove us crazy[*added for publishing: they were wonderful as kids; we werenít as parents!] Both my partner (who was a constant support, emotionally and academically, before and during this research) and I were under great pressure. We had to take turns going on courses just to get a break; I can sympathise with the parents I meet in my job. Anyway, I gradually became more domesticated and less of a male sexist. We survived.

#[p16] Eric Harvey, ex-senior social worker in Sunderland psychology service was the best thing that happened to me as a new psychologist in 1979. My training had been pathetically inadequate in the area of working with families and in Eric I felt as though I'd discovered the answer.

Those of us who believed in the "Eric Harvey method"[3](and at times it did seem to take on the characteristics of a religion - with devotees, a sense of belonging, shared knowledge and miracle cures) each had an "Eric day" which we jealously guarded. The day was split into four appointment slots and we worked Eric non-stop. We (the psychologists) would generally see the child while Eric saw the parents. He liked them to come to the office so that they were on his territory. Home provided too many distractions and "bolt-holes" and Eric had little time for what he saw as the standard social work approach. His interview was very directive and under his control: he sat behind a big desk. Parents answered his questions. The advice on handling at the end of the session was generally similar (a basic behavioural approach with attention seeking as a key concept).

Described like that, the method sounds dull, authoritarian, rigid and lifeless. Quite the contrary. Each case was unique and the detail of the interview reflected that. Eric also knew how to handle people. I can remember countless times, sitting cowering in the big armchair, while a parent ranted and raved and Eric sat impassively. This puzzled me, he never seemed upset. Eventually I asked him about this. He saw anger as a very positive force, it meant the parents were committed. If you let them "blow off steam" they would usually calm down and feel a bit embarrassed. Eric would then suggest that we all wanted the same thing - what was best for the child. Once the parents were on his side he would "flip it round" and that anger would become a driving force for change.

Eric did not like "middle class parents who stayed on the intellectual level". He never felt successful with them. He wanted to penetrate people's defences and get to gut feelings - hence his stories. These, although superficially simple and at times almost patronising, were a key to his approach. Experiences from the parents' own lives were used to give them insights into the child's position in a very effective but "homely" manner.

#[p17] The flow of the interview was carefully honed, to move from less to more threatening areas. Because the questions about the child's behaviour were based on years of experience Eric often seemed a mind reader ("you must have been at our house" is a comment parents often made). By the time the "selling" part of the approach came in, at the end of a very lengthy session, the parents were already convinced: Eric must know the answers because he had been asking the right questions.

He took chances. He called one very burly dad a coward. He would swear a lot[4]("and you two daft buggers end up fighting", quote from a video-tape interview circa 1985). Parents relaxed and laughed (usually). Some times he got it wrong, usually with the more intellectual clients who wanted, in his words "to hear the great Freud", or with the very religious, who did not like references to "the average child would drive Jesus Christ mad". Some parents could not take it, as one couple said: "We brought the child but we got the beating", but most were won round.

Eric was very human, he made mistakes. He was a product of his time and place: a local lad, trained as an engineer, saw active service in Italy in world war II, re-trained as a social worker and ended up in child guidance. I make no apologies for him. His method speaks for itself in literally hundreds of families. He divorced, became very lonely and lived for work, his flat was just across the road from the office. He retired several years ago and died of lung cancer quite soon after. When I came to take on my own "Eric Harvey" work I began to realise just how much I owed him and how much I missed him. I cried as I wrote this short piece about him.

There is a small band of us who carry on the method. From time to time we try to teach it to students; it is difficult however to capture that sense of a valued technique, shared by a community of professionals who supported each other, and the long "apprenticeship" we served, watching Eric at work. One original purpose of this research was to act as a kind of tribute to his approach, the Eric Harvey method.

#[p18] During a forties mid-life crisis I discovered co-counselling (see chapter 9). Joyce, my counselling teacher, who later taught me to teach and became my counsellor, introduced me to the world inside, a world I had only dimly and fleetingly perceived until then (by coincidence, partly through observing the way parents responded to Eric Harvey). My understanding of a universe which seemed to obey different rules began. Emotions, which to me, the scientist, were distractions, took centre stage and became powerful forces for change. I experienced this myself and saw it with others. It became a different kind of knowledge - a kind I could not "prove".

Joyce died, but I continued counselling with my good friend Mike. After many hundreds of hours of struggle in realms of great challenge, perhaps by now I should be perfect. I'm not. That's not the aim of co-counselling. I simply get by in a better way.

When Eric died and I had moved to my present post, I had to learn how to use the Eric Harvey method myself. It was tremendously difficult, but exhilarating work. Again, I began to "know" in a personal way about change. Perhaps, however, some of the magic of sharing with others was lost. I began to slip into a rut:

as a practice becomes more repetitive and routine, and as knowing-in-practice becomes increasingly tacit and spontaneous, the practitioner may miss important opportunities to think about what he (sic) is doing...if he learns, as often happens, to be selectively inattentive to phenomena that do not fit the categories of his knowing-in-action, then he may suffer from boredom or "burn-out" and afflict his clients with the consequences of his narrowness and rigidity (Schön, 1983 p.61).

Schön 's words were a sharp knife of guilt, although his book (initially) became the cornerstone of this research. I would like to say Schön 's brilliant account of the "Reflective Practitioner" triggered the project. The truth is rather messier and more mundane: a combination of vague disquiet about "life and work"; a long standing feeling that I should have gone on to research in the sixties; the children growing up and leaving some emotional space; the approaching reality of retirement; my memory of Eric; my partner's example of successful writing and her willing support; a Reader's Digest article in the chiropodist's waiting room on "How to rescue yourself from those mid-career blues".

#[p19] These, then, are some of the factors which could influence my research. Much is not written. Some I am not aware of. As a postscript, on a recent trip to Carlisle, "to get away from it all", having finished my PhD transfer document, I settled down on the train to relax, to read New Scientist and forget about academic life. To my horror, the pages began to come alive .

I had been struggling for some time with Kuhn, feminist critique of science, Polanyi's personal knowledge and the like. Arguments about ancient scientific battles were interesting, but somehow, finally unmoving and unconvincing as examples of world changing events. Now, with our complacent hindsight, we just "know" one side was "wrong": the sun does not go round the earth. The heat has left the debate. Suddenly, however, in one issue of New Scientist, the whole science agenda was laid out, as a living, breathing subject: personalities, politics and paradigm wars[5]. I could no longer read as a scientist. I had become a social scientist.

2. Comments on autobiography.

Employing autobiographical accounts raise a range of issues. Events are reconstructed "[e]ven the most careful of ethnographic descriptions ... are actually ... combinations of selectivity and interpretation" (Stanley 1993 p. 49). Recent controversy over the life story of Nobel prize winner, Rigoberta Menchu, serves to reinforce this argument (see Ellison 1998 on the supposed inaccuracies of her account). My story is constructed. The events I describe took place, but many took place which I do not describe. This selectivity became highlighted later in considering aspects of my identity, several of which I initially overlooked (see chapter 10). Memory is, in addition, at times notoriously unreliable. My "memories" of India are vivid although I have never been there. The more I try to recall the episode with the insect, the more it re-shapes itself and shades into other incidents until I am unsure what, if anything, happened 45 years ago. I accept, then, that this record will be at best a limited one and one that sides away from less worthy aspects of character, as Converey (1996) argues, it presents a "preferred identity" (p.207).

#[p20] This reconstruction may extend to the whole research narrative. Commenting on her thesis, Aldridge (1993) states "a case can be made that the entire account of the research ... was in many respects an artifice or construction" (p.57). She points, for instance, to the reshuffling of time in her report[6].   A conventional ordering helps to "[cut] away the researcher from the process of carrying out the research" (ibid p.62). Including the personal in research, however, replaces the "value free objectivity" of traditional research with "conscious subjectivity" (Cotterill and Letherby 1993 p.72). Such aspects are developed later as I explore my method of inquiry and notions of validity.

The autobiography I present is written in a particular style. It tells about me, but with a "literary voice". That is how I first wrote it. My intention was not to dissemble, but to render at least readable, what could be viewed as an exercise in self-indulgence. I return to the issue of writing later in examining my identities.

Emotions may be central to the autobiography, although as Wilkins (1993) describes in her search of standard methodological texts, she was " astonished at the intellectual cover-up of emotion, intuition, and human relationships in the name of expert or academic knowledge" (p.94). She viewed her own emotions as a positive resource (in researching childbirth). I consider the role of emotions in the current research mainly in chapter 9.

My account is not a "critical autobiography" (Griffiths 1994 p.76), with attention to "politically situated perspectives" (ibid p.76). I will be making a plea for a focus on a particular kind of personal investigation of the self, not, for instance, on an action research which recognises "broader, global repercussions" (ibid p.71).

The idea that I might have a mass of potentially conflicting identities was not part of my reasoning at the time of writing (that came much later, around autumn 1998). I was concerned, even then, however, about locating myself crudely as "white, male, heterosexual, middle class" etc. Life just seems much more complex than those bald statements imply. As Griffiths (1994) points out "[b]lanket statements about my own social class, race and gender are probably not helpful... why should... researchers [fall into neat categories]?" (p.80). In a largely un-theorised and uncertain way, I believe that I #[p21] was beginning to see and value the many apparent contradictions of my life. Tension between these, I maintain, help forge my own, personal research path. I see these as assets, not impediments to inquiry, as later sections will explain.

That then is some of me. I touch only a little on my job. To understand this research we need to look more closely at the world of educational psychology and my position in this, the subject of the next chapter.

3. Key points emerging from the chapter.

I provide one version of an autobiography, a snapshot produced at a certain time, to introduce me and my concerns to the reader at the opening of what is to be a very personal form of research. It is not a "critical autobiography" in the way Griffiths (1994) uses the expression.

In drawing on any autobiographical material I recognise that this is a potentially problematic process. Autobiographies can be seen as reconstructions, relying on unreliable memory. Indeed, the whole research text can be seen as a reconstruction in some sense. Together with highlighting the personal in research, and for instance the role of emotions, this brief discussion is a prelude to later exploration of the method of this inquiry and, for instance, notions of validity.

One role of the material is to open up consideration of the complexity of identity. Later chapters will consider the way in which tensions between its different aspects might influence the course of research.


[1] I have left this account as I first wrote it. I feel it stands "as a whole". Some repetition is, however, thus inevitable, as I, for instance, introduce my colleague, Eric Harvey, here then explore his work more fully in chapter 3.[BACK]

#[p22] [2] Physicists will forgive this rather poetic rendering of the derivation of the electromagnetic wave equation. I am explaining here my memory of the feeling, rather than my even more shaky memory of the physics. [BACK]

[3] The method is not described in the literature. I provide a brief introduction here and further details in chapter 3.[BACK]

[4] In the context, Ericís intervention worked. He was a master of rapport. As Barker (1986) describes:

[w]hen rapport is well developed the therapist can say almost anything, even quite outrageous things, to the client without their becoming upset; even though the remarks could be construed as insulting, the clients will take them to have been meant jokingly. (p.92)


[5] I have no reason to believe this particular issue of New Scientist (Dec 2 1995), was unusual. I recognise that this is of course a popular journal and thus not necessarily typical of science writing. The topics I noted, under the rough headings which I used at the time, were:


Disagreements over safe levels of radiation (p.3, p.10 and p.56).

Public health officials sensationalising infectious diseases to lobby for increased funding (p.29).

The politics of the making of the atom bomb (p.47).

"Dubious political agendas" in modern Darwinism (p.50).


Hawking's latest arguments concerning mini-black holes described as "wild and provocative" (p.20).

Paradigm wars.

Arguments for spontaneous generation of order from complexity as a contrast to natural selection (p.48).

Complementary medicine making inroads into the medical establishment (p.51).

Unfair distributions of scientific papers (p.53).

There were, in addition, articles demonstrating uncertainty (p.37) and alternative epistemology (p.41).[BACK]

#[p23] [6] Others also comment on the constructed nature of accounts e.g. Knorr-Cetina 1981 and Medawar 1963 on "scientific" reports.


*December 2001 Not in original thesis

Now that I am making the thesis more publically available I have made a small change to page 15 to clarify that I am in no way critical of my children - we just were under pressure through being very busy, and less than average parents!

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Chapter Two