#[p90] Chapter 6. Notes from a method.
Placing the paper reproduced below at this point in the thesis may give a rather false picture of the chronology of the project - it can be seen to imply that the "data" of chapters 4 and 5 somehow led directly, and only, to this account. In reality a much more circuitous route was involved.
My first attempts to explain the method to myself and to others (and thereby help "create" it) began with largely incoherent discussions with a widening circle of professional and research colleagues, particularly Ann F., an eminently patient counsellor, with whom I shared an office at work; and a lunch time discussion group at Northumbria University. Members of this group came almost exclusively from postgraduate nursing students and their influence can be seen in the reflection protocol of appendix C. They were a wonderfully supportive and tolerant band, despite the differences in our perspectives on research. I plagued them (and Ann) over several years with my ruminations and anxieties.
In September 1995 I presented a paper at the Collaborative Action Research Network conference in Nottingham, summarising my views at that time and calling for the help of those who came to listen. In emotional terms the paper was almost a disaster (see the discussion in chapter 11) but some strong support was forthcoming. At that time, speaking to an action research community, I was in part trying to explain why I thought I was not doing action research. I felt that action research was not applicable to my "mess" (the "swamp" I was in - see Schönís quotation below) but I was unsure what was. My first attempt at explaining an alternative was simply to describe my method as reflection.
Reflection, and Schönís reflection-in-action, were the focus of the inquiry for some time. In the end, however, along with a number of other "diversions" (what I call here "dead-ends" and also later call "off-shoots") these were left behind. These off-shoots enter the record in chapter 7 but their presence was distributed over a considerable period, before and after the paper, as I worked towards the publication below. Their contribution to the inquiry is outlined later as I explain my view that including such diversions adds to the believability of the research story.
#[p91] Anticipating later parts of the research narrative, I decided not to freeze the inquiry at this time and, for instance, go on to polish my "analysis" of the existing "data", but to move on and apply this method that I was beginning to become comfortable with, to see how it stood up in two new mini-projects. The tale of that work is relayed in chapters 8 and 9. Unfortunately not recorded in my diary, my memory is that I had glimmerings in 1995 that what I would see in the data was in some way dependent on what I would get out of the data: the "lens" I was creating would help me view the material in a new light. But it was the evolving lens I became most concerned with, not further exploration of old data with an existing lens.
While writing chapter 11, my final (although still provisional) account of the lens, the "messy method", I revisited the data collected in the early part of the project, such as illustrated in chapters 4 and 5. The results of this revisiting helped form the description found in chapter 11, the revised method, as I built on the ideas in the current chapter, and the "old" data and the two new projects (this rather winding path will become clearer later). Thus the link between chapter 4/5, this chapter and the rest of the project is not a simple one.
In October 1996 I presented a revised version of the 1995 paper to a C.A.R.N. conference in Morpeth, then submitted that version to the journal Educational Action Research. The referees comments were generally supportive but criticised that draft (not included in the thesis), amongst other issues, for being too impersonal. I had been trying hard to be "academic". This feedback, I believe, gave me the confidence to begin to write more in the manner I wanted to write. The paper below (with minor editing) is the outcome.
The paper repeats some of my autobiography. I decided to leave this in even though there is a lengthy autobiographical account earlier, as the article would read rather strangely without it, emphasising, as it does, my journey from a "naive" scientist position. Those reading in a linear fashion, who have already covered chapter 1, may profitably skip that part of the paper. The paper was actually written before chapters 4 and 5 were finalised, #[p92] so there are slight discrepancies between those two and this chapter, for instance in a fuller treatment of serendipity and incubation, ambivalence about change, ethical issues and the invisible college in chapters 4 and 5.
Notes from a method  (appears in Educational Action Research, 65 (3) p.453-470, 1998)
ABSTRACT This paper stems from attempts to investigate practice from the position of a novice researcher but experienced professional. The approach which developed stemmed from a genuine desire to deal with a real life "messy" situation - a simple curiosity about current work and a wish to study it. There was no specific research question initially and a "method" evolved only gradually as I researched my researching. Systematic recording of my activities and reflections in a research diary enabled me to recognise an emerging form which I then felt able to communicate. I offer as a metaphor for this inquiry, the banyan tree.
(T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: East Coker 1944 p.25)
I spoke recently to a senior, experienced researcher who had moved to a new area and wanted to set up a project. Unfortunately, the local contacts were not very helpful. He spent a great deal of time dealing with this situation, working out, I guess, how to gain entry, develop trust and so on. Then his project began.
I asked about this period, how he had dealt with what, to him, was a novel and challenging situation. Strangely, he expressed little interest. His research began when the project began. To me, however, this time of uncertainty could have been the most important part of his story. Here was a fellow soul in confusion. But was he simply flailing about in the dark or was there a "method to his madness"?
#[p93] The following paper is a provisional account of my efforts to discover a "method", as I tackled the problem of researching while working, while learning how to research. I was researching researching.
The essence of my concerns is illustrated in a recent discussion about starting a project with a research colleague (T) from a focus group of practitioner researchers at the University of Northumbria:
T. Observational type skills, those kind of skills?
N. No, those woolly, muddling-through skills that you use if you were trying to buy a new light for the bathroom, or a new car, or a new something where you don't know what it is you are looking for. You have a vague idea you want a something and you don't know what the possibilities are out there and you don't know where to find out the possibilities and you have limited time. So you get stuck in, you have a poke round, you don't know what you are looking for. You pick up ideas from here and there, you talk to somebody, you read a magazine and you get another idea. You blunder about through a maze of half understood concepts and practicalities, not knowing what you want but knowing you want a something.... [a further, lengthy example of the process of trying to buy a mixer desk for a teenager follows]
...I don't think the research process is that dissimilar. I know I have a goal, which is that I want to look into my job but I don't know what the questions are to ask but I will know when I get there. It is this idea that I will understand it eventually. In the meantime the only way to go forward is to wallow about in it and get stuck in. It is only by getting stuck in and trying a bit and being confused and asking questions :What on earth am I doing? Why am I doing it? that it becomes clear what it is I am doing. If I knew the questions at the start I could have just rushed off and done an action research project or something like that.
T. So confusion is part of the process?
N. Yes. Well not so much confusion - [yes] it is confusion because for a real problem you have got to be confused in the sense of being in the dark because a real problem is something that you do not know the answers to... I think a genuine project starts off with "I've got a mess and I don't know what to do with it, I don't know how to deal with it", and that is what real life work is about...
My first training was as a physicist. I loved science. James Clerk Maxwell was my hero. His work was beautiful : taking 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, producing the formula for light. Carl Rogers expresses this well:
My first interest was in the behavioural approach which, at that time in the 70s, appeared to have potential to revolutionise the teaching of children with severe and profound learning difficulties. Although a technique of great power and precision, with concrete, achievable steps to clearly defined targets, I recall never quite coming to terms with the early stages of choosing and defining the targets. I gradually introduced into my in-service training with teachers a zeroth stage of "getting a rough idea". I recall this not as an example of good practice (it most probably was not) but as my earliest record of what was to become a major theme of my later research: the fuzziness and disorder of the real world and my attempts to find a way to explore it.
However, Eric Harvey, ex-senior social worker in the Sunderland psychology service where I began, was the best thing that happened to me as a new psychologist. 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 : a particularly effective, down to earth
#[p95] approach. This centred on attention seeking as a key explanation and used everyday stories to give insight (Harvey 1983; see also Beaver 1996).
Those of us who believed in the "Eric Harvey method" (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" for joint working which we jealously guarded. It was not till he died and I tried to carry on this work myself that I realised how much I owed him and how much I missed him. One of the initial driving forces behind this research was a kind of tribute to Eric - a study of attention seeking (the focus moved, however, during the study).
I gradually became curious about this work, which I had simply absorbed in an apprentice-like way. Having had mid-life crises, fallen into a rut and even read a Reader's Digest article on "spicing up your working life" I eventually decided, in Summer 1993, to try some research in the area of this curiosity. Here was a part of my life I was still very committed to. This was not some post graduate project dreamed up to get a qualification. This was Eric's memorial. But I wanted a different kind of research to the quantitative inquiry I was trained in - I felt strongly "been there, done that". I can also recall, leading up to this period, a long-standing, but gradual, movement away from my love affair with science (partly as a result of ecological concerns. Ravetz (1996) captures this period accurately). This shift of research perspective was, however, neither quick nor easy. My diary records in embarrassingly purple prose, my feelings as I realised later I had "left the safe shores of positivism [to be] buffeted about by fickle winds".
On a journey "to get away from it all", two years into the project, having finished a report to transfer from M.Phil to Ph.D, 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 critiques 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 #[p96] "wrong": the sun does not go round the earth. The heat has left the debate. Suddenly, however, in one (quite routine) issue of New Scientist, the whole science agenda appeared as a living, breathing subject - personalities, politics and paradigm wars. I could no longer read simply as a scientist. I had become a social scientist. But was what I was attempting really research?
My struggles with the concept of research.
From the outset my aim was to investigate my existing practice. I did not seek permission, for instance, to set up an experimental comparison of the Eric Harvey approach with some other method. I also did not seek permission to take any separate research time; the research had to fit into my normal week's work with clients. The research was my normal week's work.
My starting point was not a desire to change my approach (it seemed to "work" and there was no guarantee that change would be for the better) but simply to understand it. I was curious. At the same time, to support the painful process of self examination (Converey, 1993) thrown up by the study, I decided that part of my reflection would involve celebration of, not simply criticism of, practice.
These conditions placed limitations on what I could and could not attempt; in the end, I believe, to great advantage. My feeling was that the research had to be practice driven, with the needs of the clients as priority; thus casework and the data arising from it had to be as "untidy" as the client's problems dictated.
Apart from my prime concern to be sensitive to professional and client constraints, I also had to be aware of my own needs as a developing researcher. Stenhouse (1975) describes similar problems for the teacher-researcher. Any "design" would need to accommodate my changing knowledge and skills, as Frost (1995) describes "the practice comes first and the research has to catch up as best it can" (p.308). As well as reflecting on my practice I reflected on my method (a confusing process which took two years to
#[p97] disentangle). As Frost recounts, I was "reflecting honestly and systematically on my own action research" (ibid p.320)
I kept a research diary, initially simply because I was used to keeping
a counselling diary and I felt that the research would generate a deal
of emotion. It was only later that I realised that the diary was my research
tool, not just a companion. It became a systematic way of managing the
confused space I had entered. Again, only much later did I realise that
keeping a diary also mirrored my daily case work: keeping file notes on
all aspects of an intervention as I tried to make sense of the, sometimes
conflicting, evidence from many sources - "professionals are usually confronted
with complex, ambiguous, or incomplete data" (Parlett 1991 p.219).
Although convinced that a qualitative approach was most appropriate for my project, at the outset, with regard to research methods, I was a novice, "learning and doing" at the same time. I was "working without rules in order to find out the rules of what you've done" (Appignanesi & Garrett 1995 p.50). I considered, but ultimately rejected, a number of research methods (as I then understood them) yet, during this period, I had to carry out my normal work and attempt some kind of research. The world would not go away.
To explain the methods actually employed, I will first briefly consider some aspects of action research, a label which I subsequently found inappropriate.
Carr (1995), in asking "Whatever happened to action research?" argues that positivism has denied "reflectively acquired self-knowledge as a valid epistemological category" (p.104) and seeks, amongst other aspects, a method that does not "pay lip service to the importance of the concept of self-reflection" (ibid p.106). These comments are particularly relevant to the current study where my reflection has become the central feature.
Many of the issues concerning the methods of this project are explored in McNiff (1988). In particular, she describes her need to be able to address many different problems at one #[p98] time, without losing sight of the main research aim. This approach is developed in her spirals of "generative action research".
Atkinson (1994), however, commenting on McNiff's work, highlights the pressure of dealing with complex, real life situations where, instead of the "observe, plan, act, reflect cycle.... I could be doing all four of these things [at once]" (p.397). She goes on to explain that:
What led me to the swampy lowlands of research
In my early reading Schön (1983), was a powerful influence. He spoke my language:
As I worked, and reflected about my work and how to study the interwoven processes involved, and discussed with colleagues and critical friends, and dipped into reading, welcoming serendipity, grasping at ideas, the feeling that "something" was useful in all this effort gradually took shape. My conviction grew that this jumble had a form. I then felt able to begin to communicate about it. Sparks of agreement in conversation led me to believe that others could also recognise this process in their own research - possibly in that nebulous, pre setting-up stage not usually written about. As Mandelbrot recounts in his early work on fractals:
Finding a method suitable for the swampy lowlands
#[p100] (A) The research question.
To begin at the beginning, I did not know how to carry out this research. I was new to study of this kind and, perhaps because of my lengthy quantitative training, endlessly yearning for some tried and trusted manual. Methods courses and books did not seem to help and all the while I was in the thick of practice and thinking about practice. It is only now, revisiting texts with the benefit of my current understanding, that I can fully appreciate my position, close to that set out by Bannister (1981):
I continued to read my way into the research - methods, attention seeking, Adler, family therapy, reflective practice, emotional and behavioural difficulties, epistemology, the sociology of science, fiction, the Times Higher Educational Supplement.... I was swimming in ideas. Concerning the specific issue of finding research questions, the methodology texts I consulted gave what I can now see were vital clues but which, at the time, passed me by. I will give only a brief sample.
Lincoln & Guba (1985), for instance, in discussing "emergent design" assert "Initial research problem statements may be found to be inadequate or inappropriate." (p.228). Interaction in the field they argue may then lead to a shift of focus and questions. The authors do not, however, seem adequately to cover my predicament: initially I did not #[p101] have a research question, just a curiosity, but the process of reflecting and collecting data and immersing myself in my work and the research, continued.
In a guide to the application of grounded theory which I looked at, Strauss and Corbin (1990) describe how the original research question
Heuristic research (Moustakas 1990) - a typical example being his subjective investigation of his own loneliness - is an approach I discovered quite late on in the project. It most closely captures the " feel" of the present study: "heuristic research involves self-search, self dialogue, and self-discovery: the research question and the methodology flow out of inner awareness" (p.11). Moustakas explains how:
After two years of struggle my questions in the end may seem in some senses trivial, but they were immensely challenging : What do I actually do? (as opposed to some positivist inquiry like how effective is my work compared to such and such a technique) and How do I research what concerns me? (when I'm in the middle of researching and doing).The former led to greater clarity in understanding of, and also changes to, practice. The latter became a fruitful site for continued investigation, the subject of the current paper. My contention is that I could not have arrived at either of these questions without that effort. It was not, however, till a further two years or so had passed (September 1997) that I finally accepted the processes I had been working through, what I called my "method to find the question".
(B) My "method to find the question"
The finding of the questions was itself more important than the questions themselves. To a large extent, the processes of finding also became an answer to the second of my questions "How do I research?". I eventually came to accept that my struggle in the swamp was the method, not a path to find a better method. Given my position, I could, perhaps, in all honesty have done little else - casework and my reflections on it would not recede while I calmly chose an approach. I was "struggling to find a methodolgy ... #[p103] which I could 'own' - which did not fragment the complex whole of my own lived experience and my values" (Salmon 1992 p.77).
However, it was only very gradually that I developed the confidence to acknowledge that what I was wrestling with, in methodological terms, was important to me:
Analysis has so far elicited the following as a description of the methods I used (with apologies to Whitehead 1989):
ii. I decided to investigate that aspect.
iii. I began that investigation without a clear concept of method or research questions. I learnt by doing.
iv. As practice is eclectic, so I drew upon many approaches in research. Some of these are outlined above in discussing the "knowledge accrual process" and other activities.
#[p104] v. Where conflict arose, the ethics of professional practice established priorities for research practice.
vi. I kept a reflective diary of my work and my research. I researched both.
vii. During the inquiry I uncovered areas of practice which I was not comfortable with. As a professional, I acted to change these, to my own professional satisfaction.
viii. Certain areas of practice I was curious about. I did not set out to change, simply to understand, to achieve a kind of resolution.
ix. I needed continual support to pursue this project, from partner, friends, colleagues and counsellor. Publication (Mellor 1997 a and b and 1998 a) gave encouragement, acting partly as a kind of "cheering on" (George et al 1990 p.14). Reflection on practice involved not just criticism but celebration. This provided another source of support. The research thus also served to reinforce certain facets of practice rather than alter them.
x. This was a far from solitary activity. I engaged in continuous dialogue -with friends, colleagues, partner, complete strangers, critical friends, critical correspondent, research interest groups, a focus group and conferences.
xi. My diary records my feelings about my prior experience of learning and how I came to value the PhD process:
xii. Understanding of this process (of researching practice while researching the research) emerged only slowly, during its course.
(C) Dealing with the notion of unhygienic research.
#[p106] My story will eventually be told, warts and all, in what I sincerely trust, is an account which, by its very imperfections, will help to establish credibility. I do not want to write "hygienic research" (Stanley & Wise 1993 p.153). As Medawar (1963) suggests "the scientific paper is a fraud" (p.233). I want to capture in research what Byng-Hall describes in family therapy "The faltering reality of everyday therapy with all its hiccups and mistakes" ( Byng-Hall 1988 p.175). As Stanley & Wise (1993) describe it "'confusions' and 'mistakes' are... at the heart of the research process" (p.150 emphasis in original).
It may be that in my report, rigour may need to be (partly) sacrificed:
Many metaphors for the research enterprise exist. A current example is research as "bricolage" (Denzin & Lincoln 1994 p.2), i.e. adapting whatever comes to hand. Certainly, I have needed to be very catholic in my study. As my practice is eclectic, so has my research been.
#[p107] There are of course much more systematic methods for research. They did not, however, seem to offer much to the situation which I found myself in for the first two years or so of this study. Whyte (1955) in the methodological appendix to his, immensely appealing and convincing account of "Street Corner Society", captures what I feel may be the essence of the process I encountered:
The current project displays facets of all these descriptions and, for instance, Rebok's (1989) description of the process of solving "everyday problems" by the inexperienced planner. This is "carried out on a pragmatic, plan-as-you-go basis which we have termed planning-in-action" (p.104). In the end the research may acquire its own analogy. I have toyed with the metaphors of a journey, a garden, "buying the thingamygig" and "hunting the snark" but that which must closely embodies the development of this undertaking, with its dead ends, confusions, shifts in focus and occasional fruits of publication, is the #[p108] unusual but nonetheless extremely successful growth of the banyan tree, as captured so vibrantly in Vikram Seth's "A Suitable Boy":
Diary data as illustrated in chapter 4/5 did not feed directly into this account of the evolving method. There were, for instance, many diversions (outlined in the next chapter) and many attempts at refining the paper, with support, but also critique, from colleagues.
I will not repeat the outline of the twelve points about the method listed above as they act as a partial summary within the article; chapter 11 refines and extends them. In addition to underlining these points, however, honesty (about off-shoots and other diversions); some concept such as "validity through use"; ethics; and communication need to be separately emphasised. They are dealt with more fully later (see chapters 11 and 12).
The research method as understood at this point was not further polished by reviewing the existing data, but by applying it to other situations, as later chapters will demonstrate.
At the time of writing I had not settled on a label other than "the method to find the method". It was quite some time before I had the understanding, and the confidence, to adopt the term "messy method", which has at first glance such negative, "un-academic" associations.
 This paper is based on "Notes from a method" presented at the Collaborative Action Research Network International Conference Interprofessional Learning through Action #[p109] Research October 18-20, 1996 Morpeth, Northumberland. Thanks for comments on earlier drafts are particularly due to Colin Biott and Sandy Wolfson my PhD supervisors at the University of Northumbria, and the journal's referees.[BACK]
 The focus group was part of the project "Management for Organisational and Human Development" funded by the European Union Human Capital and Mobility Fund.[BACK]
 Physicists will forgive this rather poetic rendering. I am trying to capture here my feelings around, not the physics behind, the derivation of the electromagnetic wave equation.[BACK]
 We can perhaps all identify with the emotion while making no claim to match the intellect.[BACK]
 My twists and turns of focus covered, amongst others, the topics of attention seeking, reflection, reflection-in-action (Schön, 1983) and "double fitting" as a form of analysis (Baldamus 1972, 1976) . One "dead end" of research (Kulka 1981 p.156) was trying to use the idea of circular epistemology (see Gurman et al 1986 p.567 for a discussion of the concept) as a convenient link between these disparate subjects. The final thesis will explain in more detail how this and other topics came to be abandoned. Their intricacies do not concern the present paper save as reminders of the unsteady path of inquiry.[BACK]
 I hope later to explore how far the notion that honesty, in the sense of exposing confusions, side-tracks etc. may add to the credibility of a report, following Atkinson et al 1991. Walford (1991) has collected many "backstage" (p.3) descriptions of qualitative research (see also, for instance, Bell and Roberts 1984; Burgess 1984; Minkin 1997). The question is, does research suffer or benefit from bringing these front stage? Measor and Woods (1991) argue that such accounts are important in that they offer the reader "more material through which to interpret the study" (p.79).[BACK]
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