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Re-Imagining Social Research in a Relational Key

  • Global Humanity for Peace Institue
Re-Imagining Social Research in a Relational Key
By Scherto Gill
Guerrand-Hermès Foundation for Peace/University of Sussex
Ken asked us to be curious about the world and the multiplicity of perspectives and
experiences of the world, and cautious and sensitive about how our language and the
discursive ways that we talk about the world can shape our experiences and actions in the
world. This is also an illustration of how we could research with people.
Kvale (1996) offered two metaphors to contrast possible conceptions of the social researcher,
a miner and a traveller. The notion of a ‘miner’ suggests that the task of research be to dig or
extract information from people and institutions for the ‘production’ of knowledge about their
experiences and practices; whereas the notion of a ‘traveller’ evokes a number of different
ways of talking about what social research means and how the social researcher might go
about the inquiries.
In this presentation, I explore and expand on the metaphor of researcher as a ‘traveller’
through social construction lenses. I invite you to join in the play - playing with the imageries
of the traveller, and the language and meanings we attach to the metaphor. Perhaps we could
together highlight the relationship between the ‘traveller’, i.e. the researcher, the terrain she
journeys across, the people she encounters, their shared learning and understanding of their
experiences in the worlds inhabited, and the process of journeying as a whole:
A traveller journeys, but not just goes from A to B. ‘A good traveller has no fixed plans and
is not intent upon arriving.’ (Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching) In this sense, for a good traveller, the
journey itself would matter more than the destination (Montaigne).
If the researcher is a traveller, then the research process would be a journey, and like all
journeys, the journeying or in the case of research, the inquiry itself, matters more than
the destination or findings (Montaigne). For the researcher, the language capturing and
describing the purpose of her research would be to explore, to inquire, to question, to
seek to learn, to understand…
A traveller navigates in different terrains and landscapes. To have a sense of these terrains
and negotiate within these varying landscapes, the traveller encounters with people and
invites them to share their perspectives about their experiences in situ. In doing so, she
further initiates several processes:
First, a traveller, through her interests and curiosity about people, places and experiences in
diverse contexts, engages in conversations, seeks narratives, explores histories, cultures
and traditions, and therefore facilitates a process of dialogue, storying, re-storying, and
above all, valuing. In doing so, she taps into the existing webs of relationship, and in the
meantime, establish and re-establish new relationships.
Whilst listening and dialoguing, a traveller knows that no story can have a single unique
construal, and any story’s putative meanings are always multiple (Bruner). No rational
nor empirical methods can verify the logical truths or right interpretations. Instead,
meaning-making is only mediated by and embedded in relationships between the
traveller, people encountered, and community at large in dialogue. Here is a process of
fusion of horizons broadening and expanding the traveller/researcher’s horizons
In inquiring into and exploring the meanings of life and experiences in the community, the
traveller calls upon those she encounters to join her in the journey and to become dialogue
partners and fellow-travellers. They are effectively co-inquirers, co-investigators, co-
interpreters, and co-creators of meaning (Gadamer). Thus such journeying can be
mutually enriching and transforming.
For the traveller, relationships with her companions, together with the web of
relationships each person is a part, become just as important as the journey itself. So
the inquiry is no longer the traveller’s own interest but a shared concern. This is the
beginning of an emerging sense of ‘we’.
In journeying together, the traveller and her companions develop a shift in their
awareness of our selves and our actions in the world which in turn transform the way
we act in the world. This is a shift that moves from the strange, to the acquainted, then to a
new form of the unfamiliar, thereby continuously prompting novel ways of seeing,
appreciating, valuing and acting (Proust).
By now, the traveller is no longer a mere voyageuse, she takes parts in the life of the
community. With different lenses of seeing, different words of talking, and different
awareness of reflecting, the journey is a process of community-making, journeying, a
way of acting together (Gergen).
When the traveller returns and shares the journey with her own and other communities, the
co-constructed narrative and the voices of the community further strengthen human
relationships, enriches ongoing relatedness and reinforces the importance of the
relational in our society (Gergen).
Through engaging with the metaphor of the social researcher as the traveller, we can see that
all social research is a voyage, and a form of encounter and dialogue. Just as the
purpose of the journey is not the destination, dialogue is not aimed at getting
information from the research participants and instead, it is an ethical commitment to a
relational way of being together, and to intersubjective approach to inquiring, learning
and understanding.
Now let’s place this metaphor of researcher as traveller and research as journeying in the
context of research practices, using my inquiry into young people’s experiences of testing
within British secondary education as an example.
The research was designed as an in-depth qualitative research, seeking to engage young
people in exploring the life worlds of English secondary education. We identified three kinds
of secondary school a state school, an independent (private) school and an alternative
school, eg. Steiner school. As researchers, we kept the research questions open how do
students perceive their experiences within English secondary schools? The plan included
emersion in each of these schools, such as class observations, and student interviews, both
informal and formal.
How does the metaphor of traveller shape our research design, experiences and learning?
Here is a quick glance of it.
A. We literally journeyed into the landscapes by spending one day a week at the school
for one-term. Imagine the journey from being a researcher, to a classroom participant?
Often, we were asked to take part in of teaching assistant to help out in the class. From a
stranger, a someone from the university, we became a colleague to the teachers, a friend
to the student, a sounding board to the principal, a listening ear to the parents.
B. For the informal interview, conversations happened throughout the day when we were at
the school. In the beginning, the school’s leadership team was suspicious of the research
purpose and intention its open-endedness. This is not what they are used to they kept
asking us: “What are you looking for exactly?” or “What is it that you are trying to find in
here?” The openness and the not-knowing really troubled them. As the days
proceeded, and as they saw that we duly took part in all the classes, observing, taking
notes, having conversations, the staff and students seemed to drop their guard, and
began to offer their help: “Why don’t you look at how I get the class to be motivated
in this class? I am never sure how I can do it.” Here is one from the student: “Have
you been to Dr Manchino’s class? We can also have fun doing biology with him.”
One more example from the Principal: “We have been troubled by the endless need for
testing, and are very sad to witness students’ suffering from this. What could we do
to meet the needs of standardisation and the needs of our students’ well-being?”
C. For the formal, we selected 50 young people in total, 15 from each school, and 5 first year
university undergraduate students. Instead of design a schedule of questions to put to the
students, we asked each school to suggest 2 students who would form a core team to
develop the research questions together. This is where we found out that researchers’
questions are often meaningless for young people, despite their good intention. The
language we use would make the world according to Ken. Here is an example. “Please
describe yourself.” And my usual life that often threw an adult to the floor is “Tell me
about you why are you you?” The young people told us – what do you want? We can
describe ourselves differently to different people to our parents, our teachers, our
friends, or strangers … We can give you a facebook profile which is not close to
anything, we can give you a one-liner that is just a lie … So what is the point of your
question? And so on, and so forth. So the team proposed that ‘To a stranger, who has
never met you, who is the reader of our project, what would you say about yourself?’ The
other unexpected is that we didn’t realise that young people would talk to their friends in
a very different way than the way they talk to a ‘researcher’, an outsider of their life. So
the team volunteered to do the interviews for us, and we are amazed by the quality of
their conversation.
D. Meaning-making and reporting is a completely different affair for the travellers. We want
to tell the stories to people within our communities, but if we choose the language and to
meet the interests of our community, then they are other scholars, researchers, and
educators. So what about the young people? What about the teachers we have worked
with? What about the parents and others within the school community? For this, we
formed a focus group involving two persons from each of the above group for
conversation. This focus group highlighted so much interesting insight.
Through this research and many other conversations, we had over the years, we’ve developed
(mostly with young people) human-centred education.
To close: The metaphor of the researcher as a traveller provides a new narrative about
research. Seeing from this perspective, and as illustrated by my own experience, research
inquiry is an unfolding relational process and is itself co-creation and transformation of
our world and life. I will repeat what Ken has said, our dialogue and social research
becomes an action in itself. Our shared voices brought forward by the researcher’s (written)
account continue to prompt us to reflect upon the kind of life most desirable for the
community and the kind of relating most pleasing as part of our mutual flourishing.
Playing on the metaphor of traveller gives us the opportunity to re-imagine the social
researcher and her myriads ways to go about social research. This exercise depends on the
use of the word within the community who use it (Wittgenstein). In this case the community
of social constructionists. We may wonder how the metaphor might play out with a group of
feminists? Poststructuralists? Phenomenologists? Our understanding and even our being is
language-bound, and language is ‘the real mark of our finitude’ and we are ‘always already
biased in our thinking and knowing by our language and our linguistic interpretation of the
world’. The bias is our horizon determined by our community’s histories, traditions and
practices. In every round of conversation and meaning-making, we exposed to a new circle of
the unexpressed or unsaid, or the new horizons or new language communities. These will
continue to pose new questions and prompt us to seek corresponding language to keep the
conversations going. Ken calls it a new way to coordinate with each other. This continued
and sustained language enrichment enhanced our understanding and relationship.
This is not an example of how words can describe and represent the world. Instead, this is an
illustration of how words can envision and create worlds and how words are actions in
themselves that can propagate possibilities of transformation in the worlds.
As long as social research seeks to inquire into the life worlds of people-in-relations,
As long as the social researcher is interested meanings of people’s experiences in contexts,
As long as the aims of research include most inspirational possibilities for our worlds,
Then The dialogue has already begun,
The research is already in a relational key.
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