local education - some notes on method


In this paper I want to provide an account of the research process of which the writing of Local Education (Smith 1994) formed a part. I also try to place the work within its particular traditions; and examine the nature of the truth claims and theory involved.

An edited and amended version of the book together with an earlier version of this paper and a conclusion (examining the impact of the study on participants and on my own institution, and the possible contribution to the literature of the field) was submitted to the University of London to be examined for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. The title of the thesis was The practice of local education. Gwyn Edwards and Vic Kelly supervised my research - and I am indebted to them for all the help they gave me.

Two factors have pushed me into preparing this paper. First, a number of people have enquired about the methodology - and I wanted to short circuit the problems involved with inter-library loans and microfiched theses. Second, the original methodology paper (prepared in late 1993 and included in the thesis) had two or three shortcomings. Most notably these concerned some issues around the situating of material; power relationships in the research process; and measuring the impact of the research. Peter Jarvis and Meg Maguire helpfully pinpointed these concerns when examining the thesis. I wanted to revise the paper to take account of these, and some other questions that arose when I reread my discussion of methodology .

The shape of this piece is as follows. I begin by giving a brief outline of the subject of the research - local education.

From there I turn to the research design. I discuss the shape of the research programme; the focus of the research; fieldwork aims; access; ethical questions; and power relationships.

The intellectual and research traditions are then discussed - with some emphasis on the influence of hermeneutic discourses on the conduct of the research.

I then review the research process itself. I look at how I participated in the conversations that made up a substantial proportion of the fieldwork; undertook theoretical sampling; approached my own work; reviewed the literature; and used material with participants.

Interpreting and judging data is the focus for the next section and this is then followed by some reflections on the process of writing up.

The practice of local education

The research examined the educational practice of a number of youth workers, community workers and community educators. The frame of reference was essentially pragmatic although this was influenced by an encounter with Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics and Habermas' concern for communicative action. The methodology employed could be described as action research and this, in turn, entailed a particular structure for the study. The field work took place during the period January 1990 and June 1993.

There has only been a small body of substantive research into the practice of workers in these areas in the last thirty years. Such literature as exists (with one or two exceptions only) largely fails properly to locate practice within wider appreciations and debates concerning educational endeavours. The study examined:

It argued for a reconceptualization of the work around the notion of local edu cation and looks at the implications of an educative approach which looks to community, conversation and praxis.

Research design

In the initial stages of the research process (October-December 1989) I explored possible traditions within which to place my efforts, and the approaches to fieldwork that I might utilize. By the end of this period I had planned the fieldwork programme. My interest lay in addressing the critical and reflective practice of dialogue by educators in the community. The method was described as dialogical and was set within the action-research tradition (Smith 1990: 2-3). The programme of fieldwork was to run alongside an investigation of the relevant literature.


The research programme

It was envisaged that the programme would have the following elements:

All these elements were implemented.


Focus and orientation

I decided to focus on the thinking of practitioners: on their espoused theory; and how they might be enabled to explore 'theory-in-use' (Argyris & Schön 1974) and to harmonize the two. I wanted to ask practitioners to put their prejudices into play in relation to their own practice. I sought to do this in such a way as to encourage practitioners to talk with those they are working with, and to listen in other ways, as to just how conversations are experienced. At an early stage it was clear that any attempt to triangulate different people's experiences of the same educational conversations would necessitate a very different piece of research. It would involve working with a very limited number of workers and their 'clients'. While being an interesting and useful project in its own right (the only substantial example of such research in thi s area of education is Roberts et al 1974), it was not my primary interest here.

I set out with a commitment to mutuality in exchanges. I believed that research should not be a one-way process; that it should be designed and conducted so that all parties are able to benefit from their involvement. This was reflected in the dialogical nature of exchanges in the fieldwork. It was not, however, collaborative research in the sense that those concerned with 'new paradigm' approaches (e.g. Reason and Rowan 1981) or participatory action research have used the term. The practitioners had no substantial voice in the overall project design (Whyte 1991) although they did have a very significant say in the choice of areas for exploration - and have been involved in the process of writing-up the material.


The aims of fieldwork

The initial aim of the fieldwork was to deepen participant's understanding of, commitment to, and ability regarding, engagement in the critical and reflective practice of dialogue in the community. By 'participants' I meant all parties to the research - the local educators and myself as a researcher/practitioner. The nature of the aim - geared as it was to the enhancement of practice - related to the action research framework I adopted.

Later, I undertook more focused 'samplings'. Here my aim was specifically to gather data for the generation of material which would generally stimulate conversation about the subject area. This related to my concern to open up the material to those who were not immediate participants in the fieldwork.


Participating local educators

I wanted to keep a reasonable balance between those working with young people and those with adults (given the nature of the field). My particular targets were educators who had briefs to engage with local communities; and who were not wholly tied to a particular site or building. This led me to focus on the activities of:

This listing is a little arbitrary. In the event, nearly all the youth workers were doing major pieces of work with adults. They were also working to develop local community groups. Similarly, several of the community workers and educators were involved in youth work in some way.

Most of the workers were based in East London. I talked with the majority of the full-time staff in a particular community education area. This included both state and voluntary sector workers. I also worked with local educators from other parts of the United Kingdom. I cannot make any particular claims about the representativeness of the sample as there is a singular lack of substantial and reliable contemporary data concerning the background, deployment and disposition of practitioners in this arena.



Gaining access to these workers was fairly straightforward. They are not a closed group - and there is some tradition of such workers discussing or presenting their practice. This has partly to do with the need to obtain and sustain funding (many are, therefore, used to monitoring visits and the like - see Harris 1994; Dunning 1994); and partly because of the prevalence of non-managerial supervision in this arena (Turner 1995). My own position in this was influenced by my being already 'known' to the vast bulk of the practitioners. To some extent I was an 'insider'. I had worked as a part-time youth worker in the local area; been involved in union and other professional activities; was a tutor with the local training agency; and had written quite a lot about their area of work. In many other respects I was an 'outsider' . I was not part of their daily working pattern, I was still an 'academic'. (I return to these questions below).

The approach made to each worker was verbal - usually by phone. They were asked if they would consider participating in a research project which was exploring educational work in the community. The initial contact was then followed up by a letter and a short outline of the research. This included details of the subject area, the process of research, the nature of the feedback involved, arrangements for confidentiality, and brief details (including contact numbers) of the researcher. The model for the exchanges (supervision) was explained. Arrangements were then made by phone for the first meeting. (No worker refused to take part). I took some care to provide reassurance about the nature of the research - and what people may letting themselves in for (Hornsby-Smith 1993: 60). How much this was needed by participating workers - and how much this was borne of my own concerns aro und questions of access remains an open question.


Ethical questions - naming, confidentiality and consent

'Getting in' (achieving physical access) and 'getting on' (achieving social access) (Cassell 1988) was, thus, achieved with some ease. In undertaking the research I attended to guidelines that were appearing with regard to 'good practice' (e.g. BSA 1991; SRA 1993). I took steps to ensure that consent was informed and to remind participants from time to time of the nature of the exercise (often at the beginning of sessions).

One particular aspect of the research that I did check carefully was whether each worker was happy to be acknowledged by name in the write-up. As Roberts has put it:

Why is it, when ethical statements from professional associations tend to give such firm guidance on acknowledging the work of colleagues, that we assume that people who respond to our research do not want to be referred to by their own names, and do not want to be identified? What is so different about our co-authors, or well known researchers whom we are glad to acknowledge by name in our published work, and the insightful, amusing or telling comments of those we interview? (Roberts 1994: 6-7)

The acknowledgement was always to be made as part of a foreword - individual quotations were not to be attributed. It was also made clear that their names would be one of thirty or more. I felt very strongly that as this was a piece of research that depended very heavily on the co-operation and work of other people that this should be made explicit.

From the start some of the material that appeared was sensitive - and this confirmed my decision not to attribute quotes to specific participants. With such material I undertook to follow two procedures. First, identifying details were altered on transcription. Second, I did check out with participants in c ertain cases whether it was OK to use material. Some I chose not to use myself - this was largely because it dealt with questions arising out of the worker's life and relationships. These, while relating to issues in the research, stood the chance of being traced to particular individuals.

It should also be noted that this decision to list participants does place some limitations on the material as it is presented. First, there must be some questions as to the extent to which practitioners were editing or representing material so that they would look good (or at least not appear fools). The form the fieldwork took (a mirroring of supervision) did allow for a certain amount of questioning in this area - and I have taken some care in writing up with regard to truth claims (see below).

Second, there was a limitation on the extent to which I could situate material. I could not provide substantial biographical material e.g. concerning the person's culture as this wou ld then identify the person and go beyond the working agreement with regard to confidentiality. This could have been a very significant limitation given the emphasis in the research on the self and situated activity. However, the impact of this was limited by other factors including questions about the validity of any conclusions I could draw when relating material to people's biography. (This I also deal with later).

I still think I made a mistake here in the early research design. I owed it to readers to provide more of a picture of the workers involved so that they could situate the whole research effort. Furthermore, such material has important implications in terms of poetics - it influences the way that readers handle texts of this kind. In a current piece of work we have specifically asked participants to provide a biographical sketch that will be published along with the research (Jeffs and Smith 1995). A similar procedure could have been followed in this research project. The m aterial that workers chose to include (or exclude) would have been interesting in itself.


A question of power

One final element that requires comment here is the nature of the relationship between the participating practitioners and myself. As I have already noted I was both an 'insider' and an 'outsider' - and there are some questions about the balance of relationships here. For example, how much was being read into my questions and statements as the 'visiting expert' and to what extent did these influence then what was said by the workers involved. Such questions are made more complex by the particular role I played in the fieldwork process (that of supervisor). As Page and Wosket have said, there is an imbalance of power resulting from the difference in roles.

In order to fulfil their respective roles the supervisee is regularly exposing his shortcomings and difficulties in a way which the supervisor is not required to do. This difference in degree of vulnerability, along with the authority within the supervisor's role, lead to a natural imbalance of experienced power within the relationship... There are also likely to be imbalances resulting from the personal material. (Page and Wosket 1994: 11)

There is also an element of structural imbalance as I was recording what was being said - and could publish it. This has parallels with the supervision of trainees where reports are written (op cit.) - although the various safeguards around confidentiality place limits on the extent of this power in this instance.

We also need to move beyond simple notions of 'imbalance' and attention to 'position power' when approaching such a contested concept. We have to watch for the extent to which material does not appear because of 'anticipated reactions' and the 'mobilization of bias' (Lukes 1974) and the extent to which the discourse adopted articulates ideas in s pecific forms. I discuss these aspects in the book, although with not enough attention to discourse and the work of Foucault as I would now think appropriate (Smith 1994: 121-126).

Several points need making here in relation to the conduct of the fieldwork. First, I did make some attempt to provide participants with the opportunity to add to material, or to exclude it from the record. In the end nobody did this formally - although several things were changed or added through conversation.

Second, questions concerning power and perception in the relationship e.g. around gender, did become an explicit topic for exploration in several of the encounters. This arose specifically in relation to previous experience of supervision, the mirroring of relationships with clients in the exchanges (questions of transference), and around attitudes to possessors of knowledge (me as an 'academic').

Third, the vast bulk of these practitioners had undertaken sustained periods of non-managerial supervision. I made the judgement that they already had a reasonably sophisticated appreciation of the power dynamics in such relationships. This judgement was confirmed in the encounters. On several occasions participants made content-process shifts. That is to say they began to reflect on what was going in our conversation at that moment. In this respect they were unlike many of those who take part in research projects.

Last, particular attention was paid when participating in the conversations and analysing the data to the nature of the language used and the way these may link with various discourses. This is reflected in the write-up.

Intellectual and research tradition

Initially I began by describing the research in much the same way as Stenhouse (1980) talked about his own work - that of case-study based on condensed field experience involving observation (rather than the cla ssic participant observer strategy), tape-recorded interviews and the collection of documents (quoted in Burgess 1984: 2). What became apparent in supervision was that I was tending to omit the person and practice of the researcher, and the overall direction of the research (which was to directly improve the nature of practice in the arena). Furthermore, the research was focused on an approach to educating that sought to develop understanding and action in particular situations which themselves are amenable to some change by the actors involved. As such it could be portrayed as action research.

Action research is simply a form of self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own practices, their understanding of these practices, and the situations in which the practices are carried out (Carr and Kemmis 1986: 162).

I was drawn to this understanding of act ion research because it is firmly located in the realm of the practitioner - it is tied to self-reflection. As a way of working it is very close to the notion of reflective practice coined by Schön (1983).

However, there was a problem with Carr and Kemmis's definition with regard to my own work. Only one aspect of my activities in the programme - the reflection on my own practice - strictly fell within their understanding of action research. My conversations with practitioners were, I believe, more clearly expressed as, in part, an attempt to encourage action research or reflective practice.

My reading in this area since writing the original fieldwork proposal (Smith 1990) has zig-zagged between ethnography (Atkinson 1990; Hammersley 1990; Hammersley 1992; Sanjek 1990) and action research (Elliot 1991; Everitt et al 1992; Whyte 1991; Winter 1989) with bits of grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin 1990) and other aspects of the research process (Powney & Watt s 1987; Gilbert 1993; Layder 1993; Silverman 1993) thrown in. What I have written would, in a number of key respects, fit in with that range of ethnographic texts that Marcus and Fischer describe as 'modernist' (1986: 67-73). However, the telos informing this project rather takes me away from the description of this work as ethnographic - however much I have gained from my reading of anthropologists.

If we return to the epistemology which informs and is informed by the research effort, then what we can say is that the process is dialogical and oriented by a commitment to praxis. This dialogue occurs both 'in the field' (Whyte 1984) and in the academy. It involves conversations, observations and engagement with texts. It is pragmatic and interpretative. It is most definitely qualitative (Strauss 1987). As a result, it shares many of the concerns of that area of qualitative endeavour called grounded research (after Glaser and Strauss 1967) . Indeed, this is hardly surprising given Strauss' intellectual roots in interactionalism and pragmatism (Strauss & Corbin 1990: 24). However, my attachment to phronêsis means that this research effort lacks, or rather, moves beyond their interest in, and commitment to, the repeated application of systematic procedures.

The strength of grounded theory lies, I believe, in the coherent way that different forms of data - memories of conversations, texts and so on - can be subjected to interrogation. 'Data collection, analysis, and theory stand in a reciprocal relationship with each other' (ibid.: 23). However, there remains some ambiguity about whether grounded theorizing is designed to test theory as well as develop it. What it recommends in practice does not, according to Hammersley (1992: 21), conform closely to the features of the hypothetico-deductive method. This is not a worry here - my interest lies in generating ideas and metaphors that help practitioners to think about their work and experiences. I am concern ed with questions of truth and accuracy, but recognize that what is offered here is far from complete. It is an invitation to dialogue. In this sense, my main point of departure from Glaser and Strauss (1967) is that I believe that coherence can be located in the commitment to phronêsis rather than in method (after Gadamer 1979). It is perhaps here we can see the influence of discourse of hermeneutics at its strongest.

The commitment to phronêsis and practical discourse involves a disposition to the good, rather than to the correct. The obvious contrast here is with research as technê where we set out our hypotheses, construct a comprehensive research plan, implement that plan and evaluate the results. This way of proceeding may have its merits in certain circumstances. While not being a great fan of the sort of procedures promoted by Merton (1968) with regard to middle range theory - I can see the place of theory-testing procedures and their possible contribution t o the generation of further theory. However, here my interest lay not so much in testing theory, but with the cultivation of processes which embody wisdom, justice and mutuality. As Gadamer puts it:

The person who is experienced in the world, the man who knows all the tricks and dodges and is experienced in everything there is, does not as such have the right understanding which a person who is acting needs; he has it only if he satisfies one requirement, namely that he too is seeking what is right, i.e. that he is united with the other person in this mutual interest. (Gadamer 1979: 288)

This position does not mean that we forget, or put on one side, questions of method. On the contrary, deliberation about processes is fundamental. It is just that there is no general, predetermined procedure. We do not specify the outcomes in advance of the encounter. We constantly have to think things through; to entertain and be educated by the truth o f what we are studying (Rorty 1980); to hold the local and the global in tension (Geertz 1983); and to inform the process by our humanity and commitment to praxis (Carr and Kemmis 1986).

The research process

In this way the research process has been organic. My conversations with practitioners, my reading and reflection began with an idea of the broad area with which I wanted to engage. I had some questions in my mind. However, I also had a whole raft of prejudices (prejudgments). As my conversations and reading progressed a number of those prejudices have had to be modified; the focus changed or was rather reconceptualized around the educational conversations that local educators foster and engage in. In hermeneutic terms, this constitutes the working out of a fore-project. I projected before myself a meaning for the enterprise as a whole as initial meanings emerged in my conversations and reading.


Conversations about practice

Over the period between January 1990 and June 1992 I engaged in a series of sustained conversation with ten practitioners. All bar three of these practitioners were based in one particular community education area, although they were employed by a range of agencies both voluntary and statutory. Six were designated as detached or neighbourhood youth workers, two were community workers and two were community educators. Workers were approached because they fell within the specified occupational categories and worked in a particular locality. I then supplemented this with additional practitioners (in community education and community work) because of the lack (at the time) of workers in these categories in the chosen locality. Here I approached workers who appeared to be committed to reflection on their practice.

Most of these workers were already known to me through my involvement in local education in the area.

Th e conversations took the form of sessions of around 60 minutes. For most of the participants this involved between five and six sessions spread out at roughly fortnightly intervals. All of these encounters were tape recorded and transcribed. I made a particular point of placing the recorder so that it could be seen, and the status of the encounter reinforced. I also checked with participants as to any sections they wanted excluding from the record. All identifying details were altered on transcription.

My task as the initiator of the conversations was to establish the broad framework for encounters and to work in a way which encouraged and sustained dialogue. It was my job to show that the questions brought to the sessions could be thought about and, at times, to show ways in which things could be approached. I was offering a familiar role (for the workers and for myself) - that of a non-managerial supervisor. This allowed participants to draw on established ways of exploring practice, while still recognizing the encounter as part of a research initiative.

I worked with the account of the events the practitioners' brought, not with the events themselves. However, this is part of a dynamic process. As Christian and Kitto (1987) have written about supervision, my work does not consist in correcting the practitioner's view by saying 'this is what really happened':

If the supervisor does that, what will happen is that the worker will become dependent on the supervisor's eyesight. The work of supervision lies in enabling the worker to see more, and to see it more accurately. (1987: 8-9)

It was my task to help problematize situations, to offer, when appropriate, alternative interpretations. However, these were only offered in the service of enhancing the practitioners' ability to do this for themselves. While I may have brought specific questions to the encounter, these were secondary to this imperat ive. My interactions within the established framework were guided by my developing understanding of what makes for the good in this instance.

Within the framework established, the participants had considerable freedom to talk about what they wanted. When practitioners were describing practice I tended to be largely 'non-directive' - seeking clarification or offering interpretations. At other times I did prompt or was more directed in my statements and questioning - particularly where I was seeking to explore hypotheses (e.g. in relation to 'direction' - see Chapter 4 of the book) or to get below an apparent 'front' that is being presented (see Hammersley and Atkinson 1983: 115-6).

Sessions usually focused on one particular piece of work, experience or phenomenon. Workers often talked about what had gone on in the period since the last session and picked up on some element that was significant or worrying to them. Sometimes, this involved carrying on with a theme raised in the session such as around organizing time, or on how work with an individual or group was developing. Workers were offered transcripts of the exchanges - but only one wanted this.

The insider/outsider role appeared to have worked quite well. It meant that I did not have to do a great deal of explaining about myself, my commitment to practice was known but at the same time my being outside the immediate situation was a considerable asset - it gave people a particular type of opportunity to talk. There were, of course, a number of limitations arising from this relationship. I want to note two.

First, assumptions could be made that as an 'insider' I already 'knew' about certain matters and that there, thus, would be no need to talk about them. Examples here would include knowledge of certain incidents and more general matters such as what detached youth workers look out for when they are walking around. I knew that the supervisory format would allow me to approach to the 'taken-for-granted' and 'obvious'. The key question was whether I would could pick up on such questions to the degree needed (either through my own lack of consciousness or the disruption of flow). As in supervision, I had to make sure that before, and during, encounters I adopted an appropriate frame of mind. This entailed clearing away material about the individual and the situation. I would strive only to refer to matters that arose in the conversations related to the research (supervision) sessions. As to questions of flow, I decided to judge matters as they arose (mirroring the model for dialogue discussed in the book).

Second, I think there are some questions as to whether I was 'inside-enough' for some of the areas of conversation. Certain things could have been approached in a different way if I had placed a greater emphasis on the participant observation of practice situations - but the main doubt I have in this area relate to the number of sessions I had with workers. I have a feeling that participating in sessions over a longer period of time (perhaps a year or more) would have had certain benefits. These include establishing the sort of relationship that would make for increased disclosure; and gaining space for a wider range of issues and questions to arise out of the work. I think that in future programmes of this kind I will look for series of 12 to 16 sessions (mirroring the annual arrangements for supervisory relationships in many agencies and training programmes)


Theoretical sampling

In addition to this series of conversations I had a number of 'one-off' exchanges with practitioners. I have described this process as 'theoretical sampling' (after Strauss 1987). As the material from the above conversations and from the workshops (see below) began to take shape, gaps appeared, data was needed to fill in the evolving categories and theoretical 'codes'. As Hutchinson (1988: 136) has argued, 'th e researcher must engage in a constant dialogue with the data in order to establish direction for further sampling'. Sessions generally ran in parallel with the more extended conversations. Often it was possible to pick out a particular theme or aspect of practice that arose in these and then explore this through 'sampling' and through engaging with the literature and writing up memos (see below).

Conversations were recorded with 8 detached and neighbourhood workers, 5 community educators and 4 community workers. In addition, as I began to look at questions of planning, implementation and evaluation it was also necessary to talk to senior workers/managers who were team leaders. I spoke with four such people (two drawn from the voluntary sector, two from the statutory side). Again a key element in my choosing to approach people was some intimation that they were already engaged in reflection about their practice, and that they were interested in the particular subject matter. Everyone ap proached agreed to be involved in the research. Examples of the areas covered in these sessions included organizing work programmes; starting, ending, and engaging in, conversations; working with groups; recording and supervision; evaluation; and understandings of community.

My role in these sessions was more directed than with the encounters with workers described above. However, there was still a considerable degree of freedom in the subject matter approached. Often workers wanted to talk about some particular aspect of work that was concerning them - and in these instances I let this flow as it tended to provided a rich vein of material. As with the other conversations these sessions tended to last around one hour.

In addition to these conversations, I have also been a participant in a number of working situations - both formal and informal - where it has been possible to join in with an exploration of questions pertinent to the research. These have included wo rk with young people, with community and tenants groups and in informal gatherings of practitioners. Such material has been directly quoted in the study, but has been separately marked with the symbol [F]. This is to indicate that I am quoting from fieldnotes written-up after the encounter, rather than from transcribed material.


The interrogation of my own dialogical encounters.

When examining and reflecting on my own practice, two things emerged as of being of some importance. First, a substantial part of my time is spent in creating the context for dialogue about the process of education in the community and around concrete questions of theory and practice. These take place in three arenas - intervention workshops or study groups (where students and practitioners explore in detail some critical elements of their interventions); individual supervision of students; and in my courses - education studies and professional studies. Second, withi n these various sessions a large amount of material is generated concerning my own dialogical practice and the practitioner processes involved in educating in the community. Given the depth and range of appropriate material on hand, I concluded that this work should form part of the research effort.

Through recording various elements I have been able to draw upon material from some 126 hours of workshops and study groups (with both practitioners in training and with teams of workers); 150 hours of supervision/tutorials (with both students and qualified practitioners); plus various notes from teaching sessions and seminars over a three year period. However, I have not quoted directly from this material. The bulk of intervention workshops/study groups and the taught sessions take place within a framework of self assessment and qualification. Given this, I judged that it would be inappropriate to use student material from these sessions publicly - other than at highly generalized level. Th at is to say, students must be clear in the knowledge that what they have to say within these sessions is bound by the usual rules of confidentiality within professional training. It is also necessary to avoid any expectations or crossed wires that might be occasioned by students who perceive that they are 'helping' the supervisor to do their research by performing in a certain way in sessions. In this it should also be remembered that the actions and thinking of the researcher have been of fundamental significance. I am engaging in dialogue and my own processes provide material.


Exploring the literature

A substantial element of the research process was devoted to exploring the literature of the arena. This has entailed the coding of 661 substantive texts for youth work; 340 pieces for adult education; 553 pieces for community education; and 184 pieces for community work. To this must be added material on research (129 pieces), reflective pr actice (79 pieces), education - excluding adult and community (613 pieces) and social theory. These have been recorded and retrieved initially through Rapidfile and later via Filemaker Pro.

My exploration of the literature has run in parallel with the rest of the research. I did not undertake a substantial search prior to the start of the fieldwork. This was because I already had a considerable background in the material. This study grew out of some work I had undertaken in relation to youth work and informal education (Smith 1988; Jeffs and Smith 1990a). There was also a sense in which I wanted to engage with practitioner models and metaphors, and there was little in the immediate literature that could help me with this.

As the research developed it became apparent that the range of literature appealed to had to widen. In particular, I had to engage with the literature of adult education to much greater degree than I originally expected. Other 'unexpected' areas have included social theory and social geography. As themes or leading ideas emerged it was necessary ground them both in the appropriate literature as well as in the practices of the educators concerned.


Sharing material

Substantial parts of this study have been used with practitioners and practitioners in training. A number of those involved in the study have had the chance to comment on various components of the material. For example, Chapters 1, 3, 4 and 7 have formed the basis of distance learning materials and lectures. Parts of Chapters 2, 5 and 6 have also been used in lectures. Twelve copies of an early draft of the book were available to students in training for qualifications in Informal and Community Education. There were specifically in use with a level 3 programme (Adult and community education) for a complete academic year, and for a substantial part of the year with level 2 students (Professional studies). They could be borrow ed from the library.

People's responses to the materials and to the lectures (gained through written comments, conversations and questions) led to various changes - some which are noted in the text. For example, the model of reflection presented in Chapter 7 has had several substantial amendments as a result of its being used with practitioners and students. The tone and direction of Chapters 1 and 2 also altered significantly as a result of this comment.

Interpreting and judging data

In thinking about the fieldwork proposal I was heavily influenced by the work of Glaser and Strauss (1967) and the notion of grounded theory. This is represented by Strauss as 'a detailed grounding by systematically and intensively analyzing data, often sentence by sentence, or phrase by phrase of the field note, interview, or other document' (1987: 22) He continues:

by constant comparison, data are extensivel y collected and coded... thus producing a well constructed theory. The focus of analysis is not merely on collecting or ordering a mass of data, but on organizing many ideas which have emerged from analysis of the data. (1987: 22-3)

This process of theory making involves what Glaser and Strauss (1967) describe as coding - a general term for conceptualizing data. It includes 'raising questions and giving provisional answers (hypotheses) about categories and about their relations' (Strauss 1987: 20-1). Such coding is informed by a coding paradigm. Data are coded for relevance to whatever phenomena are referenced by a given category, for example exploring:

One of the problems with this approach (and hinted at by these headings) is the extent to which it may encourage a focus on the 'close-up' features of social interactions. As a result researchers can easily neglect 'the seemingly more remote aspects of the setting and context. These "structural" or "macro" aspects of society must play a more central role in fieldwork analysis' (Layder 1993: 55).

Linked to this problem is the degree to which coding can encourage a focus on the minutiae - which while interesting and significant in some circumstances - can lead you away from underlying movements and themes. This is something I pick up in the book under another heading via the work of Bion 1974: 37). Instead of trying to bring 'a brilliant, intelligent, knowledgeable light to bear on oscure problems', perhaps we should turn down our illumunation. Where there is a faint or flickering light, it is best revealed by creating darkeness (Smi th 1994: 148).

Whyte (1984) prefers the term 'indexing' to describe the ordering process. He suggests that coding 'implies going farther into theory building than I want to go while I am still orienting myself to the data' (1984: 118). In these circumstances something called indexing would precede coding. While clearly indicating some caution in a the rush to theory, there doesn't seem to be much to choose between the terms. In practice it has meant exploring what workers say for recurring, organizing, or emphasized, words or themes. Texts have also been examined in this way. It has also meant looking for how words and themes are placed on to another: what is connected, what is set apart. At the same time I have tried to attend to the sorts of structural matters and extended rules for grounded theory that Layder (1993: 69-70) has indicated. This again led me onto the terrain of relationships of power.


Validity and generalizability

When looking at the material a number of basic questions had to be asked concerning its validity and reliability. In this I initially tended to fall back on Scott's (1990: 6-9) four criteria concerning evidence:

The typicality of material is something that arises with particular force within 'qualitative' research such as this. As Hammersley (1992: 86-93) has suggested, three broad strategies are employed in this respect. The first is simply to say that gener alizations cannot be made on the basis of the sort of data presented here. Each worker or encounter is so unique that it is not possible to say anything useful about other situations. A second approach is to claim that the particular setting or phenomenon studied is typical of some larger whole or aggregate. Here Hammersley uses the example of Ball's (1981) study of a comprehensive school which, he claimed 'approximated to the ideal type of a "meritocratic" comprehensive' (Ball 1981: 20). The third strategy is to seek to give work more general significance 'by drawing conclusions about one or more social scientific theories from the features of the local events they observe and describe' (Hammersley 1992: 91). In this way, through the detailed analysis of individual cases, 'universal' theory or laws may be formed.

I have been careful not to make general claims based on the evidence of this research alone. However, I do claim that certain elements of what I explored in this st udy have relevance beyond the specific instances in which they arise. While, for example, many of the youth workers could be atypical of full-time workers as a whole with regard to their job specification (they were predominantly detached or patch workers), what they have to say about their practice does find strong echoes in the literature and in the response of many of those exposed to the ideas in the workshops and sessions that I have participated in. Thus, where I believe there is substantial supporting evidence I have commented on the typicality or generalizability of an observation. However, as Geertz (1973) has so clearly demonstrated, in texts such as this, 'what we call our data are really our own constructions of other people's constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to' (ibid.: 9).

The fact that I am only making limited claims with regard to the data does go some way in handling the problems that arise in relation to the relative lack of material to situate each piece of data. For example, extracts from transcriptions and fieldnotes are included in the text without detailed reference to their originators. To fully place conversations in relation to the biographies of those involved would be a huge undertaking. One of the few pieces of research I have seen in this area that successfully goes down this route is Louden's (1991) study of continuity and change in teacher's knowledge. He was able to situate material more closely because he focused on the activities of just one teacher over the period of a year. The result was a textured account in which actions could routinely be related to biography (and to wider forces).

As I have already noted the inclusion of more biographical material concerning participants would have contributed to the ability to make judgements about the overall research project - but I do have doubts as to its validity in relation to specific extracts of material in the text. Here the problem lies in the easy connectio n. The strength of Louden's (1991) study was that connections were possible because of the relative sophistication of the biographical material and the ability to explore matters with his subject on a daily basis. On occasions it was possible to make linkages of this kind in this research programme - there was supporting material elsewhere in the data e.g. in relation to local knowledge (Smith 1994: 16). However, to go beyond much beyond this would have involved a more sustained series of sessions (as discussed above).

I think I also need to re-emphasize with regard to these questions that my aim in writing up the research has not been particularly to describe the actions and explanations of an established occupational group. Rather, I have sought to build a reasonably coherent account of a distinctive way of educating. I did this as a contribution to a continuing dialogue in which the validity and value of such insights that do arise can be judged.


Adju dicating truth claims

The question then arises as to what authority can be claimed for judgements made on the basis of these criteria, or ones like them. How are differences to be adjudicated in situations where communication may be distorted or coerced (Habermas 1984)? As Bernstein (1991: 205) put it, 'Our concrete historical forms of life are always shaped by traditions, social practices and communal bonds that are more concrete and complex than our rational discursive practices'.

As I suggest in Chapter 8 of the book, writers such as Gadamer can be criticized for not fully addressing how great inequalities in power condition dialogue; or how the meanings of the words we use can be systematically distorted. Yet, hegemony can never be complete. In the movement of social relations, actions and ideas still have to be justified, people have to talk and be convinced. For as long as people require others to do their bidding, or to join with them in some e nterprise, there has to be conversation, otherwise they cannot hope to fully achieve their aims.

Once there is conversation there is hope. As Habermas argues, in dialogue there is a 'gentle but obstinate, a never silent although seldom redeemed claim to reason' (Habermas 1979: 3) (what Goffman calls the requirement to demonstrate sanity - see Manning 1992: 156-7). However distorted our ways of communicating are, there is within their structures a 'stubbornly transcending power' (Habermas 1979: 3).

When we assert a belief that we hold, we also offer an implied promise to provide at least some of the evidence and reasons behind that belief, if asked. We may not be asked; we may not be able to provide those reasons fully; and we may not convince others if we do - but by making the assertion we commit ourselves to that broader obligation. (Burbules 1993: 75)

The claims each and every statement has to make as to its own validity hold some possibility of dialogue and hence of furthering understanding.


Examining the impact of the project as action research

Finally, in this section, I want to say a few words about judging the project as a piece of action research. The initial aim of the fieldwork was to deepen participant's understanding of, commitment to, and ability regarding, engagement in the critical and reflective practice of dialogue in the community.

My central interest in the research as a whole was to stimulate, and contribute to, conversations about 'education in the community' - and more lately 'local education'. Having these different foci I needed to make some assessment of the possible impact of the research effort on:

This I did in the concluding section of the thesis (not included in the book)

In exploring these questions it was possible to draw on a number of primary sources, but any conclusions drawn needed to be treated with some care. I was able to point to concrete changes in programme operation within the institution, and to make some initial assessment of the possible contribution to the literature and to policy debates. However, the area of greatest difficulty concerned the impact on participants (including myself). Here we come up against problems of identification of learning and change; of demonstrating and evidencing this; and of isolating causal factors. This parallels directly the problems discussed concerning evaluation and identifying outcome in local education (Smith 1994: 80-85). This is hardly surprising given that both are educa tional endeavours involving conversation.

Identification of my own learning and development was made possible by my keeping a log of the research and undertaking supervision - although the effect of other dynamics, for example, in my day-to-day teaching was also significant. It was difficult to point at times to what may lay at the root of any change. What was happening for other participants was very difficult to identify - and I think I overstepped the mark in one or two places in relation to this. There was a basic design fault in the research approach here - and this relates back to the timespan and number of sessions with the 'key' participants. If I had adopted a full supervision model over a year with 12 or more sessions I could then have also encouraged a more formal process of self assessment. This, in turn, could have fed back into the research programme. Self assessment is a process with which I have some familiarity within the college setting - and I think it could have bee n introduced with only minor difficulty.

Writing up

The circumstances in which this research arose; the disposition to continuing conversation; and the 'grounded' nature of the enterprise meant that I structured and presented the research in a particular way. I tried to attend to the possible ways in which this text might be interpreted by readers. Within anthropology, in particular, attention has been paid to the way in which social and sociological reality is constructed textually (Atkinson 1990), and to the poetics and politics of ethnography (Clifford & Marcus 1986). The basic problem that I faced concerned the conventions which inform the making and reading of texts. Given the subject, methodology and the concern with praxis it was necessary to use writing forms and textual conventions that would engage practitioners and their trainers. My interest lies in stimulating people to explore the frame of reference they bring to their wor k and how this is translated and experienced in relation to the particular situations they encounter.

When examining a study of a phenomenon such as local education, we want to know precisely the evidence and arguments underpinning statements. However, when looking at what we do and feel, for example as teachers, we tend to move from the world of objects to that of subjects. If texts are to be convincing in either realm, they have to persuade the reader into a frame of reference 'whereby the reader may sympathetically "fill in" the things which render it coherent' (Atkinson 1990: 18; see also Anderson 1978). This has particular implications for the text and its arrangement.


Shape and textual arrangements

The nature of this research exercise has meant that it was not particularly appropriate to structure the write-up in the 'traditional' form. 'A thesis should contain a review of relevant literature, a descrip tion of what has been done, what came out of this, a discussion of these results and finally some conclusions that can be drawn and suggestions for future work' (Phillips & Pugh 1987: 56-7). This form suggests a linear progression that is at odds with the experience of the research. My exploration of the literature was continuing at the same time as conversations with practitioners; 'results' were discussed with participants; aspects of my reading were directly introduced. I have, thus, attempted to bring together an interrogation of the literature; the statement of 'results'; and the discussion of findings. This particular structure comes close to that suggested by Winter (1989: 71-77) for action-research.

There was a further factor at work - the material was in continual use with practitioners. I made certain judgements about the shape of pieces that would elicit a dialogical response (see below). I wanted also to provide sound links into the wider literature. The various chapters in the book are the direct product of these efforts and the responses of participants and others to them. When considering their format I looked to established and substantial practitioner texts - and found that these followed a number of limited formats: thematic or issue oriented texts (e.g. Masterson 1982); personal accounts (e.g. Blandy 1967); and 'principles and practice' textbooks (e.g. Leighton 1972). I found one major published text that came close to the shape proposed by Phillips and Pugh (1987) - Eggleston's (1976) study of five youth work agencies. Significantly, the intent of this piece of research was to test hypotheses and to generate (after Merton 1968) 'middle-range theory'.


Voices in the text

The accounts that emerge in the main bulk of the study are not my own. I have made extensive use of 'stretches of talk' taken from transcriptions. They are used to support and to furnish evidence for my argument. As Atkinson (1990) not es, such exemplars have the following characteristics and discursive functions:

First, they provide the reader with concrete - sometimes vivid - if fragmentary, vicarious experience of the social world in question. Second, they allow for the introduction of multiple perspectives and voices in the text. Third, they allow for a polyphonal and collaborative text, constructed between the sociologist, the reader, and the social actors represented in the setting. (Atkinson 1990: 82)

My primary aim has been to foster dialogue. It is therefore important for the text to be experienced dialogically. This involves certain forms of address like I, you, we. It also means that the voices of practitioners have to be heard. Hearing those voices, and thinking about what was said, and not said, led to changes in the way the text itself is presented, as well as to the ideas that were seen as significant. The shape and nature of the text is not what I set o ut to achieve at the beginning of the programme. The use of quotes, for example, is far more extensive than I initially would have wished. This has occurred in part because I discovered in conversation that many of those involved in the study used the practitioner quotations as an initial orienting device. They read them first and then filled in the spaces. A further factor in the use of quotations is the growing wish to open up the material. It is both theoretically rich - 'thick description' in Geertz's (1973) terms - and open to alternative interpretation.

In conclusion

My disposition to certain traditions of thinking (perhaps best summed up in Mills' (1959: 195-226) essay on 'intellectual craftsmanship'; and my reading of 'grounded theory' (after Strauss 1987) led me to what could be described as an 'intermediary position'. I did not followed the sort of full, grounded, programme envisaged by Strauss. In particular, I did not have the resources to sy stematically test theory. Furthermore, given the 'tentative' nature of my efforts; and the nature of what I was attempting to approach, the sort of testing implied by Hammersley (1992) and others was not appropriate at that juncture.

The position adopted entailed 'an exploratory kind of fieldwork' which aimed to:

develop concepts and descriptions which are theoretically insightful and thus provide useful starting points for further research. In this sense, once developed, they act as 'sensitizing devices' which help subsequent researchers to formulate theoretical ideas or organize their data. (Layder 1993: 49)

The researchers that primarily constituted my audience are what Schön (1983) describes as 'researchers in the practice context' - in other words, practitioners. The 'theory' I was concerned with was not the 'narrow province of "variables" through which the empirical problem is focused, and in terms of which the data or evidence are ultimately explained' (Layder 1993: 14). Rather, I was following the idea that theories should be seen as 'networks' or 'integrated clusterings' of concepts, propositions and world views (ibid.: 15).

There were some flaws in the research design - especially concerning the work with the 'key' participants. More attention was needed to the problems of situating the research effort and activity in general. Further, some conceptual areas required further attention e.g. the notion of power. That said, the overall design and process did allow for the generation of some interesting ideas and metaphors regarding the practice of local education and these have found some echo among practitioners (see, for example, Nicholls 1994; Ireland 1994).


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© Mark K. Smith First published:December 1994