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Critical Review on: A counter-narrative of a “failed” interview by Nairn, Munro and Smith (2005) (Word Count: 1,613)
This essay examines the article by Nairn, Munro and Smith (2005), with the aims to explore the theoretical background to the study, with reference to relevant literature, and critically reviews its methodology and results. It includes the identification of the article’s strengths and weaknesses. The conclusion considers the contribution that the article makes to the field of sociology in education and suggests some areas where further research is needed. This article emerged out of a larger study about how students in New Zealand perceive their rights in high school (Nairn, Munro and Smith 2005). The authors had noted that one interview in a series stood out from the rest because of a lack of spoken text, they have therefore decided to investigate why this happened and what it could mean in the context of this research. One theory that the authors focus on is that of knowledge production, and the methods that are widely used in qualitative research to generate different kinds of knowledge. Another key concept that had emerged from this research was “reflexivities of discomfort” (Pillow, 2003, p. 187) which arise when researchers reflect upon and think about errors and problems that arise in the course of their work. Besides, it should be made aware that in the earlier parts of this research paper, the authors had stated that by ‘failure’, it referred specifically to the role of the interviewer; her inability to obtain answers from her participants. One that lies at the core of qualitative research in that places value on what is said rather than what is not being said.
This distinguishable sociological research journal in particular had caught my attention, as qualitative interviews are one of the methods that I would like to engage greatly in my future research design. Second, I find this piece of sociological journal to stand out from the rest of academia work, as it acknowledges and discusses a ‘failed’ interview as oppose to a ‘successful’ one. This is highly uncommon in the academics field, chiefly as ‘success’ is acclaimed and ‘failure’ is dismissed. Through an apparent ‘failed’ interview however, we can analyse how the absence of spoken text can enable our better understanding of the importance in other compelling factors such as embodiment, silence and laughter in acquiring useful data. (Nairn, Munro and Smith, p.221) Nevertheless, ‘silence’ in certain cultures can be interpreted as the act of demonstrating seriousness and respect before answering to an individual’s query. In western societies however, ‘silence’ is conceivably interpreted as the respondent’s inability to comprehend the question or a way of expressing power (Shearer, 2018).
A fundamental tenet of qualitative research is cited, namely Miles and Huberman’s (1994) views that the goal of research is to generate meaning from data. The authors concur with this position but point out that this is in practice a very challenging task, as there are different kinds of data that could be included. There is a brief review of the literature on embodiment, including reference to Bourdieu (1977, 1990) and some feminist materials on the power structures in society on the ways people are socialised into institutions such as the school, and how the body is constructed in and through those structures and institutions (Probyn, 1991). I will begin here by asserting the original methodology that sparked this study was a standard interview conducted by a researcher with nine students from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds in a New Zealand school setting. It should also be further noted that the participants selected for the interview was of Maori and pacific-island descent and the interviewer was Pakeha; New Zealander of European descent (Ranford, 2018). The authors noticed an element of power imbalance as the interviewer is of the dominant race. This is a qualitative methodology that is based on the idea that multiple perspectives exist, and that they each construct reality differently, leaving the researcher with the difficult job of interpreting meaning from a complex set of data which might be contradictory (Denscombe, 2014). The article itself takes the form of a report on the methods used and a reflection on the embodied experience of researching in this particular educational context. The researchers present personal background, views and values, as well as data that is gathered from observations and conversations carried out in the school context. The question answer approach is not only allowed but encouraged in qualitative approaches, since the positivist paradigm of a single reality based on demonstrable facts is rejected in favour of an approach that considers the researcher’s own background as well as multiple voices, and different views (Mason, 1996).
The authors provide minimal snippets of the interview text, transcribed with frequent notations of “???” which signifies indistinct words that were not clearly noted and understood by the interviewer (Nairn, Munro and Smith, 2005, p. 240), but the main body of the article consists of detailed information on the setting; the administrative area of the school (Nairn, Munro and Smith, p.227), the backgrounds of the students, the background of the interviewer, and other aspects of the encounter such as the seating plan in the room, and the body language and speaking style of the interviewer and participants. There is a focus on these contextual factors, rather than the content of the interviews, in order to illuminate all aspects of the methods used. This data provides the basis for reflection on the errors that were made, and an opportunity for the authors to interrogate their practices as researchers.
A key strength in the methodology used in this article is the way in which it exemplifies the researcher’s ‘reflexivity’. It shows that researchers must be aware of the limitations of their chosen instruments for gathering data and be sensitive to the unspoken dimensions of communication which may be highly significant. In this case, a problem with the data collection method was identified early on, and identifiable steps were taken to understand what had happened and find ways of evaluating the impact of elements such as the interviewer’s embodiment and the setting. It is important also that the authors endorse the need for flexibility and multiple methods in educational research and show awareness of power structures imbalances and how they can inhibit some people or groups and provide a platform of privilege for others.
Indeed, there are strengths to the methodology used by the researcher. However, limitations occur. Such that the methodology and sampling strategy should also have been made aware of this is included in the selection of participants for the group interview. A fundamental requirement for sociological research is to guarantee that participants are plainly informed about the nature and purpose of the study and give their prior informed consent in advance of any interviews (Israel and Hay, 2006). In this case, students were conscripted and in effect required to participate as part of their regular class activity. The authors concede that “informed consent was therefore problematic” (Nairn, Munro and Smith, 2005, p.227) and it would have been better to work with the senior student researchers to recruit participants. This is something of an understatement, and in fact it could be argued that the whole research project is invalidated by its failure to guarantee ‘informed consent’. Furthermore, another weakness which lies within the sampling strategy was that the interviewer did not recruit participants through her own accord. Instead, the sampling of the nine students was mediated by the help of a teacher. We could argue for the underlying element of bias which may potentially lead to the results of the study to be less representative and valid as the school teacher may only select participants on the basis of who she believe is suitable for the research, instead of relying on how representative the students are in terms of reflecting the primary objectives of the research.
Lastly, there should always be an effort to ensure that participants are not harmed by the study in any way (Bryman, 2012). In this case, the coercive nature of the selection process, and the obvious discomfort of the students being interviewed, suggest that some harm may have been caused. The situation was partly recovered by the interviewer’s acknowledgement of this issue, and ceases to persist on employing this method on interviewing her participants. Instead, she allows some of the students to suggest another way of providing information, for instance; through a guided tour led by students. However, this still requires some members of the group who did not volunteer to take part in this, and whose views were therefore not elicited through this study. It is not known whether those students suffered harm, nevertheless we can maintain that this is a very serious weakness in this study.
In summary, this article was an interesting demonstration of how not to conduct qualitative research in schools, and it admits to a quite shocking disregard of fundamental principles in research ethics. On the other hand, the authors are honest about the failings endured in the research, and reflect on their mistakes and state that they have changed and improved on their research practices for future studies. It is ironic however that the original research question was about participant views on their rights in school when there are obvious ethical complications involved in this study. It was appropriate that this was abandoned in favour of a rigorous re-examination of the researchers’ data gathering processes, as this article proves that more training is needed for researchers in the sociology of education, especially in research ethics, and further research into the proper practice of the complexities of school-based primary research is required.
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