Chelsea Swift

Chelsea Swift is a PhD student in the Department of Education at the University of York. Her research is concerned with young people’s development of reading identities or, how an individual comes to see themselves as ‘someone who reads’. She is supervised by Dr Sarah Olive. On the 7th November she presented at Enquire conference, an annual one day event organised by postgraduates from the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham.

This year Enquire chose the theme Issues of Power in Social Research for their conference, which included keynotes from Professor John Holmwood, Dr Lisa McKenzie and Professor Les Back.  The conference challenged me to reflect on my own role and responsibilities as a researcher and to think about the various guises in which power presents itself, as both a product and subject of social research. The notion of the social researcher as a ‘story teller’, and the implications of this for the kinds of stories that get told, arose in each of the keynotes and in various papers given throughout the day.

Professor John Holmwood, in his talk Rethinking Class and Race, proposed that class consciousness, i.e. using class to explain inequality, is merely the ‘consciousness of sociologists’. One way in which he demonstrated this was through the discussion of data which suggested that classed identities were weakest in more unequal societies such as the UK and the USA, and strongest in more equal societies such as Sweden. This would suggest that individuals do not understand themselves and their situations in terms of ‘class’. Contrary to common conceptions of class in social research, John suggested that class, with its roots in colonialism and slavery, not only intersects with, but is race and that race is the primary explanation of inequality.

John also countered Danny Dorling’s arguments (see also this keynote) regarding wealth and inequality, placing emphasis on the proportion of wealth claimed by the top 1% of earners. John argues that focusing on ‘the 1%’ is a distraction, with the top 10% providing just as dramatic a representation of inequality.  However, as he pointed out, acknowledging this then implicates many of the people in the room (such as university professors!).  These examples illustrate the power that the ‘consciousness of sociologists’ has on the stories that get told through social research, and how their own view of and position in the world may colour them. This supports Stephanie Williamson’s (University of Nottingham) argument that both qualitative and quantitative researchers have the responsibility to be reflexive, considering their position as researcher and the impact they have on the constructions of the social world that get produced through research.

Dr Lisa McKenzie, reflected on her work with the residents of St. Annes, a council estate in Nottingham, retelling the story in the words of working class women. In her presentation, Class Prejudice- The Dr Who of British Inequality, she demonstrated how she uses ethnography (the in-depth study of specific societies/ cultures) to tell individual stories, which in turn show how class functions on a larger scale. She advocates the need for more working class voices in academia, telling their own stories in their own words. When challenged by an audience member who, referring back to John’s keynote earlier in the day, asked why she did not examine the issue of race, McKenzie explained that she did not feel that it was her story to tell.

This raises the question of whether stories need to be ‘ours’ if we’re going to tell them – as researchers, do we need to be from the communities we are researching to understand them? Further to this, what are the implications of the absence of certain voices in academia on the kinds of stories that get told and how they are told? This was an issue, which Reva Yunus (University of Warwick) encountered in her research. In her presentation, she described how her writing in English did not make sense to her participants, illustrating that the content and form of research into certain marginalised groups can often undermine its purpose. In contrast to this, I demonstrated the unpredictable ways in which participants may exercise their own power and find ways to participate (or not) on their own terms, in turn challenge assumptions regarding the researcher’s ability and need to ‘give voice’ to participants.

In my paper, I discussed how, despite good intentions, what the researcher theoretically and morally believes should be done to address issues of power in/ through social research is often not fully realised. The ethical, moral and cultural code of the research setting, in my case the school, can limit the power of both the researcher and the researched. For example, a view of the child as competent and capable of exercising agency is often at odds with broader cultural understandings of the child and their relationship to adults, which can provide a barrier when attempting to conduct research within such a paradigm. Assumptions such as the authority and expertise of the teacher, or the need to respect elders, can often be deeply embedded and it was difficult for me, during the short period of time I had with the participants, to challenge them. It was difficult to position the young person as the expert, when they did not see themselves as such or know how to act in that role.

Professor Les Back gave the final keynote of the day, titled ‘But the powerful can sue you for libel’: Power, Politics and the Craft of Scholarship. In contrast to the previous speakers, Back highlighted the impact of the participant’s (or, perhaps more appropriately, the subject’s) position of power in determining the stories that researchers are allowed to tell, with certain individuals possessing the financial means and the connections to prevent particular stories from being told. He suggests that ‘there are some people you can say anything about’, whereas critiques of others (such as those who can afford to take legal action) come under a ‘different kind of scrutiny’.

Another way in which powerful groups can influence the kinds of stories that get told is through the funding of particular projects and programmes. This was demonstrated in Hilary Aked’s presentation, where she discussed the funding received for the development of Israel Studies from key donors and pro-Israel policy think tanks. She suggested that such funding can have an impact on the kinds of values and beliefs that those who are likely to be in high profile positions possess.  This also raises the issue of how far the researcher should be political, and whether it is even possible to be completely a-political. It was suggested during the discussion of the papers in this session that political agendas may have implications for the perceived integrity and quality of the research. John Holmwood suggested that this may be more of a concern for early career researchers, whose positions are less secure, and that being ‘politically active’ may be a privilege of age and position.

Les Back concluded his talk by proposing that we, as researchers, are cast in roles that need to be reflected upon. He suggested that there is a need to know when and how to step up as a researcher and when to step aside and let other voices come through.  I feel that this is a useful thought with which to conclude this (now rather long!) post. The main idea I took away from the day was the importance of reflexivity and transparency when conducting social research. Power takes various shapes and forms throughout the process of conducting social research, due to the varying social, cultural and political positions of those involved and implicated. When research is conducted on humans and by humans, it does not take place in a vacuum where these positions and values do not come into play. Therefore, we need to acknowledge their presence in the research and their influence on the stories that ultimately get told.

For more on this, and see other people’s thoughts on the day, check out the hash tag #enquirepower on Twitter.