A visit to “edgelands” of research in management

I was not sure what to expect at a conference called Qualitative Research in Management, of course the abstract titles and the organisers name should have proved some inkling, after all Anne Cunliffe is well known as an academic who thoughtfully and carefully pushes us to think about practice based research. However, I am a more accustomed to education conferences, and the word management in the title spooked me, and later I realised I had self-policed my own presentation on design, value and soft systems (see here), to make it into what I thought would be acceptable, I need not have.

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Figure 1, Make America Great Again, Chad Browneagle, 2017.  Macintyre, 2018, Santa Fe, CC BY NC SA 4.0

I am afraid I cannot do justice to the breadth of research on offer in sufficient depth, therefore I am just going to brush over the top.  The first paper I went to was Lynn Beckles,  it was an ethnography of the tourism industry in Fiji, Lynn is from Barbados, and she reflected on her own position as a researcher in Fiji, and how she negotiated the norms of ethnographic research within the academic community with the ways of knowing and being she observed in the field. In particular, how the dissonance between them led her to the work of Nabobo-Baba and the Vanua Research Framework, a framework developed to account for specific ontology and epistemologies encountered during educational ethnographic research Nabobo-Baba conducted with Vugalei Fijians (see here). I don’t know the field, or the writers, but it had a familiarity, which made me feel at home.

They do say, or at someone once did, the role of the researcher is to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.  There was certainly lots of opportunities to experience this. For example, the winner of the “best paper” Yvonne Black work on community gardens as therapy turned into something else when Hulls position as “City of Culture” led to the arrival of a playwright and through the play the ability to talk about things and to people whose stories would otherwise have been obscured. Or Michael Butler’s   (co-authored with Ann) investigation of a coffin furniture factory in Birmingham, the pattern of work, and the patterns left on the material them, the image of the dent left in the flagstone floor by workers standing in front of a pressing machine resonate with me,  as I look back, and it echoes forward.  As does Jill Birch work on leadership, talking through her experiences as a practitioner and academic, the phrase “edge walking” will stick with me, as it seems to embody the difficulties in a way formulations like pracademic don’t.

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Figure 2: I Love my Country: Anti Gun Demonstration, Santa Fe, 24th of March 2018, Macintyre, Santa Fe 2018, CC BY NC SA 4.0

Jack Harris was looking at networks in Disaster Relief in the US, the paper draws on existing and emerging work in Hurricanes Harvey in Houston Texas and Sandy in New Jersey (see here). Listening  to Jack talk about networks I felt I had to talk to him later about the question he posed, why do we know so little about tie formation. Our clumsy thoughts were we only observe the presence of connections and what it enables. It is a conversation that probably means I am going to be thinking about the networks that don’t exist, and the ephemeral ones, for some time.

Finally this papers tour takes me to the familiar ground of distance learning. Jean Saludadez from the University of the Phillipines Open University was looking at temporality and place making in tutor student discussion, as a researcher and tutor I felt the gentle nodding of familiarity. At the end someone asked why she had inferred a particular thing from the data, as they didn’t see it that way. It seemed obvious to me, and I said so, but when Jean spoke about her process, how she unpicked the meaning, I felt the jolt, as my tacit routines, the ways I have of knowing as an educator were surfaced, and by extension how they conditioned my view of this research. Perhaps this was the main lesson from the conference, the jolts.

selfpFigure 3: Black Mesa Landscape, Georgia O’Keefe, 1930. Macintyre, Santa Fe, 2018, CC BY NC SA 4.0

Those jolts were not just at the convention, as what might have been a placeless hotel venue at the Airport was in New Mexico, in Albquerque. While I could reflect on “Breaking Bad”, and the feeling I got on the train  to Santa Fe as it passed over a dry river bed and the scene where the child is shot flashed, or the Georgia O’Keefe Gallery again in Santa Fe, and her resistance to the eroticising of her paintings under the male gaze. Instead I couldn’t help think about Kafka and his book Amerika, and wondering to what degree the books, Films and TV series shape my own sense of this place, just as my reading of the word management shaped my expecations of the conference.

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Community and other Bloody Projects

Introduction

After a long delay this post returns to more certain ground, the Highlands, and with it a sense of uncertainty that comes from looking at what you think you know. One of the issues with the familiar is the way it falls into your assumptions about it. Earlier posts in this series touched on these assumptions and confirmation biases and their role in shaping our worldview in relation to totalitarianism and post colonialism. For example, Achebe (1978) threw Western Liberal assumptions back at us, and Comaroff and Comaroff (2012) asked us to consider our assumptions about what a functioning democracy looks like. I cannot promise anything on Western Liberalism, however, I am going to consider our assumptions about the functioning of democracy through examining local decision making practices in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. I focus on two books, the first is by anthropologist Susan Parman (2005) entitled “Scottish Crofters: A Historical Ethnography of a Celtic Village” based on early 1970’s doctoral research. The second is Booker Winner “His Bloody Project” by Graeme Macrae Burnett (2015).

Bloody Projects

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Figure 1: Bloody Prints, source: Sara Band, http://saraband.net/2016/07/27/bloody-project-longlisted-man-booker-prize-2016/ Fair Use

“His Bloody Project” uses a familiar literary trope, found or narrated accounts that are put together or narrated to the author. In this novel the accounts centre on Roddy Macrae and the events leading up to a triple murder.  This is not a spoiler, so does not contain anything about whodunit, or perhaps more appropriately whydunit, instead I focus on a particular character, Lachlan MacKenzie. Lachlan, and his daughter and son, are murdered, we know this at the start, the narrative unfolds through the events leading up to and then past the murders. The Macrae’s and the Mackenzie’s have a fractious relationship, made even more difficult when Lachlan takes on the post of the village constable, and begins to exercise his power over the village and in particular the Macrae’s. The position of village constable is seen as a burden, organising compulsory works, communal events, adjudicating local disputes, but mainly being the link with the local landlord and enforcing their rules.

The novel suggest people take on the role reluctantly, accepting it on through the fear of a “willing constable” being imposed. The best candidate for constable is the person who wants it least. Roddy’s father, a somewhat withdrawn man, is approached in a roundabout way typical of the Highlands, while not asked directly he understands what is being asked and refuses.  Lachlan makes a grab for and gets the position.  In Roddy’s account the power brings out the worst in Lachlan, the accounts from other villagers add to this sense,  through these Macrae Burnett creates a sense that wanting this type of power and influence over your neighbours is “not a Highland thing”. Indeed it is not. While I cannot do justice to the passages, I think it is one of the best descriptions of how decisions are still reached in some Highland communities, a mode of indirection that bewilders some. It reminds me of debates around whether questions around temporality explored in narratives concerned with remembering and forgetting are actually concerned place. For example, whether “Being and Time” by Heidegger uses the temporal as a way to approach place making by indirection (Malpass 2006).

The Scottish Crofters

Parman’s account of her time in the Western Isles contains a similar set of stories, of reluctant “township clerks” taking their turn, or of those who relished the role being subject to ridicule.  Of a distrust of authority and official process’s, while also recognising  communities needed to learn how to operate in these spaces, and individuals who could act as translators (even approximate ones) of local issues into official rhetoric were useful, even if they were not to be trusted. Parman’s was a young student from the US, and what is interesting is her confusion. Her own missteps as she found it difficult to get “straight answers” to questions, or when she made appointments  and they were not kept, or trying to get the heart of how decisions were made.

I first read Parman’s in 2005 when the second edition came out and an online colloquium on a Highland discussion board was set up, with the great and the good from rural/Highland sociology and anthropology commenting. I read it as an ethnography, asking how closely it sat with my own experience, it is only now I am able to ask what it says about decision making in local communities. Parman identifies some interesting areas, the importance of informal networks, of the ripples that flow through a community, of issues that appear fully formed and unamiously supported when they suddenly appear in official documents. Rather than deliberate discussions in public, the risk of open disagreement is minimised through indirection, through carefully structured discussions which never surface the matter at hand. It is familiar, and you can see why I referenced Heidegger earlier, clearly a politically troubling figure whose arcane language does little to hide distasteful views, yet I  often think about his work on the “close at hand” (Heidegger 1993), how one reads things through those things that are close, and thus don’t need to be spoken. I suppose here I situate my own approach to understanding place in relation to Heidegger, and Ingold’s (2000) use of Heidegger, to suggest place making arises first from dwelling and through this building the social and structural, contested of course, but we can read the close at hand, and to whose hand it is close to, as a way to read these places.

What Parman does it set out the unspoken, the ripples go out, but not directly, one does not ask what do think of this when you pop round, you say well this person has suggested this, what do you think. But of you don’t, you would never come straight out and ask, the suggestion must appear to come as a natural part of the conversation, maybe even an “ah yes I forgot … did you hear” on parting at the door. Likewise people will not disagree directly, but suggest someone else who might not agree, or a hypothetical position to depersonalise what they are saying. Even though everyone knows “the rules”, it is a way of communicating that allows extended relations who live in close proximity to engage in shared activities.

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Figure 2:  The Public Sphere, Frederic Sorrieu lithograph from 1848 commemortating universal male suffrage in France entitled “Suffrage universal dedie a Ledru-Rollin, Public Domain

Parman does not extend the analysis, or make the political points, and perhaps it is not for anthropologists to do. However, I can tease this out, as I have earlier asking, how culturally specific the modes of deliberation privileged within western models of democracy are, how they don’t even account for decision making, but describe particular sets of relations amongst particular social a class. I could argue these normative accounts of what a functioning deliberative decision making spaces should look like are more than cultural blindness but are themselves as system of exclusion (Negt O., Kluge A. ([1993] 2016), and certainly Parman  and Macrae Burnett touch on these themes. The way it favours particular forms of communication and rhetoric, and as aspect of communities life become tied into apparently democratic structures how it excludes some voices, and promotes others. However, I am going to make a practical point relating to the operation of community development. Over the years I have seen community development initiatives, community animators, local development workers, community consultations come and go. What I have often heard, as a local “they can talk to”, is a frustration, “… after all  …we had a meeting, open to anyone,  people could have come, spoken up if they objected. No one did, we have gone head, and now I can’t get anyone to help me …”

Coming Round to Community Development through Indirection

The problem in community development is people like me, we have experience of professional discourse, this means when there is a consultation, or a review, or letter to write, a person to meet, we can engage them, we are heard. For me this comes with the additional issues of being “a local” that can be wheeled out always ready with an opinion. We thrive in community consultations, and community development workers are drawn to us. It is easy to speak to those who share the same language and approach, even better if they are viewed as a legitimate actor through their temporal connections – being of the place. However, this bridging does little to challenge the structuring of consultation, community empowerment/right to buy [delete as applicable] which assume deliberative decision making based on cultural assumptions which do not always hold.

It is not just community development workers who are drawn in, as the community I live has enjoyed the benefits of having knowledge and time rich people who can perform in these spaces, so researchers also come. They look at places that have been successful in the community market place created by competitive funding bids and those that have done less well. One of the fashionable research and policy readings of the differences between communities focussed on social capital, and while the fashion has faded the imprint remains, the sense that some communities have something others need to develop. It tends to focus on the need to be able to engage with the formal structures, the need  for people who can bridge. However, in reaching for this solution one needs to ask whether this is the case, and what kinds of questions it stops us asking. I can see two questions it obscures. First whether these people who can bridge and claim a legitimate right to speak for others have such a right. Might the very act of accepting the rhetoric of professional community development mean they are no longer legitimate, they are alienated from those experiences (Laclau and Mouffe [1985] 2014), and like Roddy are unreliable narrators of their own and the experience of others.

Secondly, and more importantly, asking what these places lack that would allow them to engage with those structures means setting aside the sense it is the structures themselves that ought to change. Arriving at this point I am reminded of a conversation I had with a friend who worked in international development musing on a particular issue and the difference between UK and international development work. We began to wonder whether the soul searching that went on within international development around the role of Western educated development workers telling people across the globe how to develop needed to happen within the UK sector. Neither of us could remember the source until their partner reminded us of the work done by Chalmers on participatory approaches and Inglis on asking why it only applied in the Global South.  The influence of their work has clearly sat dully in the back of my mind, as I still ask myself why the participatory approaches common in international contexts are rarely applied in here. I have a perspective, perhaps it is because participatory approaches to deliberative decision making destabilise existing power relations, and while we are happy to use them internationally, we might be less keen at home. Or am I just getting too cynical, take your pick.

References

Achebe C.  (1978), An Image of Africa, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 9, No. 1, Special Issue on Literary Criticism. (Spring, 1978), pp. 1-15

Comaroff J., Comaroff J. L. (2012) Theory from the South: How Euro-America is Evolving Towards Africa, Paradigm Publishing: London

Heidegger M. (1993) Basic Writing: from Being and Time (1927) to Tasks of Thinking (1964), Ed D F Krell, Routledge: London

Ingold, Tim 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge

Laclau E., Mouffe C. ([1985] 2014) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, Verso: London

Malpass J. (2006) Heideggers Typology: Being, Place, World, MIT Press: London

Negt O., Kluge A. ([1993] 2016) Public Sphere of Experience: Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proleterian Public Sphere. Verso: London

Parman S. (2005) Scottish Crofters: A Historical Ethnography of a Celtic Village, Thomson Wadsworth: London

 

Action Research and Learning Design

The issue is examining why it is we follow a particular track

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Credit: Ronald Macintrye, Postal Deliveries to the tidal Isle of Oransay, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Evaluation of Learning Experience of e-Learning Special Interest Group (ELESIG) recently launched a MOOC on the EU MOOC platform and aggregator EMMA. The MOOC is titled “Researching Learners experiences and use of technology using action research” #LERMOOC. It includes linked case studies based on partnership work by OEPS. In them I reflect on the three phases of content development, reflecting on design, production and use. I explore the value and tensions around working in partnership with an external organisation, in this example Parkinson’s UK.

The value of partnership comes from getting closer to the learners and their experiences through working with practitioners, in particular in the design phase where you can surface and test assumptions, evaluating them as part of the design process; but also in use, where the materials can be embedded in existing social contexts through the partner’s networks. The tension is often about how systems speak to each other; sometimes these are technical questions, sometimes ones of organisational culture.

The purpose is to create partnerships with organisations to allow you to get closer to understanding the learners, it is exploratory, and the case studies focus on the process, on wayfinding, surfacing my own action research into the learner experience as part of being a reflective practitioner.

Click on this link to read the OEPS case studies.

Ronald Macintyre

“The Gathering”

“Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos “, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina Image Source: Mariano, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argentina#/media/File:SantaCruz-CuevaManos-P2210651b.jpg, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos “, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina, Mariano, CC BY SA 3.0

OEPS will be attending the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) event “The Gathering” on the 22 and 23 of February 2017 with a stall (near the entrance) and a workshop on the 23 of February at 10 am. Why are we operating in this space, after all OEPS is an HE project isn’t it?  The short answer is many of OEPS key partnerships are with Third Sector organisations, and we have something to share about our experiences. Our starting point was research in widening participation which suggests the most effective way to draw someone distanced from learning into education is through partnerships with organisations they trust – see a recent OEPS post about Barriers to participation in online learning. So, we also have plenty to learn from attending.

Rather than reflect on OEPS interest, perhaps a more interesting thing to consider is why the Third Sector is operating in this space. When we consider the role of the Third Sector, we typically think about their role in filling gaps, the spaces left by the public and private sectors, structural holes often experienced most acutely by the most vulnerable in our society. Exclusion is experienced across a range of axes, and these can layer over and accentuate each other.  Our partners tell us education is one of these, and access to good quality free and open as a resource for educators and learners is vital.

We will share our experience of partnership working and using approaches informed by participatory design to develop approaches to engaging people in the design, production and use of OER. Partners from Parkinson’s UK and Scottish Union Learn will be on hand to share experiences. However, we are also aware our experiences are partial, a snapshot.  The workshop is an opportunity for us to share the issues but also to share the questions and learn together. In particular looking at what a future which assumes education and information is free and open look like for Third Sector organisation and for learners/clients they support.

We still have a few spaces left. You will need to register for “The Gathering”  (which is free) before being able to book the workshop.

We look forward to seeing you at the event.

Ronald Macintyre