messy research – the benefits of following your nose

One of the problems with research plans is that they set up expectations. The plan is it. Once it’s down on paper in a Gantt chart or a timetable, that’s your guide to action.

Apart from the obvious fact that unforeseen events/people/etc happen to mess up plans, sticking slavishly to the original plan is problematic for other reasons. One of the most important is that the plan can stop you from following up clues which don’t immediately seem directly related to the question you were asking.

While the vast majority of interesting-things-that aren’t-connected-to-my-research really aren’t connected to your research, and would waste an inordinate amount of time if you pursued them very far, there is the odd probable irrelevance which can actually be incredibly important.

Here’s a research story to illustrate the point. It’s complementary to the research mess story told by Ben Kraal in the last post.

A doctoral researcher I’ve worked with was doing an ethnography in a school looking at the implementation of the healthy schools policy. She was particularly interested in how the policy played out for the students. However, almost as soon as she arrived in the school the teachers started drawing her aside and telling her how stressed they were.

Now to start with we both thought that this was going to be one of those side issues that wasn’t the main game. After all her research question and plan was about what the healthy schools policy meant for the students. But she decided to put all of these teacher asides into her field notes – and it was just as well that she did. After a few weeks in the site, it became apparent that there was not only a particular official school view of what counted as students’ health, but also that this was being promoted at the expense of the actual health of the staff.

This was a pretty significant finding and one that she might have missed if she had stuck rigidly to the plan derived from her question – focus primarily on the kids, lessons and policies and resist the ‘doctor-is-in’ conversations with the staff.

The fact that she followed her nose in documenting and not closing down these conversations was pretty important. Of course ethnography mandates you to do this, but the same issue would probably have arisen even if she was doing a less intensive case study using, for example, survey, interviews and observations. Taking on the teachers’ health conversations allowed her to develop a very interesting theorization on the events.

There’s a bit of an analogy here with walking. You can be happily walking somewhere when you see a little side path that looks interesting. You can either ignore it, or head off down it regardless, or go down it just enough to see if it’s going to be worthwhile. I guess you could go down a side path a bit and turn back and miss something good, but it often doesn’t take long to work out if the side trip is going to be interesting or not. And that was the case with the healthy schools research. It only took a few weeks to sort out that the research question could in reality only be answered if the ethnographic work encompassed what was also happening for the teachers. The side path joined up with the main track.

My own research experience is also that the hunch, even if it wasn’t part of the original idea, is more often worth pursuing than not. It can make the original idea look a bit messy, but it also can be highly significant.

So on the one hand I’m nervous about research going off piste. On the other, I’m equally concerned about the prospect of a research plan becoming an inviolable blueprint. I’m a bit of a believer in cautiously following your nose, being prepared to do something that wasn’t in the plan and living with a potential mess for a while….

Read about the research (soon):
HAYWARD, V and THOMSON, P, 2012 in press. Performing health: an investigation of Emotional Health and Wellbeing (EHWB) in a high performance school. In: JEFFREY, B and TROMAN, G, ed., Performativity and education – a UK perspective: Ethnographic effects, outcomes and agency Tufnell Press

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in healthy schools, mess, research plan and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to messy research – the benefits of following your nose

  1. Pingback: doctoral training and the messiness of research | patter

  2. Pingback: analysing blogs is messy, but that’s OK. #acwrimo work in progress | patter

  3. Pingback: How is your PhD going? | Glasgow Sociology

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