How Do You Research?

I remember my high school and early undergraduate education, and how I was taught to write my essays without using a personal stance. We were told that using pronouns like ‘I’ and ‘me’ would weaken our arguments because these words suggest a biased, personal connection to the topic. If I wanted to be taken seriously as an academic, then I needed to distance myself from my subject matter, otherwise my work would be viewed as compromised and then dismissed.

This method of researching has never sat well with me, and considering the existence of this blog, I think it has never sat well with my fellow bloggers. What is wrong with keeping distance from the subject matter? It is implausible, irresponsible, and boring.

It is implausible because academics research subjects that interest them, and that interest often comes from a personal connection or fascination. It is irresponsible when the subject matter is a land, culture, or people, because keeping the distance from these subjects can result in not recognizing how the research will affect them. It is boring because the personal is what is interesting to everyone; the personal is the ‘human interest’ aspect and it exemplifies why the research is important not only to the researcher, but to the general public.

The personal connection has been understood as a bias, but it can also be viewed as perspective. Too often, researchers have analyzed a culture, people, or land, without considering an insider’s standpoint. This defines an identity from an outsider’s point of view, without letting the people inside define themselves. In acknowledging the personal connection in my research, I am acknowledging that there may be some bias and that I am considering where I stand in the subject. Am I part of the culture, or people? Or am I an outsider who is curious? My stance will affect how I view subject, and discussing it demonstrates that I have taken account of that.

From the position of my stance, I am able to determine my responsibilities to my subject matter. Carolyn Ellis considers responsibility and research in her article “Telling Stories and Revealing Lives.” She mentions that there are three kinds of responsibility of the researcher: procedural (like consent forms), situational (circumstances that arise when researching), and relational (staying true to character, and being responsible for one’s own actions and the consequences to others) (Ellis, 2007: 4).

Procedural and situational are commonly recognized and considered, while relational is difficult to institutionalize. It is to take into account the feelings, perceptions, and considerations of others while remaining true to the research project, and doing what is need to be done while remaining true to the self, even if it effects the findings (Ellis, 2007: 7-8).

On occasion, someone will say something during an interview that they would not normally say. I have had this happen in previous projects and had to ask the person interviewed if I may add it to my research. Doing so gave the person time to consider it and ask me about the relevance of what was said. If I had published without consultation, then I would have exploited that person’s trust, taken away her chance to contextualize the comment, and I would not have had the chance to explain why it was important.

The question that always comes up around research is: Why is this important? A subject matter may be interesting to the researcher, but why should anyone else care? This is probably where the personal is most important. The personal stories and touches illustrate how the research influences the lives of a community, a region, or a nation. It can make it possible to relate to unfamiliar places and people, and when their is relation, their is understanding.

Autoethnography is a methodology that makes it possible to resolve the personal in the research. While ethnography is a method of studying a subject matter in relation to culture, autoethnography researches the subject through the researcher’s personal accounts and experiences with a specific culture (Ellis, Adams & Bochner, 2011: 1). It creates a space for the researcher to discuss their position, their perspective, and their connection. It also provides an opportunity to write or discuss a subject matter in a voice other than the traditional academic one, allowing interpretation through creative writing, autobiography, performance, dance, and art.

In her book, Body, Paper, Stage: Writing and Performing Autoethnography, Tami Spry demonstrates how she incorporates the intimate with the academic through her personal stories of live performance, the actual written scripts of her performances, and her theories on the methodology.  To Spry, those who use performative autoethnography live, breathe, and do the things they study on a literal level (Spry, 17). The body of the researcher is literally the body of the research.

While most of the research discussed in this blog is not performative, the researchers do consider the personal experience, the personal narratives, and how they we embody our subject matter. We know where we stand and why.

Ellis, Carolyn. “Telling Secrets, Revealing Lives: Relational Ethics in Research with Intimate Others” in Qualitative Inquiry, Vol. 13, No. 3, January 2007. Pp. 3-29.

Ellis, Carolyn, Tony E. Adams & Arthur P. Bochner.  “Autoethnography: An Overview” in Forum: Qualitative Social Research, Vol. 12, No. 1, Art. 10, January 2011, 1-18.

Spry, Tami.  Body, Paper, Stage: Writing and Performing Autoethnography. California: Left Coast Press, 2011.

© Tanya Nielsen (tjn710@mun.ca), 2016

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