On reflexivity of our[1] research process

This post will illustrate some of the institutional and methodological issues I have faced in my research process and explain how by being reflexive and critically aware of such challenges, I have come a step closer to provide meaningful answers to my research problem. This restructuring of my approach – as opposed to drifting in a free flow of consciousness in year one – I suspect has come about, of course through the very tackling of these challenges, but more importantly by learning to contextualise myself within my research in year two of the PhD.

Lets start with the institutional hurdles first which in this case refer to the legal, administrative and governmental challenges I have encountered namely; the strain of limited funding, outrageous visa processing issues (by virtue of ‘the green passport’) and vexation from bureaucratic red tape.

Funding puts certain limitations on research since it determines the resources available to accomplish projects. Intuitively, we can say funding effects the quality of work. So it was difficult for me at first to accept when my funding was cut down by an year. A constraint not to be taken lightly considering the formative stage of my project and my profession.

Speaking of constraints those from the global south would be quite familiar with the tedious visa processing and various traveling restrictions. It is rather unfair that in a competitive global job market many face issues by virtue of their birth place. The problem magnifies in academia when the ability to produce meaningful work hinges on extensive field visits, conference networking and other myriad opportunities that quick and easy access provides. It adds[2] another layer of  exasperating administrative work during hours which otherwise could be spent reading and writing.

Now, although these were specific instances of how institutional constraints may effect my work it is imperative to understand that they are generic. By being reflexive I realise that such constraints can fall under a class of research limitations called structural limitations. Going beyond my petty grievances, imagine budding scholars from developing countries producing interesting and impactful fieldwork only to find that there aren’t many Social Science Citation Index (SSCI) journals available that could publish it. In such instances a scholar may be pressured to comply with the status quo by for instance changing his/her methodology, orientation towards the problem or even theoretical framework (in extreme cases) to publish. It can be argued that the SSCI criterion are time tested benchmarks for quality research out put. But can it also be argued that heavy concentration of Western scholarship over time privileges certain kinds of criterion over others? Debates like this go on forever, the point is to be aware of such limitations and find meaningful ways to explain them in order for future scholars to carry our progress forward.

Lets look at a different set of issues. Methodologically, I face two major challenges so far; issues of physical access which results, again intuitively, in limited data points, and reliance on elite interviews (as I did in my MA) which creates reliability and validity issues for my findings. My initial response to counter these issues was the use of a stakeholder map to increase methodological rigour and data points. However there were some misleading findings[3] as a result. I only realised the fallacies once I started working as a journalist in Pakistan. But in-depth elite interviews – a method of data collection based on the stakeholder methodology – do serve a very important purpose and this is where my reflexivity comes in again. For starters elite interviews are excellent for exploratory work. It systematise our efforts to explore and this reflexivity on my research process led me to choose methodology classes in other institutions in Hong Kong[4]. The goal was simple; make conscientious efforts to find more data points and get training to increase reliability and validity of existing ones. My limited field work over the summer helped as well.

Somewhere along the way interesting things started happening. My simple goals changed instead to, saturate existing data points and methodologies to test them. Could I possibly have multiple stakeholder maps that could triangulate ‘against’ each other? How about filling the gaps with non-fiction (local literature)? In this sense ethnography classes were an amazing find where I am now learning to utilise the potential of thick descriptions and in-depth accounts. John Postill (2006) in the introduction of his book Media and Nation Building: How the Iban became Malaysian, writes:

‘What we lose in scope, we gain in focus: by studying in detail the Iban uses of state media over time, we can gain an appreciation of analogous processes in other parts of Malaysia and elsewhere.’

The quotes sets the context for how I am framing my problems now.

The location of the researcher with respect to his/her research project is one of the pillars of the qualitative paradigm; ethnographers for instance often immerse themselves in the ‘field’ and must ensure their voice and that of ‘the other’ i.e. the subject, is distinguishable when they write descriptions of them[5]. By embracing the notion that prevalent structures within the research environment and our biases constantly shape the choices we make, that constraints of access and funding effects methodology and politicise the choice of research topic respectively, in other words by believing that knowledge and therefore reality construction varies for everyone we accept the heterogeneity of our world. For me and as I am sure for the reader there is a beauty in this orientation that celebrates the diversity on our planet.

Notes

[1] ‘Our’ here implies doctoral students in general, however those outside the academy may also find this essay useful. It is my belief that we are all researchers in some ways albeit at various levels of training.
[2] A bit of trivia: I remember once during a casual conversation an American colleague upon learning the tedious travel paper work I am required to file remarked how it brings her ‘big’ scheduling conflicts in to perspective.
[3] For instance, the conclusion that electronic media due to its political economy can exert considerable influence on the Pakistan government.
[4] PhD students in Hong Kong can take courses in other institutions. This is quite a marvel of collaborative learning and I doubt even happens in United States.
[5] This was the traditional and formative period in qualitative methods in early 20th century, riding along colonialism where anthropologist such as Malinowski and Levi-Strauss studied remote ‘savage communities’ based on scientific values of truth and objectivity. Postmodernism had a huge impact on ethnography and the qualitative paradigm as a whole and we now make conscientious efforts to highlight the inherent structures of power prevalent within discourse and methodology.
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