Monday, June 27th, 2011...12:12 pm

“So What’s Your Hypothesis? : A Word on Research Methods

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Taken from the Peace and Collaborative Development Network blog:

About a week and half ago, during one of my site visits in Berlin, a practitioner (with a B.A. in political science) said to me, “Your project sounds fascinating. What’s the hypothesis behind your work?”

I was taken off guard. Surprisingly, no one had asked me that question yet. I felt a little silly, coming from Georgetown and all, notebook in hand, doing site observations and suddenly thinking to myself, “I don’t know. Do I have a hypothesis?” I was whisked back to every science class of my primary schooling – in 2nd grade, in 5thgrade, in 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th grade – in my quad class in Environmental Science as a senior in college for goodness sakes – what is the first step in the scientific method? Formulating a hypothesis! I could imagine every one of my science teachers casting a reproving glance at me over their gold-rimmed glasses (they all had gold-rimmed glasses) saying: “Now Amanda, you were always one of our brightest…really, no hypothesis?”

But I’ve done a little reflecting this week, and I’d like to say it loud and clear:


The reason? Michel Foucault.

Lest you be mistaken, Michel Foucault is not the name of some 5th grade sweetheart that distracted me from elementary instruction in the scientific method, causing me to miss the whole section on constructing hypotheses. In fact, he is someone I’ve never met: a cigarette-rolling, espresso-drinking French philosopher, who, in the wake of the Second World War and on the shoulders of philosophical greats like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, dismantled the European Enlightenment and introduced a new way of thinking called Post-Modernism, which did a little thing called questioning the notion of truth.

And it is thanks to this big jump in philosophical history, rejecting objectivity for subjectivity that a number of changes have been made in the academy, from the way people write to – you got it – the way we research.

This past week, I’ve had the incredible fortune to attend an intensive summer school in “Qualitative Research Methods in Social Justice Education”, a combined effort of the University of Trento and the Paulo Freire Institute at UCLA. Just in time to answer my question about a hypothesis, I spent the week with social justice educators from Italy, England, Denmark, Spain, Mexico and the USA talking about research methodology in social justice. It’s helped me to theoretically support the research we’re undertaking this summer, and I’d like to share a bit with you. Before I begin, let me make clear that this basis is my (Amanda’s) research approach. I do not speak for Sarah, Sarah, or Meeghan, at least in this entry:

On the way up to our final exam
On the way up to our final exam
On Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research: While quantitative research relies on numbers and statistical measures, qualitative research relies more on narrative, interviews or focus groups or field observation and records. It can lend itself more readily to research in the social sciences, because it helps investigate processes rather than necessarily proving or disproving outcomes. It’s an especially helpful tool for researching and evaluating ideas like “justice” and “peace”, which are difficult to numerically quantify.

A Post-Modern Approach to Qualitative Research: A “constructivist” research philosophy (also called post-structuralist or post-modern) is one that understands people, cultures, and the world not as fixed subjects within a determined reality but rather as co-creators of reality that is flexible and changing. Like Foucault, it doesn’t trust the notion of objectivity, arguing that all aspects of life are socially and philosophically situated. Every action and interaction we have is a negation of power, gender, and politics. Easier said, every person sees the world through a certain lens or pair of glasses.

The participants in our course were acknowledging the “glasses” we wear. As researchers in social justice education, we see the world with a certain bias – there is an injustice we sense (as those posing the question) that our research in some way hopes to reveal, or a solution to an injustice that our research hopes to empirically prove or publicize.

Instead of straining for objectivity, considered a false pretense, as everyone is politically situated (even when they try not to be!) qualitative researchers with a constructivist theoretical grounding are openly transparent about their political positions and personal interests in their approach to research.

And about that “Hypothesis”?: Out of a number of relevant methods I now understand thanks to this course, I have chosen a methodology called “Grounded Theory”, which is the most frequently used qualitative method in social science research.

Grounded Theory is a theory, grounded. That is to say, it’s the inverse of a hypothesis – instead of setting out with an idea I am trying to prove or disprove, the researcher sets out to construct a brand new theory. Grounded in interaction with research participants (as opposed to “subjects”), interviewees are treated not as objects of observation, but sources of knowledge informing the creation of a new idea.

So concretely, what does this philosophical talk have to do with Sport & Peace?

As a researcher, I am attempting to create something new by recording what is already going on and looking for the links that they have with one another. This happens practically through a mix of site observations and interviews with academics, program designers, and program practitioners.

By asking questions in conversational interviews, observing pedagogical practices, reflecting on my conclusions, discussing with others and being conversant in already-existent literature, I’m analyzing my data through multiple readings and under multiple lenses.  Building on our team’s endeavor to “map” organizations in the world doing sport and peacebuilding work, I am focusing on program design. I do this by being transparent about my intentions, pulling together actors, visiting them where they are, “coding” and “categorizing” ideas and synthesizing them to theorize common aspects of pedagogy and design.

Reflexivity and Autoethnography: While quantitative research tries to leave the researcher out of the process as much as possible, qualitative research seeks to acknowledge the researcher’s role. Moreover, it asks the researcher to reflect on the research process frequently, and in communication with the research participants, since what is being constructed might – in fact should – change during the process in light of new ideas.

Our team is doing this through autoethnography, which is a research method that asks the researcher to record her or his own reflections on the research process, recognizing their objective and subjective biases, and also asking “what is this research doing to/in/with me?”  At the end of this summer, we hope to have something to share with the world – a useful tool that explains our methods, challenges, findings, and hopes.

On You: Finally, we practice reflexivity through discussion – and this is where you the reader come into play. Because you’re not just a reader – you’re a participant in the discussion! Our team “checks in” once a week, and once every few weeks we Skype-chat about what is emerging from our challenges, our findings, our interviews. But we also blog! About those very same things! And sometimes, we even get to talk on the radio
about them. So please, share your ideas with us, join in the discussion, and help us to create a grounded theory: new ideas about sport and peace.

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