I really enjoyed the ‘death of data’ 4 O’clock session a fortnight ago and couldn’t help myself contributing, albeit a bit late, as I said at the session, I find it almost impossible to say ‘no’ to data which Maggie drawing on Denzin suggests should be labelled ‘empirical materials’ and are very much decided in advance whether it be simple pen and paper for observations or digital recording equipment.
For those of you who were unable to attend it was a stimulating session and my own dilemma was that of being ‘given’ or perhaps ‘gifted’ a book towards the end of my field research in a school shadowing learning mentors. The informant in the study had over a period of time expressed much concern over the home situation of the children in a deprived area. She had a degree in psychology, having briefly trained as a mental health nurse and strived in her setting to provided therapeutic work with the children, such as non-invasive massage, she often used positive reinforcement. She put great store on the SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) a national scheme.
In a conversation and she asked me if I was familiar with Lionel Shriver’s work ‘We Need To Talk about Kevin, I said yes and then she asked me if I had read Sebastian Faulk’s book Engleby, which I hadn’t. Later on at the end of the day she gave me a copy, mentioning that she had also given one to her head.
My reluctance to go straight to the book as a piece of ‘data’ stemmed from my own inadequacy to cope with literature analytically, however in giving me the book Denise was not merely gifting me a ‘present’ but by this act also opening an opportunity to advance my own understanding of research possibilities. Denise had volunteered for the study and so feels she has something to contribute on education and reflective practice. As researchers we need to be attuned to how informants in opening up their private worlds may also be seeking to transform them.
Thanks thus to Yvette at the 4 o’clock seminar who directed me to Strathern’s work the Gender of the Gift which very briefly and in a crude reading details how giving as a form of exchange in Melanesia is seen as a way of constructing a ‘dividual’, (Strathern sees Melanesian society as being relational and thus an ‘individual’ can only be seen in relation to the whole) This develops new types of social relations and gifts “do not act as synecdoche for the person, they are understood as being drawn from one person and absorbed by another” (Strathern: 1988). It is seen therefore as a way of transforming not just relationships between individuals but also of their composition. In Strathern’s case she focuses on how giving is seen as an act which is transformative of gender and indicative of much more complex ways of representing gender.
The dilemma here is one of a researcher is to make sense of what the informant in a study seeks to effect through the gift. Researchers particularly involved in areas relating to social justice often cite the notion of research as a way of transformation. It would appear that informants, in particular those who self-select by putting themselves forward also seek to transform. Certainly researchers can often become privy to information which is critical of the setting and while this may or may not relate to the core focus of the study, having ‘contracted’ to enter a research setting, it seems ethical to need to weigh how unexpected data may speak , rather than focusing on quick judgements about whether it fits the study even when our ability to make something of it may be limited. Thus rather than data being ‘dead’ perhaps we need to think about how we go about actively resuscitating it.