Previously I described how I am working with a group of health professionals who are undertaking a research project to investigate inter-professional working. We have established that it is important to base our research on the day to day experiences of field workers, and the researchers, acting as learning set convenors, will help to intensify and bring out that experience in the learning sets. But if they come together as convenors after the learning sets to discuss their experience of convening, won’t this reflective processs then subsequently be taken back into the learning sets and contaminate the research data? If we were being scientific shouldn’t we, as researchers, be detached from the research we are undertaking so that the data, and field workers, speak for themselves? How can we reconcile this process of being active in the research at the same time as trying to be scientific?
If we were taking a strict view of what it means to be scientific perhaps we would be striving to be as detached and uninvolved as possible. So if we were looking for invariant properties of what we are observing as a way of producing valid data which would be replicable elsewhere, we would try to have as little influence on what is happening as possible. But how possible would that be when we are encouraging practitioners to interpret what it is that they are involved with, and to intensify that interpretation with others? Intervening or not intervening in the process would have an effect on the outcome of the discussion in the learning sets. To this degree the learning set convenors are both researchers and particpants in the research at the same time.
The neo-Kantian philosopher Jurgen Habermas wrestled with the same set of problems and describes how interpretive social science methods inevitably compromise the idea of objectivity. By participating in interpretation of what is happening, Habermas argues, we automatically give up the privileged position of the superior observer by becoming engaged in communicative exchange. The offering of an interpretation invites a counter-interpretation: we are obliged to give an account to one another of what we think is happening. And all of this can only be done within the particular context which we are discussing: it will be dependent upon this particular experience that we are having together.It can never be context independent.
Habermas’ ideal was to aspire to a power equivalence between engaged discussants so that each had an equal opportunity to be heard and understood. Less idealistically, one might take the view that such equivalence will never arise, since some people will always be more powerful than others, so we will never know whether a shared interpretation is fully shared.
The process of interpretation produces a different kind of knowledge to that of conventionally understood scientific knowledge, which is presumed to be value and context independent. Interpretive knowledge is leavened by the power relations that arise between engaged participants, and is intended to generate a shared world of significance. It may produce interpretations of what has been going on in this context between these particular people and may have value as a powerful example of a more generalised social phenomenon. Whether it is applicable elsewhere will be subject to further rounds of interpretation and power relations that will render the explanations useful or not.
So what interpretive social science methods have in common with a more orthodox understanding of science is that they can open themselves up to further rounds accountability: like conventional science, interpretative social science is still obliged to justify itself. There is a continuous dialectic of accounting and reaccounting for what one has learned and how one has learned it. However, there is never any pretence that those offering the interpretation somehow stand outside the process they are interpreting. They may be more or less skilful at offering an interpretation of what is happening, but they can make no claims to being ‘objective’. Although they might pay attention to how they are influencing the group, indeed this might itself become a subject of interpretation, they are unlikely to be able to give a full account of the way in which this is happening.
So, to reconsider the role of convenors of learning sets , would it be more helpful to think of them not as objective researchers but as co-participants in research, who have a particular responsiblity to support participation and interpretative conversation, and a particular responsibility to pay attention to how they themselves are affecting interpretation. They are both researchers and objects of research at the same time.