Reflections on Research and Praxis

Graduate Studies Essay for JHR 500: Research Methods (12/14/2010)

ResearchWhen I signed up for JHR 500 – Research Methods, I was expecting to learn about all of the research methods I had encountered in the past, such as in my undergraduate studies (Global Business/Marketing) as well as throughout my professional career (customer experience research and design). The only difference I was expecting was, instead of applying these research methods to business, I would be applying them to various aspects of social justice and human rights. While I certainly did see some similarities throughout the semester, the majority of concepts and frameworks that were discussed and utilized had some distinct differences. For example, throughout my experiences, I had always learned that tying a number or statistic to the data you collect make it much more “factual.” Further, I was always taught to remain “objective” in my research, as it was of the utmost importance to present findings free of any biases. Along these lines, upon conducting research, the approach I virtually always took was that of a researcher analyzing “subjects.” I had never thought twice about how my findings or recommendations might not actually be a proper representation of the subjects I had studied, or that that the subjects were the true experts in the matter. To my surprise, nearly all of the research concepts that had been deeply engrained in my mind as “best practices” would be deconstructed and critically analyzed throughout the semester, changing my view on the best way to conduct research. Each of the assignments, along with all of the captivating classroom dialogue, really transformed the way I view research. Some of the biggest concepts that most shifted my paradigm of research were (this list is not exhaustive): the contrast drawn between traditional social science research and participatory research and institutional ethnography, the element of power involved in traditional research practices between subject and researcher, the often overlooked limitations of quantitative research, and most importantly, the dangers and pitfalls of “speaking for the other.” Beyond my view of how to research, the class also helped to bring clarity on what I would like to research. My area of focus continually shifted throughout the semester, and by my final paper, hopefully landed me in a field of study that I’d like to continue researching

The first assignment was a typical introductory assignment for a research class. Its intention seemed to be to expose the students to a variety of sources on a given topic. As I had recently started a year of service in the field of adult education, I picked Literacy in America as my area of study. This assignment was very helpful in allowing me to explore an assortment of resources, which surprisingly, I had neglected in my undergraduate studies. For example, embarrassingly, this particular assignment was the first time I actually ever understood how to use a library to find books in a specific area of study, via the Library of Congress Subject Headings. In the past, I had always relied on using data online, purchasing books at a local bookstore, or just browsing a library hoping I’d find what I needed. This was extremely helpful, as I was able to understand how my topic was classified and identify what other topics were similar or relevant. Furthermore, in the past I had never thought to explore Ph. D. dissertations, search for bibliographies on my topic, or to specifically analyze research studies for their quantitative or qualitative qualities. These are approaches I will most take with me in future research.

The second assignment involved comparing/contrasting studies that used quantitative methods vs. one that used qualitative methods. I once again focused on adult literacy, analyzing one study that utilized solely quantitative information on the literacy levels of various groups in America. In my previous experience, this was the type of research study that I would be most drawn to. Being able to look at numbers and compare various segments against each other seems to bring about many additional questions for exploration. However, this assignment also taught me to look further in depth with quantitative information. For example, the data that was collected was based on a series of tests created by the U.S. department of education. Several questions came up, such as how were these tests designed? Could they potentially favor a particular group over another? These are important questions, as they can skew quantitative data in a specific direction that changes the story of the report.

The third assignment allowed me to brainstorm potential ideas for an interview and observation. I decided to stick with adult literacy for each of these assignments for a few reasons. One, the previous two assignments had led me to some interesting questions I had regarding literacy in America. Two, working at an adult education center had given me some key perspective on those questions. And three, I had access to directors, teachers, and students, which were very valuable for the next two assignments. Assignment four was probably my favorite of the semester. It was my first ever “formal interview” where I recorded it, transcribed it, and really analyzed it in fine detail. While the transcribing process was certainly a time-consuming task, it really allowed me to fully take in all of the rich information that was captured in the interview. It was also really exciting to come up with some major findings during the interview, findings that neither the interviewee nor I had foreseen. From this experience, I’m really excited to conduct further qualitative interviews in my future research. The fifth assignment (observation) was a follow-up to the fourth assignment. I focused on a similar topic, but it took place observing actual students, instead of talking with a director about students. From my previous experience, I really thought I would’ve enjoyed the observation more. I think once of the main reasons that did not enjoy the actual observation process was the setting. It ended up being fairly boring, and was dominated by the facilitator rather than the students I was hoping to analyze. In the future, better planning would be helpful, especially in understanding the group dynamic within the setting I plan to observe.

Finally, the sixth assignment allowed me to complete a textual analysis. This assignment came right after I began researching a couple new topics: peace education and peace rhetoric. Rather than staying with the trend and further analyzing adult education, I decided to switch my topic for the final assignment to analyzing a speech known for peaceful rhetoric (Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech). This assignment was very illuminating for me, as it amazed me to see the added information you could gather from a speech when you read it on paper. I always thought that you would only lose value by reading a speech rather than watching it, due to the fact that you are not able to see their physical presence (body language, gestures, stage presence, etc.). However, being able to slowly read through the words and sentences, it really allows you to analyze the message on a whole new level.

All in all, this course was definitely a mind-expanding class. It really made me think critically about how my actions as not only a researcher, but as a person in general, affect the rest of humanity. Critically analyzing my research methods, design, and data, avoiding speaking for others, developing research that is participatory from start to finish, and utilizing an institutional and auto ethnographical approach will all be extremely important and valuable in my future research in social justice and human rights. JHR 500 Research Methods definitely shaped my way of viewing and approaching research for the better!

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