Ethics and A/Esthetics’

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Ethics and A/Esthetics’

Back in 2015 at the Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN) Conference in Braga, Portugal as part of a new collaborative venture between the editors of Educational Action Research Journal (EARJ) and CARN Co-ordinating Group (CARN CG), we introduced the concept of an occasional virtual issue that brings together articles on a theme of potential interest to CARN Members and the action research community.

Virtual issues are based on ‘conversations’ that have been threaded through the published issues of EARJ over the years. The collection is intended as a resource for action researchers and students of action research. The papers are personal choices of both EARJ Board members and CARN CG and in no way are representative of all of the issues raised in relation to the topic– rather we intend them as a taster and catalyst to illustrate the range and types of issues related to the topic. By way of example, this issue is dedicated to ‘Ethics and A/Esthetics’ in a myriad of forms. We hope it prompts readers to think laterally about how such issues are manifested in a variety of ways both explicit and implicit in all of the articles published in the journal.

Continue Reading the Introduction

The following articles will be free access via this page only until 31 March 2020. 

Nominated by Mary Brydon-Miller

Overview: This article draws on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to offer new ways of approaching the practice and presentation of action research.  The authors begin with a discussion of rhizomatic ways of understanding the nature of knowing—knowledge that expands horizontally to create new connections and networks of understanding.  Another emphasis is on decentering our search for knowledge in order to be informed by what’s happening at the margins.  And they explore the concepts of smooth and striated spaces—the former arenas of action that are open and unbounded and allow for greater freedom of action.  Finally, they challenge us to imagine new ways of presenting the knowledge gained through action research to reflect these more impressionistic, changeable, and vibrant forms of learning.  Using examples from teacher action research the authors illustrate how these concepts might help us to reframe how we understand and write about action research. 

They had me at rhizomes.  I’ve written and talked about action research through a variety of different metaphors—as a banyan tree, a giant mushroom, jazz music, a Pandora’s box.  But rhizomes are weird. And it’s that challenge to predictable structures, established paths of relationship, and linear processes of development, that intrigues me about this article. The idea of “growing at the edge” shifts our gaze toward what we don’t quite see out of the corner of our eye, suggesting the transcendence of receptivity over more prescriptive ways of coming to understand the world.  The emphasis on demystification, experimentation, and creativity draw us into uncharted waters.  And once you’ve been there, seen that, how do you capture it?  How do you write a rhizome?  This article really doesn’t answer any of these questions, what fun would there be in that?

Nominated by Tina Cook

This paper, written in 2008, argues for the need to look at the limits and restrictions of an action research approach broadly based on a science, or even reconstructed science approach. Gitlin invites us to consider a conceptual framework for action research that specifically aims to build a space for drawing on imagination, inspiration and creativity to go beyond the limits set by ways of acting and understanding found in cultural norms. His conceptualisation of action research elevates the use of imagination and creativity to transform what can be known.

Gitlin starts by describing the development of action research, typified in the 1980s in the work of Lawrence Stenhouse and John Elliott, whose reconstructed science disturbed a traditional notion of science with a naturalistic social science that had a lower degree of predictability. Then, in the mid-1980s, Carr and Kemmis’ concept of a critical social science for action research further disturbed the use of more traditional notions of science. Whilst critical social science creates the potential to distort ideological thinking, Gitlin argues that it too uses action research to improve deliberations that are already bounded within a limited framework for thinking:  modernist, enlightenment, reconstructed science approaches which compel us down a normative route created by our current understandings, assumptions and cultural rules. He then sets out his argument for a framework for educational poetics (EP).  EP uses an aesthetic form of knowledge production that elevates imagination and creativity. He proffers EP as a process that moves between inspirations (forms of imagination that further forms of inventiveness) and traditional views of knowledge.  It is a process that moves out from what has been, sits in the borderlands, and imagines anew.  

To put EP to work within this less bounded paradigm Gitlin advocates going ‘Beyond Method’ and for the use of an extended case study approach that pays attention to forms of representation – as opposed to producing better deliberations on representations. The text, the representation, becomes a jumping off point for pushing thinking and discussions beyond limiting norms rather than a statement of the expected.  The latter part of the article is given over to an exemplar using EP with a middle school teacher and graduate student, Marcie Peck.

I remember reading this article just after I had finished my doctoral thesis.  My own thinking about action research was emerging in a way that challenged its validity within the understandings I had of the term ‘research’.  I too wanted research to go beyond better use of what is currently known, to create spaces for the yet to be known, the unexpected, the knowledge that disrupted current knoweldges.  I, like Gitlin, was also taken by the releasing of text from a closed position, one that told a reader (in Gitlin’s words) ‘this or that, what you should or should not do’, to one that allows spaces for the reader to reflect and ruminate on what is written and extend it through their own thinking.  Like Sumara and Luce Kapla’s (1993) Gitin’s conceptualisation was one of an incomplete text. Incomplete texts do not have the answers but, like a poem, ask the audience to use their knowledge to critique and move beyond the ideas and positions expressed within it.  This creates spaces for imagination. One particular challenge has, Gitlin states, been to reposition such ‘incompleteness’ not as a fault, but as an opportunity’ an opportunity to imagine, create and for the reader to metaphorically ‘write in’ for themselves.

Given my conceptualisation of research as an approach that disturbs our taken for granted ways of thinking, reading about EP as a process that allows new ways to come forth, ways that are not predictable or knowable, was, when I first read it, reassuring and stimulating. It also helped me recognise the importance of recognising the foundations for our knowledge constructs and the implications of our constructs on the kind of knowing that is possible. It was, and remains, a spur to my building my confidence in ‘not always knowing what I am doing’ (Atkinson and Claxton, 2000). The borderlands are not always easy places to be and it is good to hear about others who are having similar struggles with articulating the importance of being unsure.  If this article leaves us thinking about our own assumptions in respect of what action research may, or can, look like, and what its form and function can be, then even if (or especially if) we remain unsure of what we think, then it has done its job.    

Atkinson, TA & Claxton, GL (eds) 2000,  The Intuitive Practitioner: On the value of not always knowing what one is doing. Open University Press

Sumara, D.J., and R. Luce-Kapler. 1993. Action research as a writerly text: Locating co-labouring in collaboration. Education Action Research 1, no. 3: 387–96.

Nominated by Una Hanley

Hard hitting, and ethical in intent, a call to academics, particularly those involved in qualitative, non-positivistic research to act reflexively in relation to their own methodological and political perspectives. The paper spills over the boundaries of Participatory Action research (PAR) into Action Research (AR), both of which can, and are, reworked to justify the approaches and policies of governments espousing the ideological assumptions of neoliberalism so well described in this paper.

In order to support this, the authors advocate a greater use of theoretical approaches and have sought concepts from sources, perhaps regarded by researchers as unrelated to many methodologies. Named among them are Marxism, feminism, post positivism and Freirean adult education, social justice, cooperation, equity, post-colonial critiques, postmodernism, critical ethnography and transparency. Associated philosophies are by no means unfamiliar to many academics in the field of social theory, and, the authors suggest, will provide the potential for new ‘theoretical insights’ and ‘cross pollinations’ within PAR, particularly in relation to ideas which are fundamental to PAR and AR endeavour.

A question for me was whether researchers working within the frameworks provided by PAR and AR, recognise the role of theory as useful in this way? Social justice, cooperation, equity and transparency, for example, have been familiar concepts employed liberally in accounts of research methodology particularly around PAR and AR. However, there is a certain taken-for-grantedness around their use perhaps, an assumption that researchers in these fields have similar perceptions about what these concepts mean. The author’s use of ‘blind drift’ illustrates the fragile nature of such an assumption. The idea that the meaning of language is constituted within specific contexts is not new, neither is the understanding that language becomes colonised, as suggested by the authors, by ‘corporatist and technical–rational forces exerted by both capitalist development and the institutions of the state’ (p.137). For me, the phenomenon is least visible when language and concepts founded in ‘technical-rational forces’ assumes the guise of ‘common sense’, or come to underpin assumptions that are apparently so persuasive that they are beyond challenge, not withstanding their hostility to alternative principles held by minority groups. Perhaps more insidiously, the gradual introduction of practices which undermine equality, for example, to the extent that these and associated terms come to be understood as token gestures to be employed expediently, illustrates the pervasiveness of ‘blind drift’.

Perhaps it is unfair to place a burden of this magnitude on the theory and practices PAR and AR. However, researchers working within these approaches will find this article helpful in relation to the development of critical reflexivity.

Nominated by Carol Munn-Giddings

‘The quality of action research depends upon the reflexive sensitivity of the researchers, whose data collection, analysis and interpretations will all be mediated by their sense of self and identity’ (2006, 14) . Steve the author of this paper used this quote in his article because it encapsulated for him the discomfort indeed dislocation he felt when an oral history project used as a learning resource for nursing practice was suddenly unexpectedly derailed. The project which involved a collaboration between practitioners and service users, with whom Steve had worked for many years, aimed at giving ‘voice’ to the experiences of people with learning disabilities about their experiences of  living in an institution. In educational terms it was seen as an exemplar of good practice and had been deemed as ‘outstanding’ from the (then) body governing nursing education (NMC) in the UK.  However, an unexpected incident left Steve questioning the ethical basis of the practice and his power relationship to his collaborators whom he considered his friends. The ethical dilemmas were presented to fellow action researchers at a CARN Conference in Athens and the article presents an analysis of the praxis of the project – ways of thinking, doing and saying.

I chose this article because I remember Steve’s presentation of this project and the issues it had raised for him at the CARN Conference and the discussions he foregrounds in his article. In particular his recounting of finding out by accident (through watching a video that had been left running in error when he let the room) that one service user was more than fed up of recounting their story  and yet was still doing so had a lasting impact on me and my own practice.  It is a very honest and naked account, raising multiple and at times conflicting ethical dilemmas. It is a rich resource which I expect will provoke a range of different opinions as to what the ‘ethical’ decision making could and should have been. It reminds us that ethics and arguably power is not static, it is fluid and contextual and needs the researcher to be reflexive throughout the process of a project. It also highlights the importance of transcending technical and procedural ethics and to pay deep attention to the relational ethics of a project where power can be masked by assumed roles and intent.

Nominated by Andy Convery

 “…Ethical issues are much more complicated than what is dictated by rules governing research ethics…” (p424)

This paper reflects upon the ethical issues involved when researchers attempt to study participants who are close family members; namely, their son and grandson, both with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). Their proposed study had been tentatively titled: ‘Two boys with ADD: a conversation between a grandfather and a mother’.  The researchers believed that they would have had something important to say to parents and grandparents and their academic peers. Following best action research practice, they intended that the project would lead to changes in their own behaviour and would also inform others who deal intimately with the lives of children and adolescents. However, they had barely initiated the study when ethical concerns led them to abandon the project. The authors relate the specific issues raised in the case to general issues of ethics in action research, such as anonymity, informed consent, collaboration, and the tensions between the personal and professional for each of them.

This paper provides a refreshing discomfort for readers for whom ethics can too often be considered a legalistic mechanism that must be seen to be addressed.   The paper is short and very readable, using human interest and anecdote effectively, illustrating abstract concepts of ‘anonymity’ and ‘informed consent’ with relatable examples which engage readers and provoke reflection.   The authors’ research within their families introduces questions which most of us manage to avoid due to the comforting insulation of professional ethical guidelines.  This paper reminds us that our ethical obligations are reduced by our legalistic boundary-setting and our relative ignorance of our participants’ unseen personal circumstances.  The researchers’ enhanced insider perspectives give an immediacy to an otherwise abstract ’costs versus benefits‘ debate; they explain that whilst it would have been easy to comply with the legal requirements for getting ’informed consent‘ for their project, they knew that for reasons of loyalty, confidentiality and trust that the project was not worth doing.   The style, the content, and the argument in this paper engage readers and force us to acknowledge that ethical compliance is a necessary but insufficient condition for conducting research.   By example, the paper invites us to empathise actively with our participants in the fullness of their lives and relationships.

Nominated by Ruth Balogh

The ethics of action research practice tend to cohere round values of respect and human flourishing. Here, the framing of ethical practice between co-researchers as a mutual process of care opens up an important new perspective through the use of collaborative auto-ethnography (CAE). The setting for this study was acute psychiatric care, and some of its authors are, or were, service users. The sensitivities required to undertake such a collaborative study are significant, but they resonate to any study conducted with people classed as vulnerable – and it is in work of this sort, focused on social justice, that an action research approach perhaps shines the brightest across paradigms. This paper is an excellent example.

Co-authorship itself poses ethical difficulties, particularly in relation to power differentials and this is the reason for using CAE, as opposed to auto-ethnography, albeit with a leading voice on the part of the principal researcher. A feminist ethics of caring provides a sound theoretical position which enables a highly nuanced analysis of mutual care, so that moral dilemmas can be explored effectively. The ethnographic approach succeeds well in bringing the readers directly in to these dilemmas, and variations on the ethics of care model are expressed well via illustrative diagrams. Finally, the cited literature offers a fine resource for future reading on this subject.

I chose this paper because I also struggled with dilemmas of this sort while carrying out participatory action research in psychiatric settings more than twenty years ago. I well remember the subtle and emergent nature of the difficulties I encountered, and I wish that I had the benefit of these authors' insights then.

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