research at the edge of awareness

Research at the edge of awareness:

The person of the researcher and nonrational aspects of qualitative research


When we write up our research, we tell a story. When we tell the research story, we present the (temporary) end product of the journey from field to interpretation to text (Denzin, 1994, p. 502). In the various stages of this journey, and in travelling from stage to stage, the researcher’s self is the actor who sorts, understands, remembers, speaks – and, as any human being, who leaves out, misunderstands, forgets and places emphasis on some words and not on others. In the following, I hope to point out those activities of the researcher’s self which in this essay I shall call “nonrational”, and which influence various aspects of qualitative research. Note that I will not use the term “irrational”; this word has a negative connotation, which I do not wish to give to these activities. I believe that the nonrational is inevitable, neutral in and of itself, and “good” or “bad” only in certain ways, under certain circumstances.

Research is mostly thought of as a rational enterprise. Above all, however, it is a human enterprise. We often refer to man/woman as the “rational animal”, usually with an emphasis on “rational”. However, the construct “rational animal” points to an entity (animal) that has a certain attribute (rationality). Like most entities, the human animal has many more attributes than just one; the capacity for reason is but one of many qualities that make us who we are. (For an excellent comprehensive overview over the dimensions of human attributes from a psychological point of view, see Mayer, 1988). The types of nonrational attributes I hope to discuss here are those which can often be found at the border of awareness and which are almost always the product of automatic or nonconscious inner processes – for example, emotions, beliefs, intuitions. In this, I will define being rational (i.e., using the faculty of reason) in similar ways as philosopher Antony Flew (1984): “In one most important usage … reason is contrasted with such hypostatized internal or external rivals as imagination, experience, passion or faith …”. Just as Flew, I recognize that this is an incomplete (and somewhat unsophisticated) definition; however, it is probably the one most often referred to in connection with research as a rational business.

I hold that since research is a human undertaking, nonrational aspects influence literally every moment of the research process. In some ways, this is an uninteresting statement – it is a little like saying that breathing influences all research. What is interesting is to investigate those points where the nonrational tends to break through particularly strongly, and where it most becomes part of the body of knowledge to which each piece of research is thought to contribute.

The points I have selected are all related to the person of the researcher – the entity that we see most pointedly as the agent of reason. Therefore, I will not in any detail discuss, for example, how research interacts with the emotions of the researched, or the nonrational consequences of reading research. I will deal with three topics: how the researcher’s personal, historical and environmental background contributes to the work; how she interacts with the person(s) she is researching; and how she constructs interpretation.

Since this essay is about the person of the researcher, it is only fair that I declare my own biases. My upbringing shapes me: I grew up in Germany, in a household of artists and thinkers, strongly influenced by ideas originating in Freudian philosophy and psychoanalysis, Lutheranism, Eastern religious thought, the humanistic tradition that grew out of the Enlightenment, and “leftist” politics. The latter two, combined with the general intellectual climate of my childhood, nurtured the rational thinker in me. However, I cannot help but see this rationality as surrounded by the Freudian forces of the unconscious, and both rationality and the id’s unconscious as embedded in the divine core expressed by Martin Luther and Eastern religious figures such as the Buddha. No wonder, then, that I make it my business to point out the limitations of referring to research as a purely rational pursuit.

The researcher’s personal context

I am not alone in citing childhood influences as informing my thinking. Paul Diesing, in a chapter on “Personality influences in social science” uses sociologist Max Weber as a case history:

The family dynamics that imprisoned Max Weber were the conflicting expectations of his father and mother plus the contradictory demands of his mother, as reinforced by the German culture of the time. Weber’s writings expressed his successive interpretations of these demands and constituted in part an attempt to distance himself from them and overcome their grip on him. (Diesing, 1991, p. 277)

Diesing sees evidence of Weber’s Calvinist mother’s internalized demands in his commitment to “total asceticism, self-denial, painstaking and compulsive concern with fact” (Diesing, 1991, p. 279). He also adds to Weber’s familiar and cultural influences subsequent life experiences that shaped his scientific work: “Four successive drafts of Weber’s study of East Prussian agriculture [correspond] in detail to changes in Weber’s personal circumstances” (Diesing, p. 278).

Other researchers echo this influence. Susan Finley and Gary Knowles (Finley & Knowles, 1995), in recounting their dual role of artists and educational researchers, tell us how the physical locations of their early experiences had a profound effect on how they do and experience research. Finley, who spent time as a child in her father’s woodworking shop, experiences herself as an “artisan” researcher, identifying with the subject of another researcher’s narrative of a “tinkerer”:

[Willie’s] working method builds on a detailed knowledge of materials and develops precisely the kind of tactile, empirical connection that leads to smoothly working rhythms, appropriate power and torque, and the interpretation of sounds and subtle physical sensations (Harper, 1987, p. 188, qtd. in Finley & Knowles, 1995)

Having grown up with a woodworking father and a grandmother who taught art for a living, Finley turned into a researcher who, true to her artistic inclinations, is intensely aware of the importance of form. Not surprisingly, she uses nontraditional narratives in presenting her research and sees her work as a freewheeling performance that moves away from linearity and temporal and causal restraints, and which invites the reader as another actor in the research process.

These two examples illustrate how life experiences inform point of view and form of the researcher’s work. Lofland & Lofland (1995) suggest budding researchers could start with autobiographical material, by “staying where you are”. They provide a list of researchers who did just that – for instance, Ebaugh (1988, qtd. in Lofland & Lofland, 1995, p. 12), a former nun who wrote Becoming an Ex: The Process of Role Exit, or Vaughan, a divorcee, who wrote about turning points in intimate relationships (Vaughan, 1990, qtd. in Lofland & Lofland, 1995, p. 12). Lofland & Lofland go on to argue that “much of the best work in sociology and other social sciences … is probably grounded in the remote and/or current biography of its creators.”

What is nonrational about these instances? What is at the edge of awareness? I have met none of the authors just mentioned, and therefore cannot give conclusive answers. However, I can speculate. I would hypothesize that even if these researchers were aware of how their personal history shapes their work (and for autobiographical research that would, of course, be the case); there is probably still an element of nonrationality deriving from the influence of their personal experience on their research tasks. Our recent and remote experience has a say in what we pay attention to, what questions we ask, how we sift through material, and is often a much stronger motivator than “sensible” or rational elements. For example, I would postulate that the ascetic and into his late forties apparently sexually inactive Weber probably would not have investigated the relationship between the erotic and the religious (Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions, 1916; see had he not shortly before had his first sexual experience.

In my own experience, I recently had the choice between doing a research exercise based on some pre-existing data and in putting together such a research exercise “from scratch”. Given my circumstances as well as the relative lack of importance of the task, using the pre-existing data would have been by far the more rational choice. Looking back, I can now see how the high value that my family placed on creativity was to a large degree responsible for my taking the less rational route. It is interesting that I see this only now, in reflecting upon this process. I can hypothesize, then, that the influence of the researcher’s experience is only open to awareness to the degree that he is open to reflect on it (which may again be a factor of past experiences).

The researcher’s biography, with its conscious or subconscious influence on his work, can be both a benefit and a burden to the research at hand. For example, as Lofland & Lofland (1995, p. 14) point out, too much attention to the writer’s experience can turn into irritating, narcissistic navel-gazing. On the other hand, it is at least partly thanks to Weber’s conflicted relationship with his parents that sociologists all over the world have in their tool box the concept of the protestant work ethic (see Weber, 1958, The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.) Most importantly perhaps, autobiographical influences “should be connected to larger institutional, group, and cultural contexts” (Denzin, 1994, p. 511, in discussing a research methodology, interpretive interactionism, which “begins and ends with the biography and the self of the researcher”). Also, the “remedy” to this, as to all tensions arising out of the fact that the researcher is a human being, not a video recorder, is faithfully keeping a reflective log.

Before leaving the topic of the researcher’s life experiences, we should briefly visit the contexts that Denzin alludes to: culture, gender, and so forth. The visit will be brief because in fact, these contexts are complex and far-reaching, meriting a discussion of their own (and others have done so beautifully – for example, Fine, 1994, Diesing, 1991, p. 281-293, hooks, 1990). Smith (1998) talks of the “the intimate links between researcher biography and the context and culture s/he is researching” – immediately this points to the complexity of the matter: Not only are there culture and context within which the researcher finds her or himself biographically, but there is also the interaction between these and those of the persons the researcher is studying. The degree to which these contexts come to bear on the research process will vary from study to study. For example, in a recent study on volunteering in an inner-city neighbourhood, both my assistant and I had to frequently remind ourselves that our socio-economic background predisposed us to a different view of volunteering than that of the participants in the project, most of whom had spent a considerable portion of their lives in extreme poverty (Mori & The Strategic Volunteering Project Team, 2001), and for whom volunteering was one way of alleviating this poverty to a small degree. On the other hand, another context, sexual orientation (see Bogdan & Biklen, 1998, p. 84) may have little influence on researching, say, electronic mail practices in distance education.

Researcher interactions with participants

“Participant observation has been described as ‘the most intimate and morally hazardous” form of social research (Lofland, 1972)’ ” (Oka & Shaw, 2000). There seems to be a relatively wide range of opinions of what constitutes participant observation, ranging from interviewing supplemented by some field observation (Lofland & Lofland, 1995, p. 19) to years of intense involvement in and study of Inuit life undertaking by anthropologist Franz Boas (Cole, 1983), to researchers studying an environment in which they are already involved (e.g. McCotter, 2001). Since not all of the literature cited here makes it clear what exactly is understood by participant observation, I will include the whole range in this discussion.

Entering the field, whether or not one is familiar with it, is a complex process that provokes a myriad of feelings in the researcher: Excitement over beginning something new, fear of rejection, anxiety over timelines, apprehension for being in an unknown environment, even guilt (Oka & Shaw, 2000). As the process moves on and participants start to trust the researcher enough to share information (and sometimes their lives) with them, the researcher usually becomes more emotionally involved. At that point, the researcher may feel quite elated that so much material is gathered – but at the same time, she can feel overwhelmed: by the sheer volume of data, by the nagging doubt that she will never be able to do justice to the participants and their contexts, by the content of participants’ experiences. This last aspect can be particularly difficult for researchers in disciplines of the helping professions (e.g. social work, psychology, education):

This “therapeutic” nature of qualitative interviews might cause a more complicated ethical dilemma (Patton, 1990, p. 354). If, while interviewing, the participants begin to regard you as “therapists” and open their mind more than they would usually for “researchers” should you stop them or should you allow them to continue? If you are also a social worker and are naturally expected to play a therapeutic role, you might be confused as to which type of interview you are conducting, a research interview or a therapeutic one (Oka & Shaw, 2000).

Additionally, the researcher may have conflicting feelings on how deeply she should or wants to get involved in participants’ lives, how much reciprocity there should be. (Oka & Shaw, 2000). Struggling with all of this can be a lonely process. In most situations it would be highly inappropriate to share this struggle with the research participants (although it may be quite tempting; after all, they are the very people with whom the researcher is probably spending the bulk of his or her time). Discussing it with friends and family is equally difficult, among others, because of confidentiality issues and because they probably do not know enough about the context (Bogdan & Biklen, 1998, p. 93). It is advisable to plan ahead for this, and to have access to a sympathetic, experienced supervisor, mentor, peer or similar person who can help relieve the emotional burden and share the joy. This can be useful even in team research, when the drawbacks of doing “lone ranger” research are not present but conflicts among the team can crop up. Again, journal keeping is essential.

However, the fact that the researcher is another human being just like the participant, (hopefully) endowed with empathy and insight, is definitely not just a weakness, it can also be used as a research tool. In using focus groups for research, this is an often curiously overlooked but nevertheless extremely important point.

There are specific, practical things that the moderator can do about his or her style that can have a dramatic effect on the depth of the group … What I want to emphasize is that it is not a matter of putting on an act, since respondents are quick to spot phoniness. Every moderator has an intellectual side, and inquisitive side, a playful side, a stupid side, and many other facets which should be used quite consciously as tools. The moderator should get over his or her need to look a certain way. What matters is what opens up the respondents. (Silverman, 2000)

Having both participated in and conducted focus groups, I believe these words cannot be overemphasized. The last sentence is particularly interesting, since getting over this need presupposes a relatively healthy ego strength. Being able to consciously look stupid or even weak in front of a group takes a lot of emotional stamina. I remember a situation where doing just that helped salvage a focus group with a few particularly volatile members – but it took me a few weeks to completely recover from the emotional impact.

Taking our own feelings as barometers of participants’ feelings – a technique widely used in psychotherapy (e.g. Singer, 1965, p. 298) – can help us understand and describe what is going on; it can also be useful in formulating questions for interviews. Bogdan & Biklen (1998, p. 91) give the example of a researcher noticing her feeling of chaos and disorientation during recess at a junior high school cafeteria. Gerhard Kleining, whose research methodology is discussed in Cox (1995), goes further:

… we could see the researcher’s activity within the group – of whatever kind – as a means of information-gathering, one form of “asking questions of social reality”. The response, both of individuals and of the social context (obviously these are two very different types of responses) can then be treated as itself a form of data. This is another form of involving the whole person within the research process …

Kleining’s ideas take us into the realm of what some might call true participant observation (Lofland & Lofland, 1995, p. 19) – situations where researchers are intensely involved with the people and contexts they are researching. These situations may induce us to “go native” – “privileging comfortable ways of viewing phenomena” (Smith, 1998, citing Maxwell’s (1992) “threats to validity typology”). Being part of a group automatically subjects one to subtle and not-so-subtle group dynamics (e.g. see Asch, 1952). One is naturally inclined to take on the group’s values, views and preferences; furthermore, one might perceive going against them as a threat. These threats might be to one’s own dearly held values which are reinforced by the group, or the threat might originate in fears of rejection. Caving in to these forces muddles analytical thinking, even to the point of unreflectively asserting that the participants’ point of view is the only valid or interesting one (Silverman, 1993, p. 199). (Note that there is a difference between doing this as a kind of knee jerk reaction to group influences on the one hand, and, on the other hand, deciding after careful consideration that that point of view is indeed the preferable one – in which case the process of making this decision should be revealed in the write-up of the research.) Apart from the dangers arising out of group dynamics, there is also the “worry about ‘insiders’ doing research on their own communities … that they will not see the ‘taken-for-granted’, that only an outsider can look with an unbiased lens” (McCotter, 2001).

In a description of her first research journey, McCotter goes on:

Determined not to fall into that trap, I endeavored to critically look at and question everything that went on, particularly my role in the research. What I was not prepared for was the emotions and discomfort that would arise from such close examination. My role in the group changed from being just a participant to being a participant observer, and who knew such a seemingly subtle shift would feel so disquieting?

She further tells of Krieger (1996), who, in her research on a lesbian community of which she was also part, took a long time to write up her research because of great difficulties separating her researcher self from her community member self. What helped ultimately was to go back to the interview transcripts and identify her own feelings and thoughts at the time. This is significant because an initial advantage (being part of the group) turned into a disadvantage (overinvolvement), which again turned into an advantage (illuminating the research from the point of view of the researcher’s self). Interestingly enough, the book’s title is The Mirror Dance.

Other questions McCotter (2001) dealt with as an insider-researcher were how “natural” she was in group meetings, whether not speaking up often enough in these meetings (due to her wanting to record as much as possible) affected the group, how to deal with participants whom she knew from other contexts, and how to separate their comments within the research context from what she knew about them outside of that context.

For insider-researchers, a prior history with the group to be researched is another aspect that needs to be taken into consideration. In all likelihood, the researcher will have experienced both conflict and co-operation and will already have a place within the group’s or context’s power structures (Cox, 1995). All this shifts when the insider takes on the added role as researcher. In most cases, the researcher’s power or prestige will increase (with the attendant advantages and disadvantages), although this depends on elements such as the content around which the group is formed, on the value the group and its power brokers place on research and authority, and so forth. The researcher needs to be prepared for role changes and role conflicts, which are often experienced as stressful (see Croucher, 1999).


We return now to the beginning of this paper. Once the researcher, both burdened and informed by personal biography, has researched and interacted with the persons he is studying, he is ready to write down what happened and tell us what it all means. He is well trained and knows that he should provide rich, thick descriptions of “what happened”, free of his own inventions and assumptions, and that when he “tells us what it all means”, he should take into consideration relevant theoretical material as well as what participants tell him what they were all about. This is, of course, a naive account, arising, among others, from incorrect views of the workings of human perception, memory and recall. (Others would point the finger at positivism; however, the scope of this paper does not allow a digression into that topic.) But if this is a naive account, what is “really” happening?

Denzin (1994, p. 502) traces these activities: The researcher creates a field text (i.e. field notes); from that he creates a research text; from that he recreates the research text as a working interpretive document; next he produces a quasi-public text; then he

transforms this statement into a public document, which now embodies the writer’s self-understandings, which are now inscribed in the experiences of those studied. This statement, in turn, furnishes the context for the understandings the reader brings to the experiences being described.

I would like to add to the beginning of this account that it starts by the researcher receiving information (sight, sound, emotional tone, etc.), which is then translated into perception, which then goes from short into long term memory, which is then recalled, and written down in the field text. (If recording instruments are used, the process is somewhat different but is fraught with its own weaknesses.) We have now counted nine filters through which the “reality” of what was studied has travelled. Every single one of these filters (and there are more, of course) belongs to the researcher, either wholly or partially. This makes it entirely clear that the person of the researcher is an important component of the final write-up, even if one does not subscribe to radical social constructionism, a view that holds that knowledge about the world “out there” is inaccessible and is exclusively and entirely a narrative construct, created in and for the moment by researcher and participant (Miller & Glassner, 1997).

The researcher interprets, both consciously and not so consciously:

The sense I make of the world is not only made, that is, socially and discursively constituted rather than discovered, but what I observe and how I explain it cannot escape the predilections, values and cultural assumptions I bring to it. Knowledge is perspectival. (Smith, 1998)

Even conscious interpretations can be at least partially motivated by elements that would not normally be found in a step-by-step research protocol. In describing the process of writing a book about her research with perpetrators of family violence, Gilgun (1998) lists what she does and does not want her book to do. Here are some excerpts:

I don’t want other scholars to think I’m a poor scholar … I don’t want other feminist scholars to think I’ve betrayed feminist principles … I want other people to develop an unchangeable, iron will to prevent violence; this includes working on projects and policies that change some of the foundational beliefs and practices of Western culture … I wanted to show the impossibility of researchers emerging unscathed from the investigation of the lived experience of violence …

These words can be interpreted from various points of view, and they certainly stand in multiple contexts. Among others, there are some strong psychological mechanisms at play: She wants to be part of two groups whose approval she apparently values highly, and is perhaps anxious that certain aspects of her book might threaten that approval; she is very intent on influencing others to emulate her values; she wants others to hear the emotional difficulties she encountered during her research. These intentions will find their way into how she writes her book, into how she portrays the participants in her research.

Bringing our own history and personality into the interpretation and writing of the research story is definitely useful. For example, Bogdan & Biklen (1998, p. 166), in trying to help the beginning researcher to understand a setting, encourage the question: “What does that remind me of?” This is a creative, free-association technique. Perhaps this is part of what Denzin (1994, p. 502) means when he says, “interpretation is an art; it is not formulaic or mechanical”.

Denzin (1994, p. 503) also contends that storytelling/interpreting has four aspects: Sense making, representation, legitimation and desire. I will discuss here there first two. Sense making relates to what I have just discussed: the journey from the field to the final text. This includes “making decisions about what will be written about, what will be included, how it will be represented, and so on.” I would add that prior to decisionmaking, and as discussed above, we also have to deal with the mostly unconscious patterns of attention to, and encoding and recall of events. According to memory researcher Daniel Schacter, these patterns are “constructions made in accordance with present needs, desires, influences, etc.” (Schacter, 1996). Furthermore, decisionmaking itself will be influenced by personal factors, such as what Diesing (1991, pp. 293) refers to as the researcher’s cognitive styles. Examples of these styles are convergent and divergent thinking (Hudson, 1966, qtd. in Diesing, 1991, p. 295). Briefly, convergers are abstract thinkers, interested in the components and details of a situation, who tend to collect impersonal data and use a rather mathematical type of logic. Divergers are referred to as reflexive thinkers, interested in the “why” of a situation, and its context. They often avoid simple lines of logic, preferring a dialectic approach. These cognitive dimensions influence not only decisionmaking at the level of sensemaking but throughout the research process.

Representation concerns how the “other” (the persons the researcher writes about) is represented; but “the Other who is represented in the text is always a version of the researcher’s self” (Denzin, 1994, p. 503). This self has a myriad of dimensions – to name but a few, there are self-concept, the introversion/extraversion dimension, creative and attachment styles, locus of control, etc. (Mayer, 1988). Another dimension is how we typically interact with the Other. Denzin (1994, p. 511) uses a contrast between “humanists” and “scientists”, not dissimilar to the converger/diverger categories. Borrowing these dimensions from Williams James (1908), he portrays “humanists” as tender-minded, intuitive, emotional, admitting to personal bias and viewing interpretation as art. “Scientists” are tough-minded, hard-nosed empiricists, rational/cognitive, and view interpretation as method, from a point of neutrality. It needs to be recognized – and Denzin does that, calling this a “messy picture” – that a researcher can rarely be found exclusively in one of these camps. However, it stands to reason that a “tender-minded” researcher represents the Other in a softer, compassionate and empathic way (at the same time opening himself up to the dangers of “going native”), and that a “tough-minded” researcher places representation of the Other within a much stricter methodological framework. On the surface, it might look as if these two seeming opposites grow out of philosophical considerations; however, even if that is so, there is usually a personal reason for choosing one philosophy over the other.


What have we learned about the researcher being at the edge of awareness? The researcher can misunderstand, be forgetful, intellectual, playful, stupid, inquisitive, creative, confident, intuitive, blind to her own paradigms, can pay attention to some things but not others, sift all her perceptions through her very personal cognitive filters, and can have unconscious assumptions. She has a personal history and context (e.g. childhood experiences, gender, socioeconomic status), and her own unique psychological development pattern. She has values, and preferences for certain stances in life – e.g. self-denying asceticism / narcissistic indulgence, creativity / rationality, subjectivity / objectivity. She has multiple roles, for example artist and researcher, community member and researcher, parent and researcher. She can experience many emotions in the research process: She can be excited, afraid, anxious, apprehensive, guilty, elated, overwhelmed, doubtful, confused, conflicted, disoriented, disquieted, compassionate. She takes a stance on how to interact with the Other: empathic or removed, emotionally involved or distant. Sometimes she wants others to see her in a certain light, wants them to emulate her values, wants them to hear her own emotional story; sometimes she has high, sometimes low ego strength, sometimes she is tempted to take on others’ values and views, is afraid of rejection, ambivalent about her level of involvement with the groups she studies; sometimes she experiences stressful role changes and role conflicts and has to deal with the power dynamics of the group she is part of. All these aspects interact with each other and influence the researcher’s activities.

Is that all there is? Is the researcher just a bundle of semi conscious emotions, a helpless victim of her genetics, history and environment? Of course not. Training, reading, reflection, accumulating research experience, interaction with mentors and researcher peers and the exercise of the researcher’s rational mind are aspects not at the edge but squarely within awareness, and balance out the nonrational aspects. The task is not to set the rational off against the nonrational but to know that the “rational animal” will always work with a blend of the two. Let me close with a quote by physicist Percy Bridgman (qtd. in scientific_attitude.htm:) “I like to say that there is no scientific method as such, but that the most vital feature of the scientist’s procedure has been merely to do his utmost with his mind, no holds barred.”



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  1. I frequently say “if we want to find the truth, the real truth, the first thing we have to doubt is our opinions”….man si so good at justification

  2. Pingback: emotional!

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