A recent discussion in a classroom of research peers has led me to understand more about the importance and influence of myself, my background and personal perspectives in the research I might undertake.
When discussing two sets of qualitative data provided by Yvette Solomon that presented two girls’ accounts of their relationship to Maths as a taught subject; the class discussed evidence of (amongst other things) class, economic, gender and personal parental influence on the young women’s accounts.
I found myself very reluctant, resistant even, to view these individuals in terms of class, gender or anything outside the personal, which led me to ask myself why this was? As a class we teased out the threads that we recognised in the data, relationship to parents (in this case fathers), class upbringing and values, use of language, use of the masculine in positive self-description in relation to maths: emphasis of male influence on decisions to partake in particular activities. These are all relevant to contextualise and explore the accounts provided by the subjects but how far to we get close to the personal outlook of those individuals? I get the feeling that there is a person within this data that we just don’t see if we pay too much attention to the swirl of influences and context surrounding the person at the centre.
I swim in the sea of a first-world culture: it’s multicultural, I am western-educated and socialised, well-travelled and generally liberal and rational from a working-class background. My parents are social, religious and church-going but not devout: life-long labour voters, college trained, apprenticed and educated but my (and my sister’s) generation are the first in the family to attend university. I certainly don’t see myself in this contextual description of my life.
From the outset, there isn’t much contextually different in my upbringing compared to thousands/ millions of other families but the most affecting relationships for me have been the personal ones with parents, siblings and friends but the personal interactions between these people and I, whilst influenced by the culture in which I live and act, have had their powerful (positive or negative) influence in a one-to-one setting where there is trust and familiarity. Truth has often been born out of powerful experiences (this speaks from my background in outdoor education and the research into gestalt theory and holism that I have been exposed to). These powerful interactions over the minutes, hours, days and years of a life that the researcher is not party to, I think, have a much more profound influence in every part a person’s life than abstract concepts such as class and gender. These are almost peripheral issues, a background, a setting – do they really get to the core issues of self-identitity? How aware is the subject of these influences? Would awareness of these extrinsic forces affect somebody’s self-identity?
My own relationship to maths is profoundly influenced by my turbulent relationship with my father who home-schooled me during the time I was studying for my 11+. I have had very personal reasons to identify myself with what I almost certainly percieved as antithesis of the masculine logical, mathmatical thinking I identified with my father (not my current thought): I indulged in the arts of music, literature, creative writing. I have historically identified more with ‘femininity’ or the traits commonly ascribed in my culture as femenine traits: emotional sensitivity, creative interests, empathy, altruism etc (I don’t for a minute consciously believe that these can be identified correctly as ‘feminine’ traits) but I can see that I have aligned myself according to my reaction to the culture that surrounds me, whilst never really feeling a part of it, always on the periphery of various ‘Communities of Practice’ (also discussed, more info here -http://wenger-trayner.com/theory/ ). This highlights the reality and importance of the wider contexts of my relationship to maths. I have had a gender-biased attitude to maths (albeit oppositional) but the story is a personal one to me - through the relationship with my father (which is the real story to me), my relationship to maths is almost incidental to the story (looking back, a shame for my former self, as there are now many elements of math that interest me that I hope to indulge in the future).
After deep thought on this matter of the importance to me of the personal as opposed to contextual, I realise that I have a tendency throughout my life to be very oppositional towards (oxymoronic but fun…) systems, establishments, institutions, rules and generally any pre-existing methods. I have generally refused to accept anything given to me until I understand its context and use relating to me and my life: to the point of bloody-minded, foot-shot and slicing off of one’s own nose to spite my weary face. The benefits in research to questioning everything is self-evident but I have never had a very strategic outlook to how existing systems can be played to produce the desired effect from within. I instead tend toward standing on the outside butting my head against the exterior of a problem that won’t bend to my will…
But to return the relationship of my outlook to research I always want to know about the person at the centre of the story. What do they think? How do they feel? Contextual awareness is of course important – Yvette Solomon described the need to acknowledge discussions on gender, class etc that were ‘in the public domain’ if we are to allow the full story to be told.
But would I want to tell the full story? How much is my personal experience influencing my ability to see the other stories in the data or my desire to tell that story?
How qualitative can we be whilst maintaining a structural outlook – abstracting the data out into a mosaic of connections which the individual is a small piece. I accept certain influences on my life (as described) or that of the subject but they need to be carefully considered, not assumed. I think we should make explicit what is missing from the data: what do we not know about the subject? What can we not say?
Is the question asked allowing the subject to tell the story they want to tell. Is the story they don’t want to tell more interesting/ useful? How ethical is it to try and have that story told? Are we only ever ethically going to be able to tell the story that we we want to hear or want to tell?
- Why Kids Take On Adults’ Math Anxiety (blogs.kqed.org)
- Gender Role Development and Emotions (amdo233.wordpress.com)
- Helping Students with Math Anxiety (howtolearn.com)
- Differences and Similarities of Adolescent Gender Development (criminologyjust.blogspot.com)
- This is Why I Don’t Believe Anyone Who Says ‘I’m Not a Math Person’ (patheos.com)
- Leaning Back: The Power of Introverts (forbes.com)