An initial reflexivity-narrativity seminar

Positioning our research and ourselves in our research: An exploratory seminar on reflexive and narrative aspects of research (texts)

This exploratory/initial seminar took place on 25th October 2010, as attended by Tanya, Shaun (Best), Magdalena, Richard, Eljee, and Viv.

Richard set the context for the event (see below) and rehearsed again his reflexivity-narrativity visual presented in the earlier discussions in this Reflexivity-Narrativity category. He was followed inorder by Made, Eljee, Viv, Tanya and Shaun, and they will shortly post something about their contribution as a comment on this initial posting about the seminar.

Richard’s opening text:

To some extent, we share a developing interest in:

a) the reflexive aspects of researching contexts and phenomena in which we are deeply embedded (or connected in some way); and

b) the ways in which we talk about our research (and its contexts) and how we position ourselves in (relation to) it (and to its contexts).

Thus, we share an interest in how we position our research (and ourselves in our research) both reflexively and narratively, and how we do this in both the spoken and written research texts that we craft about our work.

Some of us additionally have a methodological interest in narrative since our studies involve narrative inquiry, auto-biography, life history or another narrative-based approach. It may be, therefore, that some contributions in this seminar will look at the narrative dimension more from a research than a researcher perspective.

One purpose of this exploratory seminar is to share some of our separate and diverse strands of thinking on these reflexive and narrative aspects of our work, i.e. to bring to our home base (i.e. SoE) some research texts we have already performed elsewhere (or are thinking of doing so shortly). Each of these contributions can be seen as ingredients enriching our collective stew (i.e. understanding) of these issues!

Further, as we share in this way our texts – and our positional discourse – we can continue teasing out some of the complexities and affordances presented by these reflexive and narrative considerations, and thereby show some fresh light on these areas of our researcher thinking, competence and confidence. I say ‘continue’ because we have been limbering up online for this seminar for some time already: ME-Search and Re-Search

In organisational terms, I will loosely facilitate the seminar and each make a short contribution to the discussion. Time is tight so contributions need to be short and focused so that we have plenty of time for discussion and moving beyond the ideas contained in each contribution and head towards an understanding deepened by our engagement in this seminar with the thinking presented in each contribution. Afterwards, we can decide how to take things further face-to-face (a SoE seminar?) and /or online (e.g. in the LTE Doctoral Community blog).


  • Tanya Halldórsdóttir

    Apologies for the belated posting on this thread, but I just wanted to add my voice to the chorus of approval! It was a thoroughly enjoyable day, both stimulating and generative, and I very much look forward to the next seminar…

    It was fascinating to see, even in such a small group, the differences in how we interpret and implement ‘narrative’ in our research endeavours, and how its execution is heavily influenced by whether those choices are made for pragmatic or philosophical reasons…

    Our discussions also made me confront the extent to which story-telling permeates my professional, as well as my academic practice, and made me wonder to what extent my disclosures and the vulnerablilities they exposed/created (over the many years I worked with my female storytellers before our research relationship began) facilitated the gathering of their stories…

    I was also delighted by the content and delivery of Shaun’s Deleuzian paper, as many Deleuzian concepts have great explanatory power for me, and I hope that this could be the beginning of a rhizomatic relationship!

  • Richard Fay

    I think I’ll spin the ‘Emotion’ postings into a new thread …

  • Yes, there is a lot there (in “Ponderings…”) – just going over it now. I can see some parallels between Magdalena’s thinking and mine. All interesting and useful to me.

    To get back to the current discussion, I’ve read the exchange between Richard and Leah on emotions – not sure how I feel about emotions…, but I think I’m hovering around the topic myself, not quite able to decide how to approach it, particularly that it seems to be so closely related to values and beliefs, as the fragment quoted by Leah clearly shows. Proceed with caution…

    Anyway, moving somewhere in the vicinity of emotions, I’ve been trying to reshape the notion of a “passionate teacher” to fit into the idea of a “passionate researcher”.

    Robert L. Fried writes in his essay on Passionate Teaching (in The Jossey-Bass Reader on Teaching, 2003) that it’s hard to translate great individual narratives into “a useful pedagogy” because they often deal with passion, something which is difficult to decipher in intellectual terms. He then goes on to say that passion “can be analysed and put to work.” He talks about teacher “passion-in-action” and to me, this reads like passion-in-research, the ability and effort to enagage with what we are researching on a personal level. Through that engagement as well as through reflexivity directed at it, the researcher’s voice becomes more audible in the narrative, whether in terms of “a quiet, refined intensity” or “thunder and eloquence”, as Fried puts it.

    I don’t know if this would be Richard’s “emotional dimension” of research and how it might relate to Rosaldo’s heart-breaking anthropology – but I would argue that perhaps the concept of passionate research(er) takes us somewhere slightly beyond emotions and heartbreak and into a starting point for an intense, personal, intellectual journey, but without the kind of discomfort that feelings (and related values and/or beliefs) may cause.

    The intercultural trainer in Leah’s posts said, If my emotions are positive I will feel at ease to get closer and learn from that person or situation. If, on the contrary, my emotions indicate I feel uncomfortable, I have to do an effort to “reprogram” my self and to regain personal stability …”

    A passionate researcher, I think, I hope, I imagine, wouldn’t have to re-programme him/herself – in research, passion “embraces” both feelings, positive and negative, and thus gives the research process its depth and intensity, through the researcher’s comprehensive engagement with the subject, the process, and his/her own role in both. We know what we love but I also think we want to know what we hate, if I were to be extreme about it.

    Thus spake magda and now it’s time to go.

  • Richard Fay

    The lengthy set of exchages about reflexivity in this category of discussion can be a bit daunting and tracing back the issues we were debating to their origins takes some time but I think the effort is worth it, i.e. work through the category posting by posting from the very beginning ….

  • Thanks for the quadrant (I will now look into the preceding discussion, “ponderings…”).

    It’s all interesting if a little elusive… I have also found some semantic/theoretical/practical gaps between reflection and reflexivity (there was some related but peripheral discussion going on during the DRC unit last year).

    I think (but am not sure) I can see it a bit more clearly (or less fuzzily) now – reflexivity as more or less self-oriented activity rooted in the two-way interaction between me as a researcher present in what I’m researching (thus affecting its character somehow or other) and the process of research I’m involved in.

    Reflection perhaps can be understood as an effort to distance ourselves from the research process as an “academic” activity. As such, it is an action or approach inherent in or essential for any given type of inquiry, while reflexivity is tied to the autobiographical element in research, to its author being embedded in what they are exploring. Reflexivity is tied to the subjective, while reflection is more aimed at reassuring ourselves of the “objective” (?) qualities of our research (appropriateness of methodology, validity, reliability, etc.).

    Re: bears, I think your only option might be to keep on straying in the Tatras with a jar of honey, hoping for a Winnie-ther-Pooh version of the animal to cross your path… ;-))


  • Richard Fay

    Hi Magda
    For the quadrants, see the 22nd July posting from me in the Pondering on Reflexivity thread that began this category of reflexivity discussion … The visual is reproduced below:

    Reflexivity / Narrativity quadrants

    I agree, the Bieszczady mountains in the south east of Poland are better in many ways – I loved the lack of people when I was there. But – and here I admit to a personal foible – there is something about me and bears! I even wrote a piece of music for the band called “Dances with Bears” after frustratingly missing the bears on two separate occasions (by a day on each occasion) in a high mountain hut in the Tatras. Eljee thinks this bear-thing of mine is crazy but she’s got that whole Canadian background on the go (and with it, a healthy respect for the animal) whereas my UK base gives me a different (and more foolish?) starting point … did I manage to twist this ramble back to reflexivity?

  • Magda Rostron

    Having read these posts I can only say I’m envious I wasn’t there. It must have been a great seminar!

    What is Richard’s quadrant?

    As for the Tatra mountains, I agree, one is rather restricted there and if one strays from the beaten track then apparently one gets attacked by bears, or so I have been told, having strayed once ;-)). For more freedom and less aggressive bears I’d recommend the Bieszczady mountains in the south east of Poland.


  • Richard Fay

    Thanks for this Leah. I’m not so sure our positions are as different as you suggest but I welcome the lead on emotion you have brought to our discussions. This is a big topic and not one that we discussed much in the seminar – but is it perhaps one we could (collectively) explore via these discussions?

    One thing that reflexivity enables us to bring to the fore in our research is, I think, our relationship with our research topic/context/purpose/agenda/etc, and, as Julian eloquently points out (in an earlier reflexivity discussion thread), this relationship is bilateral.

    Further, emotion is. I would suggest, something that is both part and parcel of our reflexive relationship with the topic/context/etc, and also something which is managed (in the interests of e.g. transparency and rigour) by our reflexivity in the research and in what we say / write about it in our research texts of various sorts.

    Some research is very much ‘from the heart’ – and here e.g. Michelle Rosaldo’s ‘The vulnerable observer: anthropology which breaks your heart’ springs to mind – and this is part of its power. Other kinds of research may be less so, and may invoke their power from a different source. In the kind of ‘journey of discovery’ Made speaks of, one researcher may choose to work their research in this way, and others in that way. And this may change from one research study to another. So, for me, a key question is how we choose to manage any emotional dimension in our research. I see this as a primary contribution that reflexivity makes.

    As I make these comments I am thinking back to my own research texts over the years – MA dissertation, thesis, book chapters, papers, articles, and, more recently ethnomusicology assignments – and what I can see, I think, is a year-by-year more confident voicing of (my)self in the texts. But I also have some question marks about where and when this is relevant for the task in hand, i.e. I can see sites of emotion (often linked to the presence of (my)self in the text) and I can see how I have, I think, become more confident in this aspect of writing (and thinking) but I am still pondering when and why I have invoked (my)self in the text and what this adds to the text’s clarity and what this adds (or not) to the rigour of my work.

    Lurking in the background of my discussion here are, I realise, the influential words of my own supervisor about self-indulgence potentially getting in the way of research rigour and contribution (this is my formulation of what I ‘remember’ she said on various occasions!). I am, perhaps, beginning to have an response for her but I am a long, long way from reaching a resting position in my thinking on this point …

  • I feel privileged to be,occasionally, part of your discussions. Thank you for this tremedous opportunity.
    Right now I am at the stage of deciding what direction I want to take in furthering my research activities – whether I should orient myself to something which is already familiar and I feel posiive about, or it could be a field which I’ve had little experience of. Within this context, Richard and I discussed the role emotions play in making this kind of decision. We discovered that our positions on that one were quite far apart.
    I was reading the SIETAR (Society for intercultural education, training and research) discussion forum this morning and below is a small excerpt from a recent contribution. I thought I would cite it here not only because it captures well my understandings at the moment, but because emotions might be an issue you are addressing at the moment.

    Here we go:
    “I believe emotions are very powerful indicators of a person’s rooted values and beliefs. I personally pay a lot of attention to my emotions (and to those of others) since they signal to me how comfortable or not I am in a given situation. Doing so, it enables me to adapt (at least I try) to circumstances.
    Emotions lively talk about a person’s experience and that is why it is so interesting to share about emotions with each other. Dealing with diversity and multicultural aspects of life makes it mandatory to me to first listen to my own emotions and then intellectually get closer to the other person as to know and understand that person better. If my emotions are positive I will feel at ease to get closer and learn from that person or situation. If, on the contrary, my emotions indicate I feel uncomfortable, I have to do an effort to “reprogram” my self and to regain personal stability …”

    Although the person is clearly positioning himself as an intercultural trainer here, and not a researcher, I think his observations are relevant for the research field as well.


  • Richard Fay

    I too like the journey of discovery part of Made’s message, not least because it taps into a metaphor set I am comfortable with.

    A few years back, Juup recorded some sessions on Course Design which he, Richard West and myself shared, and he analysed our tutor talk. In my sessions, he noted my strong preference for cartographical imagery as I sought to map out the territory (in question) for the MA participants. This preference is also very evident in my intercultural course unit. Further, the experience of using an MA course unit as a stimulus and space for reflecting on one’s practice is one which features prominently in our researcher competence course unit for example. Although we do not use the term ‘journey of discovery’ as such, this is, in effect, what we are encouraging as the MA participants seek to develop their researcher competence.

    I suppose imagery preference is not so surprising given my family’s mountaineering background …

    Back in the ’80s, I visited Granada (in Spain) for the first time and did so in the heat of August. We visited the Alhambra and other iconic places in that Andalucian city, but what cuaght my eye was the intriguing shapes of the Baja Sierra and above those lower peaks, the towering snow-tipped Sierra Nevada. But we had no maps – and, even if we had obtained some then, the available maps were not of very good quality back then – and in the heat of August, none of my party were ‘up’ for a mountain explore. Fustratedly, I eyed these mighty peaks from the oven below.

    Since then I have acquired a large collection of (often contradictory) maps for these mountains. I have used them repeatedly to explore these ranges. I have done so in all seasons, and I have done so on long, tough days but also on late afternoon strolls. I have ventured forth at times with keen winter mountaineers and at others with my elderly parents. When I gazed at the peaks from below, I learned little about them, but with the maps, I have explored widely. Now, I can can pick and choose what I do up there, and spend my mountain time in ways which suit my mood, my company, the time of day, the season of the year, the weather etc.

    A few years ago, I went walking in the Polish Tatra mountains. These are well-mapped and pathed. However, as it is a Natural Park which the authorities are keen to preserve, what you allowed to do is actually quite restricted (reminding me of the old tourist agendas set for you in the Soviet era). And I found this brake on my exploratory instinct- which could have been so easily enabled by the maps avaiable – to be deeply frustrating.

    By now, I am sure, you can see where I am heading with this extended mountaineering interlude … The task of writing one’s research texts, of writing about one’s research and one’s researcher journey can, I think, seem a little like gazing up at the massifs above with no guiding map, no starting point for exploration. This can be daunting and frstrating and above it all it can mean you do not get to grip with what is out there. But, with some kind of initial map, exploration (for me at least) becomes safe and possible. My diagram – with its neat quadrants (a bit like the neat contours on the map) – is such a map, i.e. a device to enable exploration of the nexus of narrative and reflexive aspects of our research discourse.

    And, just as I choose my mountain days to suit my mood, company, resources, weather etc, so too researchers choose to talk about their research in ways which suit their preferences, their co-writers, their target journal, their expectations of the examiners, their stage on the journey of discovery), and so on. And if a map like mine is used to rstructively – like the Polish route-plans – scope for exploration is diminished and the journey of discovery becomes more of a point-to-point completion of someone else’s route. Now, where’s the joy in that? 🙂

    To end, I cannot easily imagine myself writing about my work in a way suited for the reflective and research narrative only (It x 2) – but nor can I imagine myself the idyllic low level paths which go from village to village when I know there are empty high expanses above which suit my desires more. So, for me, it’s all about choices and finding one’s one ways of being in the research discourse – journeys of discovery indeed, and one’s for which I hope maps (such as mine) might be helpful, not restrictive.

  • Hi,

    Reading Magdalena’s comments, I was struck (again) by how important it is not to use categories or quadrants or any other kind of box as a destination that we end up placing ourselves in, but as a way of helping us start to think about how we wish to articulate our own place on our own trajectory. From that point of view, among others, this was clearly a very successful event.



  • Richard Fay

    When’s the next one? How about we work in a more organised (and less last minute) way for February when Made is back?

  • Eljee Javier

    Hi there!

    I echo Magdalena’s comments – the day was a great opportunity to not only hear about what our colleagues have been doing with regards to narrative related research but also to get feedback from others who’ve “been there.”

    Speaking for myself, I have (and continue to) grapple with the notion of “sharing” my own narrative with my participants and the reasons why it would be necessary. The discussion around leading vs. creating were particularly illuminating because it helped to clarify one of the fears I had with this notion of sharing: Would I be leading my participants towards sharing their own narratives in a particular way or would I be opening up space for them to respond?

    Lots of think about! So…when’s the next session?

  • Magdalena De Stefani

    Hi everyone
    I enjoyed the seminar very much, and it gave me the chance to learn more about this narrative reflexivity path I am exploring. I was surrounded by experts! 🙂
    My contribution was mostly about what I call my ‘journey of discovery’ – that is, how I realised what I want to do is tell the story of my research, which I wasn’t seeing so clearly when I started my research. Now I know it’s very important for me to do this story-telling reflexively, though in fact, I actually discovered the reflexive before the narrative. I suppose it’s a bit like the chicken and egg problem 🙂 The important thing for me is that they are inextricably linked if I want to be transparent and make my research voice a powerful and honest one.

    We also discussed how I would position myself in Richard’s quadrant, and we thought I should be everywhere (!), or in the middle maybe? That is because I am actually dealing (or trying to deal) with both the research and the researcher narrative to some extent, and I’m monitoring the research process but also my role and identity in it. It was very useful for me to see this.

    I also learned from Viv’s and Eljee’s questions about their research and the meaning of leading vs creating. It was really enriching. Then it was great to hear Tanya’s paper live! That is what I would like my narrative to sound like – powerful and moving. Shaun’s contribution was amazing, not only the thoughts and ideas which I learned about, but also the acting! Very enjoyable and enlightening. Thanks Richard for organising this. Hope we do it again soon!