Final version holistic research for holistic practice: making sense of qualitative research data



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Holism


The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines holism as a philosophical theory ‘that certain wholes are greater than the sum of their parts’, and as a medical approach that treats ‘the whole person, rather than just the symptoms of a disease’. The entry notes that the word did not enter the English language until the 1920s. Strathern (1997) has argued that it is necessary to examine the origins and subsequent ‘borrowing and crossing of domains’ of a concept in order to achieve clarity about its meaning, including covert meanings it may have acquired along the way. Just such a genealogy of ‘holism’ may also be helpful here.

While the roots of holism may indeed be traced back to the field of philosophy, and to Hegel’s revolution in introducing the dialectical method, the concept itself emerged early in the 20th century in the field of biological science, particularly in relation to the study of evolution and reproductive cellular biology (Phillips, 1976). Revolutions in scientific method almost always occur when dominant established methods find themselves in an impasse, unable to process or explain new developments or information that have come to light (Kuhn, 1970), and mechanistic science had found itself increasingly unable to account for the knowledge of evolution that Darwin’s discoveries had produced some decades earlier.

The biological holists argued that microscopic detail or atomistic analysis may lead to precision, but they also lead to the loss of wider perspective. One of their main objections to traditional science was that it was based on identifying laws and predicting outcomes of processes, and was thus unable to deal with the unpredictable. These predictive goals, aimed at human domination and control of the natural world, tended to result in the reduction of a complex entity and its characteristics to a collection of separate properties and laws about their individual behaviour. Thus they obscured interrelations between the integral parts of organic systems by treating them as a mechanistic conglomerate.

The holistic challenge was not restricted to the physical sciences. Durkheim had advocated the need for a science of sociology to go beyond the individual focus of psychology. In developing that social science, he argued that individuals had to be understood in their relationship to society as a whole, and that their actions had to be interpreted in relation to large-scale social phenomena, as well as in terms of the interplay of structure and agency. In the discipline of psychology itself, Gestalt theory challenged behaviouristic models, arguing that they failed to do justice to the full complexity of human behaviour. In the field of education, Dewey insisted on the importance of the relationship between the knower and the environment they know. The biological revolution had quickly spread across other intellectual domains.

Yet in these multiple domain crossings, the meaning of holism has itself been transformed in multiple ways. These meanings can be seen as having bifurcated in two opposite directions, which might be termed the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘managerialist’ (or technicist). On the one hand, the concept of an holistic approach has become suffused with the notion of spirituality (exemplified by Martin, 1997, and also evident in Ford, 1999, and Heron, 1996). Although such approaches argue that individuals’ educational experiences must be understood in the context of their entire life experience – a proposition which is fundamental to the TLC-FE project – spiritual definitions go beyond this position, seeming to argue for essential aspects of ‘human nature’ that ignore wider structural factors.

On the other hand, holism has also been absorbed and technicised within the discourse of Total Quality Management (TQM) that forms a major element of the managerialist agenda in FE and of the school effectiveness movement (e.g. Herman, 1993). The spiritual interpretation explicitly represents a reaction against instrumentalist notions that construct the purpose of education as subservient to the needs of employers and the economy. The technicist approach, by contrast, represents an attempt to co-opt the rhetoric of that reaction back into an instrumentalist framework. It turns the notion of holistic practice into its opposite by reinstating atomistic and reductive criteria for education, by claiming predictive power for educational research, and by legitimating prescriptive control of educational processes.

In contrast to both these interpretations, we will argue for holism in FE practice and educational research in its original sense – as an approach that regards any human and social subject as a totally integrated system rather than as a sum of articulated parts, and which seeks to ensure that analysis illuminates rather than obscures the wider perspective that is so essential to making sense of educational processes.

We have shown how holistic practice is at the heart of key debates about the nature of the culture of FE, and the cultural practices in which FE professionals engage. But as we stated in our introduction, this paper is primarily concerned with ways in which research culture can make itself relevant to those practitioners, since without doing so, the project of enhancing research capacity among those practitioners may be far less likely to succeed. Let us turn, then, to consider the field of educational research itself, and to locate our own experiences of research in relation to holistic ways of understanding. We want to look in particular at one aspect of research which is not frequently discussed when authors outline the methods by which they conducted their research. Yet it has enormous bearing upon the findings of research: the manner by which data is analysed.

We believe this is an important research issue for practitioners, because analysis is the means by which we make sense of data. While quantitative data – the statistical evidence provided by surveys, questionnaires and numerical information – reveals important overall patterns and trends, it requires expert knowledge to make sense of such data. There are technical rules and methods for analysing such data, which also allow the results to be validated. However, qualitative data – interviews with individuals, observations of teaching and learning situations and so on – appears more accessible. Anyone can sit down and read the transcripts of a series of interviews, or an observer’s account of a lecture. Yet when confronted with a large amount of such discursive data, it can be extremely difficult to make sense of that whole, and arrive at a coherent interpretation. How, then, can we make sense of qualitative data? Before we discuss that question from our experiences, we need to consider the traditional methods of data analysis that research training usually encompasses.



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