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There needs to be a degree of dialogue between narrative approaches---demanding personal engagement fails and is MONOLOGISM

David Bridges, Centre for Applied Research in Education, University of East Anglia, 2001, The Ethics of Outsider Research, Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 35, No. 3


Frequent in the literature about research into disability, women's experience, race and homosexuality is the claim that people from outside these particular communities will import into their research, for example, homophobic, sexist or racist frameworks of understanding, which damage the interests of those being researched.

In the case of research into disability it has been argued that outsider researchers carry with them assumptions that the problem of disability lies with the disabled rather than with the society which frames and defines disability. `The essential problem of recent anthropological work on culture and disability is that it perpetuates outmoded beliefs and continues to distance research from lived oppression' (Charlton, 1998, p. 27). By contrast: `a growing number of people with disabilities have developed a consciousness that transforms the notion and concept of disability from a medical condition to a political and social condition' (Charlton, 1998, p.17). Charlton goes on to criticise, for example, a publication by Ingstad and Reynolds Whyte (1995), Disability and Culture. He claims that, although it does add to our understanding of how the conceptualisation and symbolisation of disability takes place, `its language is and perspective are still lodged in the past. In the first forty pages alone we find the words suffering, lameness, interest group, incapacitated, handicapped, deformities. Notions of oppression, dominant culture, justice, human rights, political movement, and self- determination are conspicuously absent' (Charlton, 1998 p. 27).

Discussing the neo-colonialism of outsider research into Maori experience, Smith extends this type of claim to embrace the wider methodological and metaphysical framing of outsider research: `From an indigenous perspective Western research is more than just research that is located in a positivist tradition. It is research which brings to bear, on any study of indigenous peoples, a cultural orientation, a set of values, a different conceptualization of such things as time, space and subjectivity, different and competing theories of knowledge, highly specialized forms of language, and structures of power' (Smith, 1999, p. 42).5

This position requires, I think, some qualification. First, researchers are clearly not immune from some of the damaging and prejudicial attitudes on matters of race, sexuality, disability and gender which are found among the rest of the population, though I might hope that their training and experience might give them above-average awareness of these issues and above-average alertness to their expression in their own work. Even where such attitudes remain in researchers' consciousness, this intelligent self-awareness and social sensitivity mean on the whole that they are able to deploy sufficient self-censorship not to expose it in a damaging way. Researchers may thus remain morally culpable for their thoughts, but, at least, communities can be spared the harm of their expression. It is also a matter of some significance that researchers are more exposed than most to public criticism, not least from critics from within these disempowered communities, when such prejudices do enter and are revealed in their work. If they employ the rhetoric of, for example, anti-racist or anti-sexist conviction, they are at least in their public pronouncements exposed to the humiliation of being hoisted by their own petard. It is difficult to see the fairness in excluding all outsider researchers on the a priori supposition of universal prejudice. It is better, surely, to expose it where it is revealed and, if absolutely necessary, to debar individuals who ignore such criticism and persist in using the privilege of their research position to peddle what can then only be regarded as damaging and prejudicial propaganda. Secondly, it is plainly not the case that Western research is located exclusively (as is implied) in a positivist tradition, even if this tradition has been a dominant one. Phenomenology, ethnography, life history, even, more recently, the use of narrative fiction and poetry as forms of research representation, are all established ingredients of the educational research worlds in the UK, USA or Australasia. Contemporary research literature abounds with critiques of positivism as well as examples of its continuing expression.

I have placed much weight in these considerations on the importance of any research being exposed to criticism--most importantly, perhaps, but by no means exclusively by the people whose experience it claims to represent. This principle is not simply an ethical principle associated with the obligations that a researcher might accept towards participants in the research, but it is a fundamental feature of the processes of research and its claims to command our attention. It is precisely exposure to, modification through and survival of a process of vigorous public scrutiny that provides research with whatever authority it can claim. In contemporary ethnographic research, case-study and life-history research, for example, this expectancy of exposure to correction and criticism is one which runs right through the research process. The methodological requirement is for participants to have several opportunities to challenge any prejudices which researchers may bring with them: at the point where the terms of the research are first negotiated and they agree to participate (or not); during any conversations or interviews that take place in the course of the research; in responding to any record which is produced of the data gathering; in response to any draft or final publication. Indeed, engagement with a researcher provides any group with what is potentially a richly educative opportunity: an opportunity to open their eyes and to see things differently. It is, moreover, an opportunity which any researcher worth his or her salt will welcome.

Not all researchers or research processes will be as open as are described here to that educative opportunity, and not all participants (least of all those who are self-defining as `disempowered') will feel the confidence to take them even if they are there. This may be seen as a reason to set up barriers to the outsider researcher, but they can and should more often be seen as problems for researchers and participants to address together in the interests of their mutual understanding and benefit.

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