can you write about mess in your thesis and if so how? part two

Peter Matthews continues his post about writing about the messy bits of his research.

In my previous post I reported the “positive story” of my fieldwork – reflecting on that feeling of “connection” with my research participants in the narrative interview context. In this post, I’ll report a less positive story, questioning the validity of my findings and the ethical situation I found myself in.

The negative story

“The snowball sampling technique used in this research relies on theoretical saturation being reached, when successive interviews with similar participants reveal few, or no, new findings or do not add to my interpretations (Fontana & Frey, 2000; Silverman, 2000). In identifying participants, it was presumed that it would be easy to identify the strategic officers in the sample and more difficult to identify and contact community volunteers. In fact the reverse was largely true.

In [neighbourhood 1] the manager of the community development and representative body [neighbourhood 1 community group] and the Director of the community housing association were excellent gatekeepers. Many of the matriarchs (Jupp, 2008) and men who formed the backbone of community activism in the 1980s and 1990s were still active and were contacted easily. The chair of the [neighbourhood 1 community group] through most of the period of the regeneration partnership was still working as a community development worker and drew on their experience of this, and of being on a national Working Group, in their interview. Through the manager of the [neighbourhood 1 community group] and the housing association I also interviewed people who were not so deeply involved, who fell into volunteering to support themselves and their local community and had never got out of the habit; who were happy to work in and around their locality to alleviate others’ difficulties and improve peoples’ lives. Their more “lay” knowledges added to the experiences and knowledge of those who were much more heavily involved, providing a different perspective on what public policy interventions were needed to tackle the problems of concentrated deprivation.

Contacting representatives in [neighbourhood 2] was more difficult. The present Chair of the community group and the Chair of the Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, who was also chair of a former Action Group, were easy to track down. Two further community volunteers were contacted through attendance at the [Local Authority 2] community conference events attended in September 2007 and through kinship connections. Another possible participant could not be interviewed due to their work commitments. A total of seven community volunteers and two community workers who were also residents participated in the research from [neighbourhood 1], plus a further two community volunteers. This compares to just four residents in total from [neighbourhood 2], which questions the validity of the research in this case…

The ethical difficulties of carrying out the research were revealed to me when I first visited [neighbourhood 2]. This was because the housing here, with a large number of voids with the ‘steel curtains’ up (metal plates put across the windows by the local authority to prevent vandalism) and one block burnt out, reminded me of poor quality council housing I had seen in the peripheral estates of my home city of Bradford in West Yorkshire – names such as Bierley, Buttershaw, Holmewood or Bell Dene that trip of my tongue as synonymous with “bad”. My primary school had been nestled in a bowl, surrounding by housing that would have been built by Bradford Corporation at the same time as [Local Authority 2] Corporation was building [neighbourhood 2]. My nana lived in a council house in London, but this was a “good” estate built in the 1920s, with a mixture of private and local authority housing, so it wasn’t “bad” like [neighbourhood 2].

When I was seven we moved across Bradford to an affluent suburb which also had a substantial area of “council” housing – actually most tenants had exercised the right-to-buy and the few houses that were left had an enormous waiting list. I made a couple of friends, some of them close friends to this day, who lived in this area. However, it always had an edge of the “unknown” or the dangerous about it. One Bonfire Night, someone let off a firework in the stairwell of one of the blocks of flats there and as far as I was concerned this was typical of this “sort” of area. Even a secondary school qualification in Sociology, which included a course on class, social stratification and poverty, did not change this mindset.

In retrospect I find it bizarre I held these views: sharing the widespread snobbery towards council housing and the pathological link to deprivation and poverty (Hanley, 2007; Tucker, 1966). Bradford is a city that’s been down on its luck for the past thirty years and I would always do my utmost to defend the place, to the extent that my undergraduate dissertation was on the much maligned city centre, comprehensively redeveloped in the 1960s, a research experience that led to my doctoral research. But I just didn’t equate my sense of injustice when people ignorantly slammed Bradford, with the same thing I did when I discussed Bradford’s peripheral housing estates. Now I did.

It is important to be aware of the structural causes of concentrated deprivation and not to employ pathological explanations in public policy. But you the reader, and I as a researcher, still end up entwined in that Gordian Knot of power / knowledge (Fine, Weis et al., 2000). I was researching these communities because I identified them as deprived; for my participants, their homes were perfectly normal, ‘so-called deprived’. I did take this very seriously and tried to respect both communities as much as possible. I felt very welcomed by the people I met in [neighbourhood 1]; I was invited to the [neighbourhood 1 community group] Christmas party and had a good time and I have also become a member of the local housing association management committee since my fieldwork has ended. At the end of my fieldwork I was invited by the [neighbourhood 1 community group] to explain why I had been sat at the back of their meetings for the past six months. I was very nervous, but explained, quite honestly, that I was there because successive governments had paid the community so much policy attention that they were an interesting subject for a policy analyst; if affluent communities received similar amounts of attention I would be researching there.

My relationship with the community in [neighbourhood 2] was more difficult. Practically, it was much harder to drop-in to community meetings there as I live in Place 1. It was also clear from the wariness of most participants from the community that they were just tired of people studying them as a “deprived community” and were concerned about what my intentions were. I did not bump into them in meetings as much as participants in Place 1 so I could not have the same relaxed interaction I had with people such as the Chair and manager of the [neighbourhood 1 community group]. I also just felt a bit awkward around them, partly as a reaction to their wariness, but also because we were actually very different – I, the middle-class English man; they, mostly of working class Irish ancestry, and a life spent coping with poverty and the effects of concentrated deprivation, fighting for the very survival of their community. These were experiences I could never hope to empathise with no matter how much I tried.

Overall my engagement with officers was much more successful because I could empathise with them, a fact aided by my previous employment for [Local Authority 1]. Even this was ethically complex. I had to negotiate between the narratives of the community volunteers, where often the Council and its officers were “them”, part of the unaccountable forces of the state that police the working class, and the honest narratives of officers who have committed their lives to helping and improving neighbourhoods and individuals. It was therefore important for the research to be phronetic and understand what was ethically and politically possible in these contexts. Many of these officers were constrained by the policy context within which they worked and wanted to offer communities more but either could not, or did not know how to.

I tried to negotiate an ethical way forward with all these participants and this was difficult and to an extent I failed. My research is not unethical because of this – I did not harm any of these participants, but I feel some did not fully trust me. It is a problem for the validity of the research. I did feel “immersed” in [neighbourhood 1]. When I finished my fieldwork there, after the heartbreaking meeting where the [neighbourhood 1 community group] had to vote on its future existence, I felt the loss and disjuncture many anthropologists feel when they leave the “field” (Coffey and Atkinson, 1996). This obviously meant the data probably more accurately reflects the meanings and emotions of the participants from the community in [neighbourhood 1] than it does of those from [neighbourhood 2]. I have tried to take account of this in the analysis, highlighting where clear differences between the two communities were apparent.”

What do these narratives offer the writer and the reader?

As I mentioned in my previous post, these excerpts are from the final version of this chapter and it went through many iterations. During these iterations I was able to carry out a lot of the ethical work needed to understand my role in my own research – to become more aware, more reflexive, and more comfortable with that “Gordian Knot” of power/knowledge. This allowed me to come out of the end of the my research process and the writing of the thesis with a positive view for regeneration policy – that there were important lessons to learn and that regeneration could deliver positive benefits to communities and neighbourhoods.

The chapter was, briefly, picked up (I vaguely recall) by my examiners in my viva. Divorced from the context of the rest of the thesis, it’s difficult for you as the reader of this blog, to get an idea of how it fitted into the broader “thick description” I developed of policy implementation and practice. Demonstrating this honesty early on in the thesis meant I could comfortably refer to the limits of my research and where the validity could quite rightly be challenged, or where findings had to be couched in more nuanced language. Overall it strengthened my findings – some themes in the qualitative data could be discounted, and the differences between the neighbourhoods and the local authorities could be brought to the fore to add to the analysis.

The challenge for me as I move on from my PhD is to demonstrate this “thickness” into those “products” that count in academia in the UK – journal articles. In my previous post I linked to the three articles I’ve had published so far from my research and I have another two articles due out later this year. All of these articles contain the required “methodology” section, but within the limits of a journal article – wanting to place my work within the broader literature and include the richness of detail in the discussion of the findings – I have not been able to include any of this reflection. And I feel this does affect the validity of my writing. This is the commentary I got back from successive reviewers and my response to editors has often been “I’ve updated the methodology section to the best of my ability, but I cannot fully describe the thickness of description within the limits of a journal article. Excellent “thick description” such as that of Dvora Yanow, or famously Clifford Geertz’s Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight, are valid just because you know that the author was immersed for years in their environment. In a policy analysis PhD where my immersion, due to the limits of funding etc., had to last around a year, it is difficult, if not impossible to make this claim. In fact, one reviewer suggested I should not be making any claims to understand the history of these neighbourhoods because of the length of my fieldwork. I was left thinking that I would have had to precociously started my fieldwork at age seven to satisfy this demand.

In conclusion, I do feel that this sort of narrative is extremely helpful, but except for this post, it has not been much use in doing the academic work with my PhD findings. I could produce something more literary out of it for a journal such as Qualitative Inquiry, but the sad fact is that I have to prioritise articles that “count”.


Coffey, A. and P. Atkinson (1996). Making Sense of Qualitative Data: Complementary Research Strategies. London, Sage.

Fine, M., L. Weis, et al. (2000). For whom? Qualitative research, representations, and social responsibilities. Handbook of Qualitative Research. Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. London, Sage: 107-131.

Fontana, A. and J. Frey (2000). The interview: from structured questions to negotiated text. Handbook of Qualitative Research. Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. London, Sage: 645-672.

Hanley, L. (2007). Estates: An Intimate History. London, Granta Books.

Hollway, W. and T. Jefferson (2000). Doing Qualitative Research Differently: Free Association, Narrative and the Interview Method. London, Sage.

Jupp, E. (2008). “The feeling of participation: everyday spaces and urban change.” Geoforum 39: 331–343.

Nairn, K., J. Munro, et al. (2005). “A counter-narrative of a ‘failed’ interview.” Qualitative Research 5(2): 221-244.

Richardson, L. (2000). Writing: a method of inquiry. Handbook of Qualitative Research. Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. London, Sage: 959-978.

Silverman, D. (2000). Doing Qualitative Research. London, Sage.

Tucker, J. (1966). Honourable Estates. London, Gollancz.

Yanow, D. (1996). How Does a Policy Mean?: Interpreting Policy and Organizational Actions. Washington D.C., Georgetown University Press.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in crafting writing, Dr, informants, publishing, reflection, research methods, rules of engagement, snowball sample, thesis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to can you write about mess in your thesis and if so how? part two

  1. Pingback: analysing blogs is messy, but that’s OK. #acwrimo work in progress | patter

  2. Pingback: a little Romantic messiness | patter

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