anticipate the unexpected reader

People like me, people who teach about writing, are always wittering on about the importance of writing with a reader in mind. This is important, we say, because if you write for a particular reader you can connect what you are saying to the things that they are concerned about and interested in. So PhD researchers should write for the supervisor as reader, or write the thesis text with particular examiners in mind. Writing for journals means considering the community of readers that are associated with that specific journal, especially those who are likely to be its referees. (You can see more about that here.)

But other people besides our intended readers may well come across our writing and read it. That’s really the point of publishing, putting it out there so that readers will engage with it. And finding readers beyond those you immediately think of and write for is particularly likely to happen with anything on line and open access – anyone potentially can find something you’ve written by being a bit persistent in searching.

So what happens when someone you haven’t anticipated reads what you’ve written AND if they just happen to be your research participants? They aren’t who you wrote for, but here they are, reading about themselves. This situation raises issues that are perhaps not canvassed thoroughly enough in the discussions of impact and public engagement. And I’m really not at all sure how much the unanticipated research participant reader is discussed in doctoral ‘training’ programmes, where it ought to be an ongoing topic in a conversation about academic writing.

Three scenarios might help clarify the issues here:

(1) you are blogging about your experiences in a community service that you are researching. You write about your day, saying that you were bored beyond belief during a presentation by the boss of the organisation. One of the people working in the organisation has been following your blog, reads the post and circulates it to everyone…

(2) you are researching the impact of policy in a particular community. You write a conference paper where you describe the ways in which the neighbourhood has been affected by recent changes, and you use the terms marginalized, vulnerable, disconnected and alienated to describe the residents. One of the residents is a university student who looks you up and finds the paper. They tell everyone they know that you have described them and everyone else as marginalized, vulnerable, disconnected and alienated…

(3) you are researching a particular professional ‘helping’ community and you find that they appear to be lacking a particular set of practices and this is causing serious problems for the people that they are meant to be helping. You write a first journal article and post the unrefereed version on your homepage; it simply outlines the missing practices and the consequences. A journalist picks up the paper and writes a story about the disastrous state of the particular helping profession…

So you can imagine how these scenarios play out. There may be actual scenes of confrontation and various accusations or there may not. But the result could be that:
(1) you have damaged your relationship with these research participants
(2) you might be considered to have acted unethically, in that harm resulted from your actions
(3) participants may well decide to withdraw from your project and/or
(4) participants may never let researchers near them again.

There is also an argument to be made about the politics of these kinds of written representations (see the book recommendations at the end of this post). Bourdieu would certainly have talked about symbolic power and violence

Now I’m NOT talking here about those situations where a research analysis is likely to be unpopular, but is defensible, in that you have conducted rigorous and ethical research. Sometimes what you have to say after doing research is something that is going to be a bit confronting to some people and that’s unavoidable. But even then, you still have to work out whether there are ways to present this information that are less rather than more difficult and damaging. Do you need to forewarn people? Can you present the information in a way that is about process rather than people… and so on. This is a continuing dilemma for researchers and, I suspect, one which is aired in some disciplines more than others and perhaps not enough in doctoral training. But that’s not my concern now.

Here, I AM talking about situations where the un-thinking use of language and thought-less talk about perceptions can create all sorts of unintended consequences. The way to cope with this it seems to me must mean anticipating a reader who is unexpected, who is perhaps the person(s) we are writing about. How will they respond to what we have written? Is this OK? If not, is there anything we need to do?

There are two books that immediately come to my mind which are pretty helpful in relation to these issues. They should be in libraries, although maybe not in all of them. They’d both form the basis of good reading group discussions on this issue.

Brettell, Caroline (1996) (Ed) When they read what we write. The politics of ethnography. Westport, CN: Bergin & Garvey .
A collection of essays which canvas a range of consequences that arise when those who were researched find out what was said about them.

Peel, M (2003) The lowest rung. Voices of Australian poverty. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.
Peel interviewed residents of neighbouhoods designated in policy as ‘disadvantaged’, ‘marginal’, ‘underclass’ etc about how they felt about this kind of terminology and their analysis of the effects of its use.

Perhaps there are others you’d also recommend?

(And big thanks to those who reminded me about Bettell when I was thinking about anthropologists and writing a couple of weeks ago.)

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Caroline Bettell, ethics, Mark Peel, reader, readership, representation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to anticipate the unexpected reader

  1. Pingback: anticipate the unexpected reader | Internationa...

  2. Bridgette says:

    Thank you for your post and the references. I’m conducting an ethnography for my PhD and have been sufficiently paralyzed by the fear of my participants finding anything by me online I haven’t published anything about my research results or research experience so far (and I’ve also tried to minimize the availability of anything about me personally or my politics in the online space as well). This issue has never been mentioned in any training I’ve been given but I’ve struggled with the conflict between being told to blog and get involved in social media while at the same time protecting the participants and the project. I’ve decided to stay silent until the fieldwork is complete when I can more carefully consider how I’m going to present the research and I’ll be better able to protect identities as I won’t be writing about things happening contemporaneously. In the meantime I have the Brettell and Peel books to read. Thanks.


  3. Im wrestling with these issues in my research at the moment. Thanks so much for the food for though & reading suggestions. I wondered where you felt member checking came into this? It’s something I feel ethically it’s important to do (in whatever guise, currently Im picturing re-visiting my sites with initial themes from data & discussing with participants if these resonate for them) but Im worried about the consequences of face to face sharing something that the participants could potentially react negatively too. In a couple of settings in particular the researched project didn’t run smoothly & in trying to generate reasons for that I feel hyper aware of not turning to explainations that could get participants backs up (& even make them withdraw consent) but then isn’t there also an ethical duty to be true to your interpritation of the data?!…


  4. Pingback: The unexpected reader | Health Services Authors

  5. Pingback: gulp. you have something critical to say about your research site and/or participants… | patter

  6. Pingback: an ethics of analysis and writing | patter

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