research “site”, “sample” and/or “relationship”

In the northern hemisphere it’s the time of year when many doctoral researchers are thinking about the places where they are hoping to do their research. As I’m writing about this very topic at the moment, I’ve decided to post some of the things I’m writing. The book is about methods and is intended for people who are doing relatively small-scale studies.

There is a lot of talk in research methods books about “access” to a research “site”. I have some concerns about these terms.

My concerns are not about semantics. The words we use reflect deep, and often implicit and unexamined positions – they are both ontological and epistemological, that is, as they relate to the ways in which we understand the world and the ways in which we think about research and ourselves as researchers. The words we use, in our research proposals and methods thinking and writing, position us in particular ways. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that these words are incorrect and that you ought never to use them. I’m simply suggesting that it is useful that we subject our taken-for-granted terms to some scrutiny.

Let’s start with “site”. The notion of the “site” is somewhat ambiguous. Dictionary definitions of the word site usually highlight its material nature – it is a plot of ground, a location, a material address. Think of other words that are commonly attached to “site” – burial site, a building site, the site of the action, a website – and see the meaning. The site is where the action – burial, building, web – takes place.

A site being developed

A site being developed

The problem with simply saying “site” as a stand-alone word, is that it positions the school/hospital/museum/office/mall as an abstract object. “Site,” as a stand-alone term, dehumanizes what the researcher hopes to study. It is merely the ground on which the researcher will act, because they are the one who has declared the school/hospital/museum/office/mall a “site”. The people in the actual place still see it as a school/hospital/museum/office/mall, as they did before the researcher came, and as they will after they leave. The term “site” by itself, or when coupled with “research” can fail to acknowledge that the school/hospital/museum/office/mall is not simply the ground on which the researcher walks, but is also a place already occupied by people, social relations, history/ies and stories.

Furthermore, a “site” suggests something boundaried and discrete. But any school/hospital/museum/office/mall is not an island. It is engaged in multiple ‘stretched out relations’ in time/space. Where it is cut off from ‘an outside’ that is something for us to investigate, not replicate.

A sample

A sample

Depending on its usage, the term “sample” may well continue to objectify the school/hospital/museum/office/mall. The dictionary definition is helpful here too. A sample is defined as a small part of something intended to illuminate the whole; it is a piece, of something larger, which is to be analysed. The passive sentence construction here is revealing. If we make the above phrases active – a sample is a small part of something that the researcher has selected and worked on in order to illuminate the whole, it is a piece of something larger which the researcher will analyse – then the agency of the researcher, and the inert and passive nature of that which is sampled, are clear. But a school/hospital/museum/office/mall is not inert. It is not the same as a sample of tissue or soil or handwriting. There are people in the school/hospital/museum/office/mall who have their own analyses of what is going on there, and why – and they have the power to choose whether we can be part of their world, and if so, what about themselves and their organisation that we can see and interact with.

The terms “site” and “sample” are drawn from particular traditions of research. Archeologists work on sites. Laboratories work on samples. It is worth thinking about how much these terms really are applicable to work in a school/hospital/museum/office/mall and in libraries and archives. Of course, it is often necessary to use these terms, say for instance when talking with funders who expect us to use this kind of language. However, we can also – and at the same time – use alternative words that do not objectify and de-humanise and which instead acknowledge the agency and rights of those we want to participate in our research project.

I prefer to think about building a research relationship. To continue with definitions, a dictionary version of relationship has it as both a connection between two or more people or things, and also the ways in which people or groups and/or things behave with, feel about, deal with, interact with, and regard each other. Let’s take that a bit further. What else is there about relationships that might be instructive? Relationships change, they are not fixed. Relationships can be good or bad, exciting or dull, productive or unproductive, sad or happy, long lasting or short-lived, faulty or perfect. The way that relationships work out depends on the ways in which the initial encounter occurs, the expectations and agreements that are made about conduct (or not), ongoing interactions, the amount of effort put in… If this is a capital R Relationship, then it is also worth remembering the old truism that it takes two to make one work, and that keeping the Relationship going requires continuous attention. A relationship is not a one-off event.

These qualities of a relationship (and Relationship) – mutuality and reciprocity, contingency, requiring ongoing attention in order to be sustained, indeed a kind of fragility – are extremely helpful in orienting a researcher and their research project. If you approach a school/hospital/museum/office/mall thinking of it, not just as a site, a material location, but also as a relationship, then you will be mindful of the other party/ies and their wishes, interests, feelings, knowledge, beliefs, needs and their ongoing programme of activities.

So now, choose your research relationship…

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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