Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Barking and Dagenham, Poverty, Welfare and Employment cont. My Qualitative conundrums

In order to effectively research the issues highlighted in the previous blog post, it is imperative to develop a series of sound research questions and a methodology befitting the unique landscape of Barking and Dagenham.

With this in mind, the set research objectives are:

  • To investigate to what extent the Welfare Reform Act and the ensuing investments have affected the residents of Barking and Dagenham.
  • To identify whether the welfare reforms are inextricably linked to the likelihood of informal economies to take place.
  • To observe and track any changes in the subjective meanings of employment amongst the milieu of Barking and Dagenham.

With regards to the methodology two distinct sources of data have been chosen in order to conduct this research:

  • Secondary sources (Government related online and paper publishing’s of information and advice regarding the Welfare Reform Act and the Growth Boroughs Initiative).
  • Primary sources (biographical narrative interviews, observations and outcomes star charts) from individuals associated with a selection of social institutions.

An emergent mixed method design was developed due to inspiration gained from Neal et al’s research on Living Multiculture’s (2013 and ongoing), where group interviews, participant observations and ethnographies were used to measure the changing geographies and subjectivities of multiculture in three localities. In a recent seminar, Neal et al stated that mixed methods is particularly beneficial for gaining empirical data as it allows for different dimensions of personal experiences to be captured. This is particularly relevant as the need for obtaining experiential data that acknowledges the personal employment and welfare-claiming experiences of individuals as well as real-time interactions when observing employment taking place is imperative to the research. 

As interview methods often yield narrative accounts of an event/topic, so incorporating an observational method will account for the differences between what an individual says and does. In addition to this, as observational methods are rarely intentionally self-reflective on the individual’s part, an evaluative Outcomes Star method will also be adapted and used. All of the aforementioned methods combine to create a pro-active form of Participatory Action Research.

Participatory Action Research (PAR)-Collaboration over Positivism...?

Participatory action research aims to, often ideologically and emancipatory, critique and change social structures and processes in order to reconceptualise the social phenomena in question. The method stands in opposition to positivism in its emphasis on a collaborative individual-researcher inquiry grounded in experiential data. According to Reason and Bradbury (2008) “communities of inquiry and action evolve and address questions and issues that are significant for those who participate as co-researchers”. Lewin (1946) founder of participant action research as a form of social action, strategically describes PAR as “a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action, and fact-finding about the result of the action” (1946:206). This research aims to adopt participatory action research principles in order to make sense of a welfare benefit recipient’s world through an attempt to collectively transform it, rather than simply observing and studying it. This will be conducted by encouraging the individuals to actively participate in the research (in particular the biographical interviews and the Outcomes Star tool), this study hopes to provide a reflective space in which meaningful change will eventually occur for the individuals and perhaps the collaborators.

A theoretical war was waging in my mind as to whether to adopt a positivist standpoint or a participant action research approach to the research. Ultimately, the participatory action research philosophy was employed within the majority of this research as opposed to positivism11. This was a particularly difficult decision due to the advantages of both approaches. What swayed the vote was modern positivism viewing empirical data as the “subordination of the intellect to the heart” (Comte 1856). This thought process coupled with the difficulties scientifically verified data has in reflecting the subjective inward aspects of the phenomena (Vico, 172512) suggests that positivist approaches often result in quantifiably sound data of little humanistic value, difficult for the individuals from whom the data was generated from to relate to (Walker, 1999). Participatory action research on the other hand, states that research and action must be done with people, not on people, thus providing an alternative to positivism’s rejection of the human capacity to change dynamically (Brock and Pettit, 2007; Chevalier and Buckles, 2008, 2013; Heron, 1995; Kindon et al., 2007; Reason, 1995; Reason and Bradbury, 2008; Swantz, 2008; Whyte, 1991).

Despite identifying myself as a qualitative sociologist, I have decided that it is not appropriate to completely reject the positivist approach to the social sciences. Government statistics for example have been beneficial to this research, as it has served to create the blueprints of its initial proposal. Deciding on the locality of the research was a result of Local Authority statistics stating that Barking and Dagenham was one of the poorest London boroughs with the joint second highest unemployment rate. Statistics from the HMRC tax gap publication showed that the tax gap was rising, and Think Tank statistics pointed to the informal buying and selling of goods (the Delboy approach) as a possible cause of this. However this research does not aim to gather data through quantitative approaches, for fear of omitting any potential researcher-individual collaboration, an important aspect of participant action research. Rather it aims to include positivist approaches in an alternative way, particularly in an attempt to:

  • Direct the research, so that topics of statistical importance are researched.
  • View the data with an element of realism, whereby a focus will be made to analyse any empirical sense data with secondary qualities (particularly when analyzing interview data13) in relation to pre-sourced statistics.

Ultimately numerical data from secondary sources will be present in the introductory processes of the research, and also to support any empirical findings. It could be argued that the Outcomes Star method can quantify data through the use of pre-set subheadings and numerical stages. However the data gathered from the Star will be analysed in relation to the wider context of the qualitative data gathered, namely the biographical interviews, thereby creating a research method that appreciates both positivism and empiricism, and combines statistics with qualitative data.

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