RP 2

‘Research perspectives and research choices’.
With reference to an area of research that interests you, use two of the research perspectives discussed in this course to outline and compare different questions, projects and types of research that might be taken up in relation to it.

My background is that of a high school teacher with fifteen years’ experience in schools. I have always had an interest in pastoral care and welfare issues. As a Year 12 Coordinator in Singapore at an Australian school, I felt that the students under my care did not really know how to study and prepare effectively for examinations. I wanted to provide them with the opportunity to improve their skills in this area so looked around to try and find resources and speakers in this area. These were woefully inadequate. I assumed that this was because I was in Singapore and that the situation in Australia would be different.

On my return to Australia four years ago, I accepted a position as a Year 12 Coordinator. To my surprise I again faced a dearth of resources. Something had to be done.

I started a business and created resources myself. I also ran courses in schools for high school students about how to study. But the nagging questions remained. What is the most effective way to help students develop study skills? What exactly are the skills they need? Can these be developed in the school environment? How can we help students to learn how to learn?

This is an enormously broad topic and my first dilemma is of course to narrow the area of the research to a manageable size. It is really a series of questions that need to be examined. What skills do students need in order to be able to study effectively? Do they develop these skills in the current school environment? If not, what could be implemented by welfare teachers in order to facilitate the development of these skills? What is the most effective way of doing this?

In pursuing a particular research topic there are of course a variety of approaches that can be taken. Different perspectives will frame the educational inquiry in a particular direction, thus producing different types of research texts due to the varying educational worlds they construct. The two approaches I will consider are interpretive research and social critical theory.

The dominance of the scientific approach to educational research eventually gave rise to a competing approach, that of interpretative research. Carr and Kemmis (1986) in their account of the development of the interpretative approach succinctly capture this by explaining that it is a quest to ‘seek to replace the scientific notions of explanation, prediction and control, with the interpretative notions of understanding, meanings and actions’(p.83). Interpretative research is sometimes labeled as a qualitative approach, thus emphasising the contrast to the quantitative approach of the empirical perspective. But this older research tradition comprises of much more than this label implies.

With the interpretative perspective an assumption is made about the nature of the world being researched. People cannot be merely categorised and tabulated. Unlike an empirical approach that applies scientific methods from the physical world to people and situations being studied, the interpretative perspective believes that social research has to take a different approach.

In his analysis of Schutz’s (1953) article rationalising the need for interpretative social science, McIntyre (2004) makes it clear that the complexity of social beings with the complications of language and culture requires a different approach in order to truly know and explain the world. Schutz stresses that much of our knowledge of the world derives from systems of constructs that have been socially derived. Thus this type of research becomes a search for subjective meaning in context focusing on social practice.

The main focus of this research tradition is to discover the meaning behind the phenomenon being studied. Not simply to observe and record data. The interpretative researcher moves beyond mere collection of data and results of experiments to focus on understanding what lies behind the data as the central issue of the research. This quest for meaning creates a need for interpretation.

Proponents of the interpretative approach make the knowledge claim that attempting to control away the context in which the research takes place is not as valid as research which instead takes account of the context inherent in all social action which is necessary in interpreting human behaviour.

Approaches taken with this research perspective include case studies, ethnographies, narrative interviewing, extended interviews, multiple observations over a range of time periods and revisits with the interview transcript being studied. Naturalistic settings are preferred and encouraged. In this approach data is collected but the researcher then interprets it while declaring biases upfront. A classic example of this approach is the research by Walker (1998) conducted in an inner city school.

Another characteristic of this type of research is that researchers do not attempt to divorce or isolate themselves from the research situation. Instead they involve themselves as Walker did in the research process and then interpret what they see. The assumption about the place of the researcher is that there can be a relationship between the researcher and the researched.

Social critical theory is critical of interpretative research, as this particular research perspective makes the assumption that research that just looks to describe or explain the world is insufficient as it leaves the inequalities inherent in the situation in place. Social critical theorists seek to move beyond the data collection and reporting of empirical research and beyond the interpretative approach to make research participants aware of the social inequities and work to correct these. Critical social theory seeks to gain an awareness of the ideological nature of its research activities. Jakupec (2004) sums this up in his statement in the learning guide that the objective of social critical theory is to ‘foster reflexivity for the purpose of emancipation’(p.97).

There is a strong assumption with this research perspective that the world is an unequal place of social injustice. Social inequalities are sustained and produced by social and institutional structures and oppressive ideologies of which participants may or may not be aware. These social inequalities mean that some groups are disadvantaged as compared to others, and social critical theorists believe that this unfairness must be removed or broken down. An example of this is Soucek’s (1993) anaylsis of public education in Australia. Soucek argues that the current restructuring of the education system is based more on economic rationality than on what is effective with respect to lifeworld skills and in the best interests of those in the system.

The knowledge claim behind this type of research is that the biggest problem with people is the power relationship between them. Although in reality the social world operates in terms of power this is hidden via ideology and ideas. This is illustrated by Scott (1995) who examines how competing interests contribute to the higher education crisis. Social critical research claims that it sets out to do more than just analyse and critique, it aims to change the world by creating greater equality in society or the workplace, wherever the research may be taking place.

This is clearly demonstrated in Scott’s writings where he discusses four different paradoxes in higher education, and after examining each looks at alternatives in dealing with these issues. For example, when discussing the difficulties faced by universities who cope with increasing diversification by increasing enforcements of how they perceive a community should operate, Scott puts forward the idea that it is their definition of community that is the issue. This paradox could be resolved if higher education institutions viewed community as not something that dissolved differences but that acknowledged and embraced them.

The approach taken is to expose or uncover the ideologies that through particular situations or practices actually hide the interests being served. Researchers can work directly with research subjects to define and act upon the problem in a participatory action process getting those involved to recognize and gain awareness of the different levels of power. The research aims to promote a critical consciousness that will promote change. In order to do this, a reflexive approach is taken where traditional thought patterns and values are challenged. The concept of praxis as discussed by Jakupec in the learning guide stresses that all knowledge claims under social critical theory need to be interpreted through concrete and practical situations. The social critical theorists watchword – take nothing for granted.

So what sort of research projects would these perspectives generate for my research interests?

Taking the interpretative perspective, a number of projects in my research area of interest easily come to mind, perhaps stimulated by the research undertaken by Walker. In order to study the skills students need to succeed at school, an ethnological approach could be taken with students of different abilities selected across a number of schools. By interviewing students who do well at school about their practices both at school and at home it would be possible to gain a wealth of understanding as to what habits good students have developed and why. Students often have difficulty defining or explaining how they actually study, so an approach such as the interpretive perspective where the researcher can be involved and interact with the students in order to draw them out in a deeper way would be very appropriate.

This would be classical ethnographical research – what is the culture that exists amongst the academic achievers in a school? How does this contribute to the practices they implement and the outcomes they achieve? How do the social interactions that take place amongst the high achievers and those who struggle at school affect the outcome? Interviewing teachers and hearing their observations on these students, techniques favoured by Walker, would also provide invaluable research data captured by the transcripts of the interviews.

By widening the research base to examine the opposite end of the spectrum, those who do not achieve academically at school, and even those who would be the average achievers at school, we could develop a research project not too dissimilar to Walker in methodology where the different groups within the schools are studied in order to understand the culture of under or over achieving they have created, how it develops and propagates and how the interaction between the groups reflects the different understandings each of the groups has of themselves and each other. Where Walker’s aim was to understand how youth culture works to construct what it means to become a man, this research would aim to understand how youth culture works to construct the good and bad students in the school environment.

A further issue to consider is one raised by Hammersley and Atkinson (1995). This article criticises the interpretative approach for ignoring the external forces which can also shape people’s understandings of their world. They argue there is a need for reflexivity as the data and findings are subjective and at times tenuous links and conclusions are drawn based on individual and idiosyncratic observations. It is important that social research is reflexive and a part of the world it studies. One must be aware that the knowledge innately relied on in order to undertake valid ethnographical studies cannot be discounted or ignored, nor can the fact that the researcher also has an affect on the social phenomena being studied.

Regardless of whether Hammersley and Atkinson’s opinions are accepted, as an interpretative researcher it would be important to be aware of and, ideally, upfront declare any biases or assumptions I would be making when approaching this research. Like Walker, I would be making the knowledge claim that in order to have a true understanding of this particular research problem, research undertaken in the school environment would be essential, as it is my belief that this environment and its participants’ role within in it affects the way students approach their schoolwork. Can it be cool to do well academically? Is there a culture of praising or knocking high achievers? How do high achievers view their place in the school and how are they viewed by others?

My own background of course contributes to my biases. As I high achiever at school I was fortunate in the schools I attended that academic achievement was promoted and socially acceptable. Being a good student increased one’s social status, although it was a fine line. If one was that bit too good, top in the State for example, it could lead to a backlash of reaction and a classification as a dork. But perhaps this was purely my perception of the situation? Perhaps I am thinking a bit too post-structurally. To return to the interpretative perspective, I have also, as a teacher, seen schools where academic success creates pariahs, and students with obvious ability deliberately sabotage themselves in order to be accepted socially. It is clear from this that I believe the worlds students create and then inhabit, as well as the individual’s ability, affects the approach students take to their school work.

The main advantage for me in this approach is the effectiveness of the techniques of this perspective in capturing the flavour and feeling of the research subjects. This allows the researcher to move beyond simple description, to interact with the subjects, and to probe for understanding and meaning of the reasons behind particular actions and attitudes. The flexibility of the role of the researcher, both as participant and observer is appealing. I believe this approach is much more effective than that of an empirical approach where students might simply fill out a survey and results are tabulated and percentages of responses calculated. I agree with the champions of the interpretative approach that the study of the human condition demands a human approach – an approach which takes into account the complexity of human relationships, thoughts and emotions. By immersing oneself in the culture of the research subjects as Walker did, one has a greater chance of understanding the perspectives taken by the participants.

Through my readings for this assignment, I have come to understand much about my own beliefs and perspectives. I am not content to simply describe as an empiricist does. I fully support the analysis and search for meaning that the interpretative perspective promotes. But this too is insufficient. I think I am fundamentally a social critical theorist at heart. I want action. I want change. I want results. I want to understand the problem then fix it. A study as I have described so far would be frustrating as it would not be enough for me to simply understand how the different academic groups are formed and influenced in schools. I want to know what can be done to help all students become academic achievers. This statement is of course a clear indicator of my own values and beliefs. I obviously place a strong emphasis on academic achievement and see it as an outcome to be desired.

This argument is supported by Carr and Kemmis who criticize the interpretative approach as providing poor change theory. They point out that clarification of the existing situation is unlikely to lead to a change in situation for or by the participants, and this they imply is a weakness of this approach.

A critical theory perspective appears to be the answer. In the learning guide Jakupec stresses that this approach is political, and unashamedly so.

Undertaking research with a social critical perspective would lead to a markedly different type of research project than that of the interpretative perspective discussed above. Instead of examining how the school culture and its participants generate students in different academic categories, the focus would be to examine the inequalities in the school system and social setting that are being exerted either openly or overtly that lead to some students being disadvantaged from an academic point of view. What are the mechanisms in place that allow the dominants, those of solid academic standing, to maintain their power base?

The important thing in a social critical perspective is that all ideologies or approaches to research must be exposed to a critique. An example of this approach is Barnett’s (1994) discussion on the loss of wisdom which questions the dominant ideology of the competency based movement. In this research problem the question is how is dominance being exerted in the school situation?

Research of this nature would be focusing not only on the individuals themselves and the constrictions placed on them by the constructs they have defined for themselves, but also the school system itself and the way in which it ruthlessly sorts, grades and classifies students. Consider the student who passes for the first time ever a Maths test at age 16. What messages has that student been receiving from the system for the last 11 years of schooling? Where is the justice in a system that allows students to fail repeatedly and reinforces a feeling of stupidity and inadequacy for some and superiority and achievement for others?

Research of this nature moves beyond the individual to take a reflexive look at the societal factors that are influencing the outcomes. What makes a child fail at school? What is failure? Who defines it? What are the factors contributing to this result? Are some students advantaged to the detriment of others?

Examining the issue of streamed classes would be essential to this research. While some argue that classes streamed on ability allow students to work with those of their own ability and challenge each other to the extent to which they are capable, the social critical perspective would examine whether this is yet another construct that alienates and represses students who are placed in the lower classes. The mechanism for grading would be examined, and the effect on student’s morale as well as theirs and others expectations of themselves when placed in this situation. By removing more able students are these academically weaker students being deprived of a chance of benefiting from a more stimulating and challenging environment? A reflexive approach looks at the beliefs behind the structures in place and challenges the ideology that forms them. An essential research problematic would be whether such structures of grading are legitimized or legistated, another crucial concern of social critical theory.

In this case the social critical theorist would also examine this issue from the viewpoint of the industrialized world. Do education policy makers have a hidden agenda or a need to protect the status quo? Are there external interests that are being protected or supported? Are there economic issues involved? For example, it is clear that students at different schools are not given equal opportunities in their education. A wealthy private school has the resources to hire the best teachers, to provide additional study resources, to bring in outside experts to enrich the curriculum and to provide opportunities for excursions and experiences that may not always be available to those in a disadvantaged school or from a disadvantaged home background. Thus the economic resources of the parents determines the depth of opportunities available for the students, thus propagating the cycle of the wealthy and well-educated parents leading to well-educated and potentially wealthy students and so on. One of the tools of social critical theory, eminent critique, could be used to compare so called norms such as the distribution of wealth. This supports Habermas’s view that individuals are dominated by legally formed social instrumentalities. The aim should be for the utopia of equal opportunity and access for all. Of course, there may be no validity at all in these generalizations, but it is these broader issues that arise in such socially laden value judgments that would interest the researcher taking a social critical perspective.

The idea of universal validity is also important in this perspective. Social critical theorists would use ideology critique to question the notion that academic results as measured by the school system are necessarily a true measure of ability or success. Jakupec points out that social critical theory is committed to the integrity and freedom of the individual, something which many would question takes place in the high school setting. By challenging traditional thought patterns, social critical theory can explore how the world ideally ought to be. By taking away the notion of a number as a valid measurement tool, another research project emerges as to what is a valid and equitable way to measure ability. Indeed, is measurement important or is it enough to find ways to foster and promote the abilities, academic or not, of each at an individual level? The social values are questioned and examined through critical reflection in order to gain a new and clearer understanding of the issues at the heart of the inequality and thus transform existing social structures.

Social critical theory is exciting as it encourages the researcher to question the norm and move beyond traditional ways of thinking in the quest for true emancipation. Although it is not as extreme an approach as that of the post-structuralists, it certainly has strong leanings in that direction. It is interesting reading Jakupec’s (1996) critique of his own work. A perspective which challenges one to explore and examine one’s one work from a critical perspective is certainly, in my view, one worth further investigation for my own research interests.


Walker, J 1998, ‘ The way men act’, in Louts and Legends: Male youth culture in an inner-city school, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, pp.87-116.

Schutz, A 1953, ‘Commonsense and scientific interpretation of human action’, in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 1, September. Reprinted in R Zaner, & R Idhe, (eds), 1973, Phenomenology and Existentialism, Capricorn Books, Putnams Sons, New York.

Hammersley, M & Atkinson, P 1995, ‘What is ethnography’, in Ethnography: Principles in Practice, 2nd edn, Routledge, London.

Carr, W & Kemmis, S 1986, ‘Interpretative science’ in Becoming Critical: Knowing and Action Research, 2nd ed, Falmer Press, London.

Scott, JW 1995, ‘The Rhetoric of Crisis in Higher Education’, in Higher education Under Fire: Politics, Economics and the crisis of the Humanities, ed. M Berube, & C Nelson, Routledge, New York and London.

Soucek, V 1993, ‘Is there a need to redress the balance between systems goals and lifeworld-oriented goals in public education in Australia’, in C ed. Collins, Competencies: the competencies debate in Australian education and training, Australian College of Education, Canberra.

Barnett, R 1994, The Limits of Competence: Knowledge, Higher Education and Society, SRHE and Open University Press, Buckingham.

Jakupec, V 1996, ‘A critical analysis of Australian government policies on distance education in the 1980’s’, Opening Education: Policies and practices from open and distance education, eds. T Evans and D Nation, Routledge, London.

McIntyre, Athanasou, Garrick, Jakupec, Yates & Usher, 2004, Research Perspectives Learning Guide

2 thoughts on “RP 2

  1. “But the nagging questions remained. What is the most effective way to help students develop study skills? What exactly are the skills they need? Can these be developed in the school environment? How can we help students to learn how to learn?”

    These are such difficult questions, but so important to improving the education system. This post represents some good work on the topic.

  2. @Bob
    In response to your reply – I’ll try to offer my thoughts one by one.
    Thanks for getting us to focus on the main questions:
    What is the most effective way to help students develop study skills?
    There are so many theories out there, but we should at least determine a realistic approach to creating independent thinkers.
    What exactly are the skills they need?
    We don’t know what the skills are for each individual, but we can determine what skills we desire as a society moving forward in an ever globalized world.
    Can these be developed in the school environment?
    Our school system needs help. Let’s be honest, the price inflation of a college education is weighing down our future students and the burden on them is getting to be so overwhelming that we don’t even know how to break the wage enslavement that then follows our indebted students throughout their life.
    How can we help students to learn how to learn?
    We should focus on life skills, law of attraction, critical thinking skills, etc.

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