Post-methodology? [Table of contents]

The Necessity of Including the Researcher in One's Research

Gerard W. Boucher, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA
[Biographical note]


This paper argues that the question of whether the researcher's life influences one's research is an empirical problem not a theoretical or methodological one. One cannot resolve the issue by arguing variants of (1) that all reality is subjective, therefore research can not be objective, (2) that there is a subjective and objective reality, such that appropriate methods can separate the subjective researcher from the objective reality studied, and (3) that reality is intersubjective, neither reducible to the subjective or the objective. This trichotomy conflates a range of positions (including relativism, phenomenology, symbolic interactionism, realism, empiricism and positivism). The goal of the reduction is to focus discussion on two common moves in the language game of the subject-object dilemma: persuasive words and subject elimination.

It will be argued that to avoid the subject-object trap, the researcher must show that her life experience does or does not influence her research. This position assumes researcher 'reflexivity' in that she can be objective about her subjective life experiences. Specifically, she should explain how her own experiences of her research variables (e.g. class, gender) has or has not influenced the stages of the research process. This awareness of oneself should address issues such as the choice of research topic, theories, methods, research questions, data collection, results and interpretation. It is recommended that research papers include a section detailing the results of the application of one's variables to oneself. To improve the accuracy of reporting, it is further recommended that postgraduate work include training in the topic and that dissertations contain a self-application section. This paper will conclude with a self-application by the author, based on qualitative research conducted in the Republic of Ireland on the Europeanization of Irish elites. The application focuses on the interaction of the researcher's experience of class, nationality and socio-economic development on the choice of research topic. It is shown how the author adopted Irish nationality to reconcile perceived oppression as a working class American. It is also demonstrated that concerns about how Ireland can modernize while preserving positive aspects of traditional Irish identity reflect his own dilemma about how to self-modernize while maintaining a working class identity. On the other hand, the selection of the methods, sample and interview questions have been based on postgraduate training, dissertation committee input and respondent advice. The result suggests researcher influence on the research topic through unresolved socio-psychological tensions within a qualitative approach primarily determined by others through training, input and advice. While it is 'normal' for a person to have unresolved personal conflicts, the question I faced concerned whether or not my particular tensions bore directly on my research.

1. The Research Problem is the Researcher

The idea for this paper began in a simple observation that the people I trained with or studied under appeared to choose their research areas for personal reasons. At first, this seemed to be conjecture if not my own imposition. But as I became friends with many of them or aware of the person through second hand accounts, my initial impression was strengthened. However most people did not agree with my observation. Denial was most evident among professors, less so among graduate students; and within the latter group, willingness to discuss the issue rose markedly if one was a Marxist, feminist or gay activist. Yet even among the latter group, there was a point at which the choice of research area became self-evident and some form of scientific method took over. It appeared to me that the person whom I had come to know simply became the researcher, who applied their method and uncovered the facts that already existed. The person who had become the researcher no longer mattered to the research.

Yet it was exactly at this point that for me the problem became interesting, because it is only in doing ones research that one can resolve this issue of the researchers influence.

This problem might not surprise the average person, who given a chance will try to expose the academic presentation of fact as motivated by some personal, material or moral value. But it is disconcerting for the budding academic trained to believe in the transformation of value into fact through the use of some form of the scientific method. Yet there is precedent for the doubting novice in Weber's claims that one chooses a research area because of its cultural value; a choice based on one's cultural experiences; but that having conducted the research, one presents the facts uncovered, not the values which infused the choice but which have become irrelevant (Weber 1967; Root 1994). The problem is that this Weberian account of the enigma remains trapped within the subject-object divide.

Contemporary discussions on the topic of researcher influence have been primarily in the fields of anthropology, literary criticism, sociology and women's studies. The debate has ranged from a focus on the 'death of the author' subsumed into language or discourse (Barthes 1977, 1982a; Foucault 1984); the textual properties of writers (Geertz 1988; Stanley 1993a); the lived experiences and reflexivity of the researcher (Okely and Callaway 1992; Reinharz 1983); the emotionality of the researcher (Greed in Stanley 1990; Miller 1991; Wilkins in Stanley and Morgan 1993b); the psychological healing involved in writing autobiography (Hooks, 1989); the social location of the researcher (Miller 1991; Merton in White 1988; Stanley in Stanley and Morgan 1993b); the intersubjective nature of research (Clifford in Clifford and Marcus 1986; Halstrup in Okely and Callaway 1992); and the researcher's implication in interpersonal and societal power relations (Clifford and Marcus 1986; Okely and Callaway 1992).

The result has been a movement away from an objectivist position on research, which removes the person from her research, to an inter/subjectivist one which includes the social properties, personal experiences and self-awareness of the researcher in her research work and writing. Does this resolve the subject-object dilemma for researchers? No. The inter/subjectivist position assumes that the researcher can be objective about her personal experiences and the relationship between her experiences and her research. This a priori assumption must be demonstrated by the researcher through self-application.

This does not mean that the writing of a self-reflexive account 'proves' that a researcher has or has not influenced her research. 'Reflexivity' is subject to the same problems as the writing of auto/biography: limited experience, partial perspective, inadequate memory, temporal distortions, selectivity, and textual construction (Okely in Okely and Callaway 1992; Hooks 1989; Merton in White 1988; Stanley 1993a). The self-application should provide relevant personal information and analysis so that readers can decide the question of researcher influence too. The researcher's 'privileged access' to her own 'inner experiences' (Merton 1988: 18) should be determined by this, and not simply by the researcher herself.

The focus on self-application raises two further problems. First, the result of the application must be described in words, textually or orally. This means that the researcher becomes the writer who uses 'persuasive words' to convince readers of the truthfulness of her account. The researcher/writer, however, depends on the reader's assessment of the 'evidence' and analysis provided in the application. Second, the researcher must adopt some method, whether acknowledged or not, to decide on the relevant information and type of analysis in her application. The methods, however, are not used for 'subject elimination' of the person in the researcher, but to include the person in her research.

By 'persuasive words', it is meant that the problem of researcher influence on her research is argued over solely in words (e.g. through books, debates and person to person). The goal of the argument is to persuade the other person of the validity of her position (whether it is subjectivist, intersubjectivist or objectivist). In other words, the persuasive words position represents an attempt to theoretically resolve the problem of researcher influence before she 'does' her research.

The 'subject elimination' position focuses on the methodological problem of eradicating the influence of the researcher's subjectivity on her own research. This is mainly an objectivist technique which adopts various instruments such as statistical procedures, sampling, surveys, questionnaires and constructs like double blind tests. Researcher eradication is judged by her peers (intersubjectively) according to her use of current methodological procedures. This position concedes that the researcher can influence her research, but claims that her influence can be reduced to a tolerable bias, equivalent in practical terms to her elimination.

The subject elimination position, however, disguises its use of theory. It resolves the problem of researcher influence by arguing that others have already solved it for her. If she adopts the intersubjectively agreed methods, then she no longer has to think about whether her subjectivity influences her research. The thinking has been done a priori by her peers. She need only apply the procedures to rid herself from her own research. The person who researches becomes objective through adopting a social role constructed by others in her field.

Neither the persuasive words nor the subject elimination position allow the person who does the research to test the claim that she does or does not influence her research. A practical solution to the problem entails the researcher conducting this test on herself, regardless of having adopted a subjectivist, intersubjectivist or objectivist theory and method. An objectivist researcher must still show that her life experiences have or have not influenced her research even after adopting subject elimination procedures. Likewise, a subjectivist or intersubjectivist researcher can not simply claim that her personal or interpersonal life influences her work but must show how exactly and at what points her life becomes part of her work.

2. The Solution is the Researcher

This sociological solution to the age-old philosophical problem does not resolve the philosophical dilemma of the subject-object divide. It does, however, claim to address more adequately the problem of whether the researcher influences her own research. The substance of the position is simple: the question is an empirical one, the answer to which can not be known in advance, and which only becomes known through each researcher applying her research process to herself. It does not eschew the role of theory. On the contrary, it argues that one must apply to oneself the theories and concepts that one has developed to explain others. Likewise, one must apply one's research methods to oneself. It offers an application of the empirical which includes the person who researches in her research process as opposed to one which excludes the person by claiming a theory/method divide.

What is essential is that the person who researches remains open to the question of whether she influences her work. She may assume she does not influence it, but she must allow herself to be wrong by testing her assumption each time she researches. It does, however, assume that an objectified account of herself is possible. In other words, it holds that she can find out to the best of her knowledge at the time whether she influences her work or not. Self-reflexivity is the key, not whether she holds subjectivist, intersubjectivist or objectivist assumptions or what theories and methods she uses. The self-application is neutral concerning her a priori beliefs, values and practices. It simply requires that she apply to herself the same rigour of analysis that she applies to those she researches.

This does not mean that all of her experiences are relevant to the self-application process. The reflexive method involved focuses on the researcher's experiences of the variables she is using to study others (Miller 1991; Okely in Okely and Callaway 1992; Reinharz 1983; Stanley in Stanley and Morgan 1993b). For example, if she is studying race in primary education in Philadelphia, the first set of questions would be why this topic? Why study race? Why primary education? Why an urban location? She might then ask herself if anything in her racial experience influenced the choice of topic? How about experiences of one's education or of living in a city? She could then ask similar questions about the choice of research topic, theories, methods and so on. It might be the case that she chose the topic because her supervisor works in the area. On the other hand, she might have experienced racial inequality while attending an urban school. The reflexivity required at this level is basic honesty about her motivations and outside influences.

The self-application, however, should continue through the research process. One might find that one's beliefs about racism change through conducting the research or interpreting one's results. The goals of the self-application are: 1) to empirically answer the question of one's influence on one's research; 2) to provide a report of self-analysis to which others can compare their own experiences; and 3) to allow others to compare the results of the self-application to the published or presented material from one's study. The result should be better, more rigorous research which demystifies the process and includes the person who researches.

To improve the researcher's reflexiveness, it is suggested that postgraduate instruction should include self-application training. In other words, procedures should be devised which include the person, not eliminate the researcher, from her own work. To allow peer review, it is further suggested that all published or presented material, including dissertations, contain a self-application section. This might not end debates about researcher influence, but it at least allows the question to be empirically tested by the person who researches, subject to the public scrutiny of others.

3. The Person Who Researches

This section represents a first attempt at a self application. It is based on field notes written while conducting dissertation research in Great Britain, Belgium, Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland from September 1993 to June 1994. The research topic concerns the Europeanization of Irish elites. The primary method involves interviews with about fifty representatives of the main political parties, sectoral organizations and interest groups. The self-application focuses on the influence of my personal experiences of class, nationality and socio-economic development on the choice of research topic. It excludes or only alludes to other variables such as age, gender, sexuality, race, location or education. It is also claimed that the choice of methods, sample and research questions have been determined by my preliminary readings, dissertation committee members and respondent advice. The result is the claim that I have influenced my choice of research topic through social psychological conflicts of which I had not been aware until questioning myself while collecting data.

First, I will provide some personal background information. I was born and reared in the United States and became a dual national of the Republic of Ireland at age seventeen. I claimed citizenship through my mother and grandfather. I have spent about six years in Ireland, including four while attending Trinity College Dublin as an undergraduate. For the last five years, I have been doing postgraduate work and teaching at Temple University in Philadelphia. My socio-economic background is working class, adopted through my father who was a machinist and sole provider of income during my upbringing in West Hartford, Connecticut.

A. Working Out The Working Class

When I arrived in London, before moving to Dublin for the academic year, I called some of my Trinity friends. The group I contacted had become very successful with jobs as bankers, journalists and analysts. They told me that Dublin had changed having become younger and exciting, more cosmopolitan and European. Irish society seemed to be moving forward, modernizing again after the stagnation of the 1980's. People felt they had a chance to become successful if they worked hard and took advantage of their opportunities. It was not clear to me how much of their description of a new Ireland could be explained by their new class positions. Nonetheless, it made me wonder whether I had asked the wrong question. I was concerned about whether the Irish were becoming more European? The relevant question might be whether the Irish were becoming more middle class?

After living in Dublin and travelling around the country, I came to accept that my friends had been right. I would have to consider the question of what it is like to be middle class and Irish? This problem had not occurred to me before. My prior experiences of living in Ireland had been of a people struggling to survive. The Irish middle class had seemed marginal and easily dismissed as West Brits. I had been proud to be an Irish nationalist as defined by the economic struggle to survive because it matched my American working class experience.

An Irish-American who is an Irish nationalist - what a surprise. The problem was that I did not consider myself an Irish Republican. I had learned to avoid Irish-Americans who blustered about the IRA and a united Ireland. I also did not mind that the traditional rural, Catholic and Gaelic identity appeared to be in decline. In fact, I chose the topic of the Irish becoming more European partly to avoid defining Irish identity solely in terms of British oppression, Northern Ireland and traditional culture. That was the end of the problem or so I thought. Yet here I was judging the Irish middle class from De Valera's traditionalist position that being Irish is to be 'satisfied with frugal comfort'. The irony is that most Irish people assume that, because I am American, I must be part of the American middle class. This fits the stereotype that all white Americans have a middle class standard of living. The problem was I identified myself as, and was proud of being, a working class person.

Some examples might be useful at this point. Throughout my educational experiences in the American system, I have fought to maintain my working class language. I realized, however, that my writing assignments were judged unfavourably according to middle class male linguistic standards such as the use of impersonal pronouns compared to the personal voice, abstract as opposed to concrete thought, literalness instead of jokes, puns, sarcasm and irony. To improve my grades, I consciously decided to learn middle class English as a foreign language for my academic work, but to use my working class English in conversation. I also decided not to conform to 'preppie' or 'yuppie' fashions, continuing to wear my jeans, t-shirts, white socks and sneakers on all occasions no matter their condition.

I remember visiting a friend's middle class family in northern Virginia and being told afterward that his father said I spoke like an illiterate and had no table manners. At that time, I had no idea there was such a thing as table manners. My family grabbed for our food, argued with each other and used our forks and knives as food weapons. I must admit to being proud of his father's comments about my behaviour. I also remember realizing after my first year at the University of Richmond that to be accepted by middle class peers meant that I would have to adopt their standards and in the process 'look down' on my background and family. I refused to be ashamed of my family or of being from the working class, and was lucky enough to be accepted at Trinity after completing my second year at Richmond. In general, then, I tried not to submit to middle class mores or to the values of individualism, materialism and consumerism.

On the other hand, I was tired of feeling satisfied with my relative poverty, particularly after turning thirty and trying to come to terms with still being a low paid graduate student/teacher at Temple. Part of me now wanted desperately to become a member of the middle class for the income, status and security. On my return to Ireland, I found it difficult to begrudge the Irish for wanting the same things. It became clearer to me that the practical meaning of development or modernization concerned trying to achieve a middle class standard of living for the average person in one's society. The problem shifted again from how to modernize Ireland and still be Irish to how to modernize myself and still be a working class person?

This problem of course assumed that Ireland could not modernize without losing a culture of 'frugal comfort' and becoming Americanized or, more generally, Westernized. It also assumed that I could not self-modernize without finally giving up my working class behaviours. I have taught others, however, that people in a modernizing society must synthesize the best features of the traditional and the modern. Yet I found myself believing that Ireland could not modernize without losing its traditional identity and that I could not reach the middle class without losing my working class identity. My fear of loss had also led me to begrudge the Irish who wanted more than the nobility of frugal comfort. Suddenly, I had become a conservative traditionalist even though I considered myself a liberal modernist. Talk about feeling confused.

I decided to try a different approach. I asked myself what being Irish meant to me as an American? My sense of American identity was clouded by a feeling of being oppressed as a working class person in a middle class culture. I had felt unable to express my dissatisfaction with these middle class norms and values while living in America. The only language I had been able to find that felt appropriate was a Marxist one. But to use it would have further marginalized me as a 'commie' in the prevailing Cold War culture of my youth. The connection finally hit me. I had found a language to express my dissatisfaction with American middle class culture by associating traditional Irish values with being a working class American. I could critique the American class system by using Irish nationalism while avoiding being called a communist. In a strange way, I could have more pride in being a working class American by adopting traditional Irish rhetoric than by judging myself against American middle class standards. But I had to face up to the fact that I was not really traditionally Irish, which also meant admitting that I was anti-American!

The irony of ironies, if this made any sense at this point, was that I fully supported Ireland's movement toward middle class culture if it was presented as becoming more European. I had not considered what being a European meant in class terms before, but once I did it seemed obvious that the goal was the same middle class standard that dominated American society. How could I oppose this domination in America in class terms but support it in Ireland in European ones? I had somehow hidden my class conflicts in America by using Irish nationalist rhetoric and in Ireland by adopting European rhetoric.

Stuck again, I asked myself another question - what was so important about being a working class person anyway? The more I thought about it, the answer came down to familialism and communalism. The close bonds that develop through familiarity and facing similar struggles. The emotional concern for others, sharing if they are in need... My god, I was a conservative traditionalist! Yet these values are expressed by the urban working class and middle class suburbanites not just traditional rural people. In fact, it is precisely the suburban middle class in the U.S. who complain the most about the decline of family and community values. I had become one of them too, having grown up in a working class suburb.

I realized my next question involved how to preserve the positive features of individualism, materialism and commercialism within a community of families? The problem was not choosing from an either/or of traditional/modern or working class/ middle class, but of moving from one to the other, while preserving the best features of traditional society and the working class, and in the process transforming the basis of modern, middle class society.

I now had a way to understand my gradual movement into the middle class, Ireland's development into a modern society and a practical goal of the European integration process. Of course, I had not dealt with the specifics of how one can move, preserve and transform at the personal, national or regional levels. I also had to admit that my attempt at self- application might be a rationalization for my ambition to become part of the elite group I had been studying.

4. Conclusion

The problem of researcher influence can not be resolved at the logical or theoretical levels. The question can not be answered a priori for all people or even for a category of people by someone else's persuasive words. It also can not be addressed at the level of methodology through eliminating the subjectivity of the researcher. This is simply another form of an a priori imposed solution. It works only if the person adopts the researcher's role and starts reflecting on herself.

I can not prove that the argument for self-application is valid. This would impose yet another a priori solution on others. I can only show how I think that I have personally influenced my research and how the research, actually and prospectively, has influenced me. I do not even claim that my attempt at self application is correct or best fits the evidence that I have presented. These decisions are for the reader. I can only hope that each person who researches is not persuaded to exclude herself from her research.


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