Research Process

The following text may be lengthy but it provides a background to the research articles that I have put online. I signed up for a doctorate in 2009 and signed off in 2015, without achieving the qualification but achieved a lot more. To understand the learning process, it's useful to stand back and reflect on what has gone on previously and how I have got to the point I have reached. The following is a reflective piece that evidenced the reflective thinking that I have gone through to get to the present. The reason for doing this is that reflection and reflexivity evaluates and assesses anything taken for granted in order to gain another perspective (Bolton 2010; p.48). What I took for granted is my knowledge of the topic. What I thought I could take for granted is the ease of doing the research as I was passionate about the theme of the criminalisation and housing of vulnerable people.  As shall be obvious later, this was not the case. I was drawn to such study because of my personal experience. What is considered personal is now considered political which makes subjectivity an important concept (Stanley and Wise 1983; p 56). I find this to be attractive as my end goal is to work within government so for me it was the most significant element of the process. As Max Weber put it we choose to study ‘only those segments of reality which have become significant to us because of their value-relevance’ (Brym and Lie 2007; p.48). However, there is the thorny issue of scientific objectivity giving research credibility that is difficult for me to shake off. Even though the beginnings of sociology was rooted in the positivistic methods of the natural sciences (Giddens 2009; p.41) it was now being viewed by the media and my family and friends as a soft subject. I knew I had to challenge these perspectives and my own previous desire to quantify results in order to give an ‘objective truth’ as I was in danger of continuing the patriarchal justification of appealing to science on its own terms (Stanley and Wise 1983; p.30). I wanted to contribute a body of work that was unique and relevant. The following charts my trek through the first stage of academia. At first, I will describe what made me decide to take the path of a doctorate and then I will continue with a reflective narrative of the past year and what I have learnt and how I have learnt it and, possibly the most important; what happened as a result of what I had learnt.

In the mid 1980s to the early 1990s I pounded the streets of London as a Police officer. After a while I saw a pattern of behaviour emerge from people.  They would get arrested on a regular basis.  I wondered why this revolving door of offending happened and after being medically pensioned out of the force, went onto to complete a law and psychology degree and criminology and social policy master’s Degree. Some of the questions were answered.  With these under my belt the next stop was working within social housing.  After a while I saw another pattern of behaviour emerging from the tenants. Those who had some mental issues either wouldn’t admit to it, caused their neighbours a lot of nuisance, complained unreasonably about others, played on slight mental illness they may have had or a combination of any of these. What was apparent was that the organisations supposedly set up to deal with vulnerable people didn’t contribute positively until the tenant had reached crisis point; being either arrested and/or sectioned.  There had to be a way of getting help to the vulnerable tenants without criminalising or evicting them, of which I was responsible for doing in the guise of assistance.  Who did it help though?  As someone in charge of dealing with anti social behaviour in the biggest housing provider in Aylesbury, I had to make some tough decisions and work within the law and policy. I was frustrated as to where this always led me and vowed to research this issue. After leaving the housing trust that is exactly what I did. 

I was rather nervous about my ability to complete such a lofty qualification but felt my desire to achieve a body of work that may prove to be useful and give me a visibility that some commentators have said is absent from women my age (Shilling 2011), gave me the incentive to carry on. I was hoping that these reasons would keep me going throughout the following 5 years of part time study that I was committing myself to. A university and two supervisors took me and my ideas on and I started rather bullishly. I had completed the first research proposal in which I felt the most important aspect was how social housing organisations were not equipped to deal with those with mental health problems and the housing staff had no agency to turn to. I had looked at the work of Lord Bradley and felt that he had a point in relation to the skewedness of the mentally ill within the criminal justice system.

The first piece of work I put my mind to was an analysis of Lord Bradleys work. I thought that this could provide the basis for my whole work but during the research into this I realised that it would be periphery to the main themes.  I went to meet Lord Bradley at the House of Lords.  My feeling of inferiority was riding high as I my outfit didn’t match the opulence of the tea room of the Lords. I didn’t prepare for this meeting as much as I wanted to.  I wanted to emulate a great journalist and ask him probing questions in order for him to rethink his report to include social housing tenants. It was quickly clear to me that I was not the person I wanted to be and my self confidence ebbed away with each sip of tea I took.  For me the most relevant experience I got from the meeting with Lord Bradley and the analysis I completed was the change in how I wanted to go forward with my ideas. My research proposal had leaned heavily on this report and, although will not be discarded, the importance of it receded in my mind.

It soon became clear as to how I wanted the research to progress. It was mainly about the criminalisation and housing of vulnerable people. My project was developing into trio of angles, the vulnerable person/tenant, the organisations that would have some kind of responsibility for them and the community that the person would have an impact on. This was still as clear, and I believed it would not alter in any great shape over the future. However, the way I had been researching it altered. Previously, the way I wrote up any research I had been asked to do would be in a form of a report which would be fairly short and to a definite end; the creation of policies, procedures and strategies. The knowledge I have gained over the past 25 years within the organisations that I am now intending to write about is such that it is almost tacit.  Having the experience and tacit knowledge, being ‘inside the culture’, is a good start for any social scientist (Oakley 1993), but writing about it brings up its own issues. I have always had a problem in explaining things and this was my greatest fear. Report writing doesn’t need too much explanation; a brief summary, the report and the recommendations. I was now being asked to elongate the reports into reviews and analysis, whilst understanding the concept. I struggled with the application of it. 

The two housing articles that I was set were easy, or so I thought. After all, I should have known the topic well. I had spent nearly four years immersed in housing and all its laws and practices. I wrote both in a fairly descriptive way and the analysis was sadly lacking. I was somewhat deflated by the supervisors’ comments but nevertheless took these observations as points on which I could improve on and started on the next, more challenging, article; that of the existence of mental illness. I spent the whole of the summer tackling it, thinking about it, worrying about it and generally feeling somewhat overwhelmed by having to change my way of writing on such a big piece. Nevertheless, I plodded on, reading book after book, article after article. I absorbed myself in the subject and as I started a part time job in the same field, I felt my knowledge of mental health increasing. I felt I could bring a ‘double vision of reality’ (Stanley and Wise 1983) to my work by being members of both groups; practitioner of mental health advocacy and the scholar writing about it. I submitted the 8200-word piece of work, rather pleased if a little anxious.

After the feedback, which was fair if a little crushing, I re-examined the reasons for doing this study. Was I really capable of delivering the final thesis or should I just throw the towel in now?  According to Diana Leonard women of my age often start PhD study because of a need for change (Leonard 1997; p.156). That wasn’t the reason for me. My career has always been about crime and helping vulnerable people. It was a continuum of the same premise with the hope of a government research post afterwards. But now I was having a big crisis of confidence as I couldn’t see the light and had no idea how to implement what my supervisors were suggesting into my thought processes in order to reflect this learning within my work.  As far as I was concerned I was doing what they said but I obviously wasn’t. I felt a failure on the analysis side although I did read a lot. 

The reading consisted of me looking at books and articles for various key words and phrases to see if they could have been included in my piece. The art of reading all the literature on the subject is one that I don’t feel I will ever master. The same thoughts go through my head ‘will I have read enough’, ‘will I have read appropriately’, ‘will I miss anything vital out’?  The amount that I had to read scared me. To focus on one string of my argument and not be distracted concerned me as I seemed to take forever to find and write down anything useful. This lack of focus has been accepted as a struggle for many PhD students (Francis 1997) and I was no exception. Even if I was totally focused, I did wonder if there was enough time in the whole of my life to read all the literature out there on my topics.  It was evident that I couldn’t study everything and that I had to accept the idea that my argument may have to be limited to what I could actually achieve even if that brings up the concerns that I would be less able to deal with the trends and generalisations that I hope would arise (Francis 1997; p. 31). I also realised that I would need to work on how and what I put into any internet search engine. Inserting ‘mental illness’ and expecting around 20 pertinent and relevant, easily manageable books and articles to pop up and virtually write the article for me, was not going to happen. In practice thousands of articles and books appeared leaving me not enough time to sift through them all.  What did improve through practice was the way I could pick up from reading what I wanted and being able to discard what I didn’t. Eventually I thought I had learnt to focus.

As the next year approached I was finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. I had 4 pieces of work and a work plan and annual review completed. My mind was being slowly but surely altered to think more academically. I learnt how to think more organically, giving myself permission to leave things as they were and not try to complete everything in a nice neat package. I accepted the messy process of sociological research as many other researchers have found in the past (for example Oakley 1993). I started thinking of writing as a process and not as an end product. I put this evolving cognizant into operation in my next piece of work which completed the triangle of my research proposal; it was the social construction of crime. I started writing it then I rewrote it several times and submitted it. It wasn’t an essay as such, but a collection of thoughts on the literature on crime. At last I received a lot more positive feedback and I felt like hugging my supervisors. The feeling of achievement was euphoric. 

During my feedback sessions my supervisors asked me to explain my thoughts around the topic and what I had found out. A fairly standard method to practice how I should explain my thesis come the viva.  However, I find it difficult to make a point and stick to it when another person challenges me. I don’t usually say anything I haven’t made sure is right nor has logic but if someone has another point of view that sounds reasonable, my opinion can be altered to incorporate what they say. I have to work on not giving others opinion more credence than my own. I understand that I will have to own this work fully and fight for it to get it accepted so I need to be less diplomatic. Although the idea goes against my mediator character, I have learnt that I will have work on sticking to what my ideas are by being more prepared and more confident in what I am stating. 

I realised that studying for a doctorate is different from other academic work. I am aware that I cannot be objective and what I am and what I do and have done has an influence on the outcome. The fact that I have experience in the fields of my study will inform the way I will eventually respond to my research subjects and will be reflected in the final thesis. Science is seen as in need of being clear and distinct but for the social scientists that cannot be the case. Ann Oakley describes this as the ‘mythology of hygienic research’ and goes on to say this must be replaced by ‘the recognition that personal involvement is more than dangerous bias – it is the condition under which people come to know each other and admit others into their lives’ (Oakley 1993; p.58). For me to succeed Oakley suggests that I should allow for this subjectivity even if it biases the result as it will encourage the participation of my subject. However, Sartre has given me a way for me not to be totally submerged into the world of the subject as he notes that we can look at the actual research as a reflective process whilst still remaining a bystander (McIntosh 2010; p. 54). This makes me feel less like an actual scientist and more of a commentator of social life.  

After the first year of PhD study the most significant aspect of the learning voyage has been not the learning of all things to do with housing, crime and vulnerable people; it has been a case of confirming things I already knew. It has not been how to write up research; I knew how it should be done, I just had to get my head around to actually doing it properly, which takes practice and is still not being done as it should yet.  It hasn’t even been on how to think more academically, I always thought I was quite verbose and have been accused of being so. What has been most noteworthy is the letting go of my rather neurotic way of wanting to finish something and put it away. I have learnt to view writing more of a process than a product and as such am starting to enjoy the procedure of erudition a lot more.

That was back in 2010. From then until 2015 I struggled with personal issues; loss of loved ones, illness, divorce, and life in general. I felt I didn’t get the right kind of support. When I changed supervisors, it was accepted that universities seem to be set up to provide PhD support for those people who are young and focus 24/7 on their studies. Universities are not set up for those who are middle aged and working at it part time whilst working in a job full time and dealing with a family. In 2015 I finally admitted defeat. After 6 years. I self-published the research I already completed* then got on with my life. It was a relief to let go. I have not regretted it. The process has helped me become more learned and I have got a Senior Lecturer post out of it, so it was not a waste of time. No study is a waste of time. I have had a difficulty getting any of my research published in the academic journals. I did get a chapter accepted but the project was dropped. I have only got a few years until I retire, I do not wish to get uptight about publishing and feel that the regulations and academic process is not getting out my messages. This is why I have started the website and putting my academic research on it. It is to allow people to read what I have written and to use it if they wish, to expand your learning; no matter what age, no matter what level of study you are. All my research articles are open access but please do not cut and paste my words without proper accreditation and/or citation.

*My research has been self-published and a copy can be obtained from the following link: 

Savory, A. (2016). Disciplining Mentally Ill Tenants: A research study Amazon Group: On Demand Publishing LLC [Available at] https://www.amazon.co.uk/Disciplining-Mentally-Ill-Tenants-research/dp/1520201869/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1489576323&sr=8-1 .

References.

Bolton, Gillie. 2010. Reflective Practice; writing and professional development, 3rd ed. London: Sage.

Brym, Robert J and John Lie. 2007. Sociology your compass for a new world 3rd ed. Belmont USA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Francis, Hazel. 1997. "The Research Process." in Working for a Doctorate; A guide for the humanities and social sciences, edited by N. Graves and V. Varma. London: Routledge.

Giddens, A. 2009. Sociology (6th ed). Cambridge.: Polity Press.

Leonard, Diana. 1997. "Gender issues in doctoral studies." in Working for a Doctorate; A guide for the humanities and social sciences, edited by N. Graves and V. Varma. London: Routledge.

McIntosh, Paul. 2010. Action Research and Reflective Practice: Creative and Visual Methods to facilitate reflection and learning. Oxon: Routledge.

Oakley, Ann. 1993. "Interviewing Women; A contradiction in terms?" Pp. 221-242 in Essays on women, medicine and health, edited by A. Oakley. Oxford: Blackwell.

Shilling, Jane. 2011. The Stranger in the Mirror; A memoir of middle age. London: Chatto & Windus.

Stanley, Liz and Sue Wise. 1983. Breaking out: feminist consciousness and feminist research London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

 

Savory Scripts and Scribes

Writing to entertain and inform

asavory1964@gmail.com
01296 586582
©Allison Savory 2019
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