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Blog post Part of series: BERA Early Career Researcher Network Symposium Series 2022

BERA ECR Network Symposium Series 2022: Framing research: Theories, concepts and reflexivity in educational research – March

David James, Professor of Sociology of Education at Cardiff University

I am very grateful to Yan Zhu (BERA Early Career Researcher [ECR] Regional Rep for Wales) for inviting me to act as a discussant for the March event in the BERA ECR Network Symposium Series 2022 and for chairing it so expertly. It was a real pleasure to hear about the doctoral studies being carried out by Stephanie King, Jessica Breese and Ye (Catherine) Cao. Their presentations sparked some good discussions about theories, concepts and reflexivity in educational research. I want to draw out just a couple of the many topics that had resonance across the three projects.

The first is to do with reflexivity and how we are positioned in relation to our studies. This really matters in most social science research, though not always in the same way, depending on epistemological and methodological stances/choices. Sometimes ‘positionality’ is to do with the researcher’s identity, background or experience, but it is also about gaining criticality. Anyone researching their own professional context or setting (or one they are very familiar with) will soon confront a particular problem: that the taken-for-granted concepts or everyday understandings of the workplace can look very different indeed when seen through a more critical lens. Jessica’s discussion of school readiness, Stephanie’s approach to school exclusion and Ye’s conceptualisation of science learning all challenge everyday understandings and practices, as we would expect in doctoral work. However, we should not underestimate the difficulties of achieving critical distance, particularly for anyone whose doctoral research has a ‘close to home’ substantive focus. Becoming a researcher isn’t just the acquisition of some new skills but is also the development of understandings that may challenge existing and familiar routines and assumptions – even to a painful or disruptive extent.

‘Becoming a researcher isn’t just the acquisition of some new skills but is also the development of understandings that may challenge existing and familiar routines and assumptions – even to a painful or disruptive extent.’

A second topic of this kind was how methods don’t only reflect research questions and practicalities, but also epistemological and even ontological positions. Jessica’s use of Critical Discourse Analysis, Stephanie’s use of Critical Realism and Ye’s use of an adapted Bourdieusian concept of capital – in all cases, these ‘framings’ come with views of what useful knowledge of the social world might look like (that is, an epistemology), and with views of what it is to be human, or social (that is, an ontology). I once used the metaphor of an iceberg for this. If an iceberg is taken to represent all the activity in a research project, then the methods and design will be the small part you can see most clearly, above the surface of the water. It is much harder to see everything below this, such as all the debates that were had about which methods and design to use (the ‘ology’ of methods, or methodology). Even harder to see will be the deeper layers of epistemology and ontology. As with any iceberg, you can’t have the bit you can see without the far greater mass that you can’t see. There is not space in most doctoral theses to address all these layers. Nevertheless, in my experience, authors who have thought a bit about how the layers are related will talk and write about their methods with greater confidence and conviction. There’s a 35-minute talk from an ESRC doctoral conference which seeks to explain why this is the case.

Third, I noticed that while all three studies had a clear, empirical, substantive focus, they also carried the potential to suggest theoretical development or at least to declare the need for it to be explored. Doctoral studies often apply concepts or theories from other people (often developed in very different times and social contexts). We use these to help us say what our data shows or may suggest is the case. The bonus here is that the very process of applying the concepts or theory also gives us something new to say. Do we think it helped more in some ways than others? What were its limitations? Can we say something useful to other researchers who might be thinking of drawing on the same source or sources? A prominent example of this was where Ye is exploring the applicability of Bourdieusian concepts in a non-Western setting.

Participating in this event was also good in another way for me. Some years ago I was a member of BERA Council and chaired its Membership and Engagement Committee. One of the best things we did in that committee was to set up a BERA Postgraduate Forum, which later became the ECR Network, the group that organised this event. I am delighted to see it still working so well to support those who are becoming the next generation of leading educational researchers.