Last autumn I was lucky enough to attend one of a series of BERA Postgraduate Forum events that focussed on research methodology. It was pleasing to see that many of the postgraduates in attendance, myself included, were planning to use data collection tools drawn from participatory research methods. The innovative research tools presented included the use of graphic narrative timelines and photographic and visual data, and the co-creation of games and play experiences with young participants.
For researchers influenced by theorists who critique the use (and abuse) of power, the hierarchy inherent within traditional educational research methods can present a methodological challenge. Both quantitative questionnaires and qualitative interviews can be critiqued as constructing the responses of the participant in accordance with the requirements of an ‘expert’ researcher. Ethnographic observation in particular can feel uncomfortable for researchers with a critical perspective on power relationships (Foley, 2002).
Researchers who are theoretically squeamish about adopting the privileged position of ‘expert researcher’ find, in participatory research methods, the possibility of an alternative approach. I first encountered participatory research methods in the ‘mosaic approach’ of Clark and Moss (2011). The mosaic approach involves using collections of visual data to research the experiences of very young children in childcare settings. One research tool proposed by the mosaic approach is the ‘tour’ – essentially a walking interview, which involves young children directing researchers on a tour of their setting, while taking photographs of sites of special significance. Using these photographs in later interviews further disrupts the traditional power structures of the researcher/researched relationship, as the participant gains significant agency over the interview structure and the researcher is encouraged to engage in a process of ‘making the familiar strange’ (Mannay, 2010: 91), therefore troubling their expert status. However, although there is a history of using walking interviews when conducting educational research with young children, educational researchers seem less sold on the value of walking interviews when researching with adults.
Walking interviews help to build trust between research participants and the researcher, and may be a particularly important tool for exploring the working lives of professionals.
My feeling is that walking interviews deserve more attention in educational research. There appear be clear practical benefits to researchers who use them as a data collection tool. Evidence suggests that walking interviews are a useful way of engaging with those who have little experience of participating in research, as they help to build trust between research participants and the researcher (Carpiano, 2009). Furthermore, walking interviews may be a particularly important tool for exploring the working lives of professionals. Evans and Jones (2011) found that walking interviews helped to focus participants on their professional location and working lives, rather than on personal narratives. In an age in which school design enables surveillance (Kulz, 2017), and the branding of academy chains increasingly saturates school buildings, walking interviews offer an opportunity for educational researchers to explore the impact that spatial factors have on the lives of teachers and students.
Responses to the use of walking interviews as a research tool were mixed at the Postgraduate Forum event. Many of the postgraduate researchers present identified with the participatory nature of the approach. However, pragmatic issues were raised about the length of interviews, and ethical concerns were also voiced about the need to conduct sensitive interviews in safe and confidential environments (which could be compromised by walking interviews).
Having not yet started my data collection, I am yet to determine the extent to which these concerns are justified. However, the healthy debate surrounding the use of walking interviews at the Forum event did indicate that walking interviews are of methodological interest to educational researchers, particularly those who are drawn to participatory approaches. It appears that more research in education needs to be undertaken using walking interviews before we can determine whether this particular research tool has legs.
Carpiano, R (2009) ‘Come take a walk with me: The “Go-Along” interview as a novel method for studying the implications of place for health and well-being’, Health and Place 15(1): 263–272
Clark A and Moss P (2011) Listening to Young Children: The Mosaic Approach, second edition, London: National Children’s Bureau
Evans J and Jones P (2011) ‘The walking interview: Methodology, mobility and place’, Applied Geography 31(2): 849–858
Foley D (2002) ‘Critical ethnography: The reflexive turn’, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 15(4): 469–490
Kulz C (2017) Factories for Learning: making race, class and inequality in the neoliberal academy,. Manchester: Manchester University Press
Mannay D (2010) ‘Making the familiar strange: can visual research methods render the familiar setting more perceptible?’, Qualitative Research 10(1): 91–111