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September 05, 2005

The research process

This chapter aims to make transparent the processes involved in knowledge production within my research. In considering issues of research design, data analysis, epistemology, power and ethics, I aim to show their interrelationship and the way in which the research process and method of analysis forms an intrinsic component of knowledge production. As Skeggs argues, knowledge is not formulated in a void and legitimated by an abstract, disembodied ‘knower’, but rather is constructed, interpreted by specific researchers positioned within particular structures of power and privilege:

To ignore questions of methodology is to assume that knowledge comes from nowhere allowing knowledge makers to abdicate responsibility for their productions and representations. To side-step methodology means that the mechanisms we utilize in producing knowledge are hidden, relations of privilege are masked and knowers are not seen to be located (1997: 17).

In this chapter we will examine the background to the study, the research design and method of data analysis employed in my research. Having outlined the basic choices I made in conducting this research, I will discuss the methodological and epistemological consequences of these choices, showing the way in which they shaped my findings and the knowledge that was produced.

4.1 Background and sample
My own interest in the area of men and unemployment was piqued as a result of my part-time job as an administrative clerk for a project called ‘Grey Panther’ offered by the Office of Part-Time Education (OPTED) at Leeds University. This project was established in June 2004, and aims to help males aged 45+ who have been unemployed for over six months to undertake a vocationally-relevant course of study comprising discussion sessions, group exercises, ‘soft skills’ sessions such as CV-writing or interview techniques, and work placement. Through my involvement in the ‘Panther’ project from an early stage, which involved speaking to potential beneficiaries about their experiences of unemployment, I became aware of some of issues facing unemployed older men on an everyday, lived basis.

The participants of my research were eight white, unemployed men aged between 45 and 60 from the Yorkshire and Humberside region (mostly Leeds area), who were attending a week-long ‘Panther project’ ‘summer school’ in June 2005. While some participants had heard about the programme through Job Centre Plus advisors, others had seen the course advertised in the local press, or heard about it by word-of-mouth. As such, participants tended to be fairly motivated to attend, viewing the scheme as an aid rather than an imposition. Unlike similar training courses offered in conjunction with Job Centre Plus, the ‘Panther’ course is not mandatory or linked to benefit receipt. The facilitators on this particular course created a safe space for the group to vent their feelings of anger and outrage with regard to their unemployed position.

Although they shared various commonalities (their age, ethnicity, gender and the fact they were all long-term unemployed), the group was far from homogeneous, with the result that they had very varied responses to my questions. The participants came from a variety of class and educational positionings, which meant they had access to varying amounts of cultural, social and educational capital. Three of the men were linked with Job Centre Plus and depended on this for benefit receipt. These dimensions of difference affected their perceptions and representations of experiences and situations and meant that often openly challenged other participants’ interpretations.

4.2 Research design
I initially conducted participant observation over the course of the one-week summer programme with the eight men described above. This gave me an initial understanding of some of the issues and topics that were pertinent to them. I followed this up with a focus group, as I felt the topic was particularly suited to interaction in a group context. As I was known to and had built sufficient trust amongst the members of the group, I introduced my research to them at the end of the week-long summer programme, and asked them if they would be willing to be involved in a recorded focus-group discussion at a later date. The ‘Panther’ project manager helped me to set up a mutually convenient date and booked a seminar room at the university for this purpose.

As Tonkiss (2004) suggests, using a focus group enabled me to elicit information not easily observable ‘in the field’ in order to explore the men’s experiences of unemployment in greater depth. My participant observation and involvement in the ‘Panther project’ as an administrative assistant was useful in formulating my research questions and to inform the focus group discussion guide. The discussion guide was devised in a logical order, so that 'warm up' questions were placed at the beginning and built up to the more important and complex questions towards the end (appendix 1).

The focus group took place on the 8th July 2005 in a seminar room at Leeds University, lasting approximately two and a half hours with two fifteen minute breaks. Seven of the eight original group members were present (one was unable to attend). Before the discussion I outlined the broad research aims, reiterated my position on confidentiality and anonymity, and checked that it was okay to record the discussion. I also encouraged them to express their views as freely as possible by stressing that there are 'no right or wrong answers'. I recorded the discussion with a Dictaphone and made fieldwork notes of my general impressions of the discussion.

The focus group was keen and lively, and I found that I did not need to prompt much to elicit the kind of information I required. Indeed, the discussion proceeded quite naturally along the lines of themes I had envisaged when writing the topic guide. The most difficult part for me was ensuring that everyone had the opportunity to express themselves. Guiding, stimulating and facilitating the discussion was crucial to the success of the focus group. Providing interesting material for research and ensuring all participants were sufficiently as ease to disclose occasionally quite private info was also important.

After the focus group I transcribed the tapes, a process that was useful for giving me an overall impression of the discussion and the emergent themes and discourses. However, the quality of the recordings, volume of the participants’ voices and interruptions meant that sometimes I was unable to understand comments or attribute them to a particular person.

4.3 Doing research with a friendship group
The participants all had a significant relationship to the research topic , as they were all long-term unemployed and had recently participated in the ‘Grey Panther’ summer project at Leeds University. Although they were not known to each other at the beginning of the summer project when I conducted my initial participant observation, by the time I carried out my focus group they had spent a considerable amount of time together in an official capacity on the course, and had begun to formulate friendship groups and to meet socially outside the formal context of the project. Tonkiss (2004: 201–2) suggests that this might create problems in terms of established relations of power, disagreement or consensus being brought into the research setting. Certainly, assertive voices tended to dominate and direct the group discussion, and it was sometimes difficult to ensure that all participants had equal opportunity to express their views.

However, I would argue that familiarity could also be seen as an advantage with this particular group. Their friendship allowed their differences in opinions and interpretations to be discussed openly, as they knew each other sufficiently to express disagreement and to disclose quite private information. The fact that they had common experiences meant that as a group they were able to give specific examples of events that they all knew about. The friendship dynamics of the group, the subject of the research, the familiar setting, and the fact that I was known to them and had already build up a friendly rapport with them through my work on the project, were all factors that enabled the focus group to be successful. It was possible for the participants to feel at ease ‘in the familiar’, meaning that they were keen, lively and open in their interaction with me and the other group members.

4.4 Discourse analysis
Because of the interactive nature of the focus group data, I analysed the transcripts using discourse analysis, a process that is concerned ‘with how language is used to create and secure meanings, how competing accounts are negotiated and how speakers draw on certain interpretive repertoires in making their arguments within a given discursive context’ (Tonkiss 2004: 2050). I understand a discourse to refer to a particular set of meanings, metaphors, representations, images, narratives and statements that together present a particular version of events (Burr 1995: 48). Unemployment, for example, is represented in various and often conflicting ways by different sources e.g. the media, government, people who are unemployed etc. The knowledge and experiences voiced by the men were always mediated through the discourses available to them to interpret and understand their situation.

Furthermore, discursive constructions are linked to the shaping of social institutions and practices of social regulation. Foucault (1984), for example, argues for a theoretical understanding of discourse as a realm in which institutions, norms, subjectivity and social practices (such as enactments of masculinity, gender roles etc.) are constituted and naturalised. We saw an example of this in the literature review with McVittie et al’s study (2003), which found employers employed egalitarian discourses to mask and legitimise age discrimination. In employing discourse analysis as a mode of analysis I aim to show how meanings are constructed around work, unemployment and masculinities, and examine how the men positioned themselves to accept or resist particular representations of their experience.

I began by searching for recurrent themes in the transcripts, a search which was partly guided by the findings of existing research outlined in the literature review and partly a result of my own impressions of the discussion. I colour-coded the transcripts into approximately ten broad themes that were frequently spoken about, for example ‘public life’, ‘education’ and ‘work’. These themes not only fed back into the initial research questions, but also modified them to create new questions and topics. Having established the main themes of the discussion, I conducted a close critical reading of these. I identified the different ways in which a particular theme was talked about and constructed, looking at the type of language employed, rhetorical devices and images that fed into particular discourses. For example, I examined the ways in which particular versions of masculinity were sustained through specific discourses endorsing the notion of the ‘public man’ and ‘provider’ / ‘breadwinner’. I also tried to understand how the men resisted discourses that positioned them as helpless, or employed particular discourses in order to attempt to renegotiate their masculine identities.

Crucially, the different backgrounds and positionings of the participants meant that they were able to access certain discourses more easily than others. For example, one member of the group was familiar with and well-versed in pro-feminist discourses, meaning that he challenged other participants about their understandings and interpretations of gender and work. Rather than confusing my interpretation of the data, I deliberately looked for patterns of variation and contradiction in the transcripts, examining the ways in which the men attempted to reconcile conflicting ideas.

4.5 Methodological and epistemological issues
My methods of data collection and analysis allowed me to gain insight from a variety of perspectives, providing the flexibility to pursue topics arising through previous discussion. Most importantly, these methods captured the interactive quality of the group and the way in which they were keen to explore social and cultural meanings, knowledges and discourses surrounding their experiences of unemployment. Using a focus group meant that I was able to examine the way in which the men defined and positioned themselves in relation to public discourses surrounding unemployment, accepting particular discourses and resisting others.

An important methodological assumption underpinning my choice of methods and mode of analysis is the idea that opinions, attitudes and accounts are socially produced and shaped through interaction with others. The group context of my research was important for exploring the way in which the men articulated and justified their ideas in relation to others, placing the emphasis on social interaction and collective meanings:

[Focus groups] are not simply a means of interviewing several people at the same time; rather they are concerned to explore the formation and negotiation of accounts within a group context, how people define, discuss and contest issues through social interaction (Tonkiss 2004: 194).

Rather than assuming that there is a tangible social ‘reality’ that can be accessed and ‘objectively’ presented through neutral, colourless language, I wanted to show how the men used language to (re)present their accounts of the social world. I thus adhered to the viewpoint that ‘language is both active and functional in shaping and reproducing social relations, identities and ideas’ (Tonkiss 1998: 248), regarding language as an inherently social practice which actively orders and shapes the way in which the men interpreted their experiences of unemployment. Far from viewing language as speaking its ‘truth’ in a straightforward referential way, it is subject to varying interpretations and put to different uses depending on context and its potential for explanatory power (Skeggs 1997: 26).

As such, knowledge is not only context-dependent but also necessarily partial, with the result that interview data are ‘situated’ and bound to the research situation in which they were collected. This has methodological implications in terms of the generalisability of my research findings, which cannot be viewed as representative of the discourses expressed by other unemployed men outside the context of the focus group. As Gibbs (1997) argues, while focus groups may aim to reproduce the interactive aspect of naturally occurring social processes, they are not inherently naturally occurring interactions, offering no guarantee of what people say or how they interact outside the research context. Furthermore, as Skeggs points out, the transcription of spoken utterances and experiences into written format inevitably fails to capture the subtleties of expression, nuance and feeling (Skeggs 1997: 28).

4.6 Power and ethics in the research process
The partiality of representation described above has ethical as well as epistemological implications. In adopting a poststructuralist approach which emphasises discourses, multiple interpretations and the constructed nature of experience, I do not anticipate my analysis of the data to perfectly match the interpretations of my participants. As research and writer, I had the ultimate power of production and explanation, selecting the words that were used and subjecting them to my own interpretations. However, I tried to avoid othering and mis-recognition in the research, placing the men’s voices at the centre of my research wherever possible. I would argue that although the men were used for purposes of research, they were nevertheless active agents who were not prepared to be exploited, providing perceptive and challenging insights into their experiences.

In one sense I was in a position of power as moderator because I could decide which topics were discussed; however, the men also had clear ideas about what was relevant and important to them. I encouraged flexibility in the discussion to allow the emergence of themes I hadn’t previously considered. Furthermore, the men’s experiences of the focus group discussion seemed positive insofar as they communicated them to me, providing a safe but challenging environment to discuss topics that were important to their lives. They told me that the session had represented a chance to ‘sound off’ confidentially amongst other people who understood their position. As Gibbs (1997) argues ‘if [a focus group] works well, trust develops and the group may explore solutions to a particular problem as a unit, rather than as individuals’. In this way, the focus group appeared to provide a potential source of support and empowerment for the men.

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