Biting the hand that feeds us? Problematising the disengagement phase in insider higher education research

Year: 2017

Author: Waite, Katrina

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper addresses the "disengagement" phase (Labaree, 2002) of insider higher education research. Based on my own quasi-ethnographic insider doctoral study, the presentation aims to provoke discussion about the point where the researcher withdraws from the site of the research. For higher education insider research, there may be no withdrawal. The researcher continues to work within the site as a colleague, but as the bearer of new, perhaps critical, knowledge about the field and the colleagues whose practice formed the basis of the research.

This issue has been identified as a problem by a number of methodologists. Researchers may choose not to reveal their findings to participants for fear of creating offence (Mercer, 2007). Pierre Bourdieu, reflecting on his own insider research on the French University system, revealed his angst at the offence his work had caused and the consequent breakdown of collegial friendships. His socio-analysis highlights the emotional impact of objective research on audience members who have a personal relationship with the researcher- reflecting the politics of the insider research field.

There is a wide range of literature on the representation of the voices of participants in ethnographic studies, including Foley, (2002). However, there appears to be little literature which specifically considers insider academics as a critical audience, in a positive and emancipatory fashion.

In this presentation I will outline a critical moment in my doctoral study where my Bourdieusian reflexive methodology inspired a radical change in my analytical and representational approach (Waite, 2017). For the insider higher education researcher, particularly doctoral candidates, this paper will provide suggestions for considering the participants as a critical audience early in the candidature. The presentation specifically critiques the relevance of two doctoral education tropes - "limited audience" and "limited impact" - within the insider higher education research context. Using Bourdieusian field theory, we will also discuss strategic moves which may be made by the researcher in relation to position-taking within the politics-infused academic field, so that we avoid "biting the hand that feeds us", while still producing positive outcomes for both ourselves and our participants.