Week #4 SOCRMx – Reflecting on methods

This week in the Social Research Methods MOOC we take a moment to take a breath and consider the approaches that we currently favour.

One of the activities is to reflect in our blog – so I guess this is that. I’m looking at surveys because I still need to get my head around discourse analysis, not having really used it before.

Reflecting on your chosen methods

Choose one of the approaches you’ve explored in previous weeks, and write a reflective post in your blog that answers the following questions. Work though these questions systematically, and try to write a paragraph or two for each:

What three (good) research questions could be answered using this approach?

I’m fairly focused on my current research questions at the moment and I would say that using surveys will help me to start answering them, but I certainly wouldn’t rely solely on surveys. The questions are: How do education advisors see their role and value in Tertiary Education? How are education advisor roles understood and valued by teachers and institutional management? What strategies are used in tertiary education to promote understanding of the roles of education advisors among teaching staff and more broadly within the institution.

What assumptions about the nature of knowledge (epistemology) seem to be associated with this approach?

The main assumption is that subjective or experience based knowledge is sufficient. I don’t believe that this is the case. Clearly, a survey can be useful in collecting broad data about the attitudes that people claim or even believe that they hold however people can have a tendency to want to see themselves in the best possible light – the heroes of their own story – and responses might be more indicative of what people would like to think they believe than what their actions show them to believe.

What kinds of ethical issues arise?

This would depend on the design of the research. Assuming there is no need for participants to be subsequently identifiable, anonymity should enable respondents to express their opinions freely and without concern for consequences. Questions should be designed in a way that is not unnecessarily intrusive or likely to influence the way that respondents answer. I’d also assume that good research design would ensure that the demographics of survey participants is reflective of that community.

What would “validity” imply in a project that used this approach?

I would say that ‘validity’ would require addressing some of the issues that I’ve already raised. Primarily that the survey itself could be relied upon to collect data that accurately reflects the opinions of the survey respondents without influencing these opinions or asking ambiguous questions that could be interpreted in different ways. My overall preference would be for the survey to be one part of a larger research project that provides data from different sources that can be used to provide greater ‘validity’.

What are some of the practical or ethical issues that would need to be considered?

The survey would need to be anonymous and the data kept securely. Questions should be designed to be as clear and neutral as possible and a sufficiently representative sample of participants obtained. Given the number of surveys that people get asked to complete these days, ensuring that people have a clear understanding of the purpose and value of the research would be vital. For the same reason, I’d suggest that we have a responsibility to ask people only for the information that we need and nothing more.

And finally, find and reference at least two published articles that have used this approach (aside from the examples given in this course). Make some notes about how the approach is described and used in each paper, linking to your reflections above.

Mcinnis, C. (1998). Academics and Professional Administrators in Australian Universities: dissolving boundaries and new tensions. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 20(2), 161–173.

Comparison of two surveys, one of academic staff (1993) and one of administrative/professional staff (1996). Analysis of results, some additional questions were added to the second survey

Wohlmuther, S. (2008). “Sleeping with the enemy”: how far are you prepared to go to make a difference? A look at the divide between academic and allied staff. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 30(4), 325–337.

Based on an anonymous online survey of 29% of all staff – academic and professional at her institution, which included questions about demographics, perceptions of the nature of their roles, the ‘divide’ and the value of different types of staff in relation to strategic priorities.

Both surveys related to workplace issues and attitudes, which meant that privacy was a significant factor. I was less impressed with the approach taken by Wohlmuther, which I felt was overly ambiguous in parts.

“Survey respondents were asked what percentage of their time they spent on allied work and what percentage of their time they should spend on allied work. The term ‘allied work’ was not defined. It was left to the respondent to interpret what they meant by allied work” (p.330)

I do still think that I’ll use surveys as a starting point but expect to then take this information and use it to help design interviews and also to inform analysis of other sources of data.