Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Reading :: Experience Research Social Change

Originally posted: Tue, 28 Nov 2006 22:12:11

Experience Research and Social Change: Methods Beyond the Mainstream, 2nd edition

by Sandra Kirby, Lorraine Greaves, Colleen Reid

Amazon lists this book title as Experience Research and Social Change, but on the cover it's simply Experience Research Social Change. I think someone at Amazon was attempting to make sense out of an unparseable title, one that's repeated frequently in the book with no explanation. How can we sensibly parse it? Are these three concepts mashed together? ("Experience! Research! Social Change!") Is experience a noun, an adjective ("Experience research"), or an imperative verb ("(you should) experience research")? So many questions, but no answers in the text.

So the title is frustrating, but no more so for me than the book in general.

For one thing, it's advertised as accessible for undergraduates, but the language is fairly dense and seems theoretically advanced -- and the actual methods discussions seem too sketchy for an introductory text, meaning that it would have to be used in conjunction with a more detailed how-to.

Another issue I had was that the book really doesn't live up to its subtitle, "methods beyond the mainstream": the methods generally amount to the well-worn trinity of interviews, observations, and artifact analysis that have been with us lo these many years, and never reach the more innovative work done with participatory design, user-centered design, or related methodologies. The thing that pushes these methods "beyond the mainstream" is the commitment to coparticipation, which may have been radical when the first edition came out but no longer is. The closest the authors get to going beyond the mainstream is in their discussion of "other approaches" in chapter 7 -- and that discussion takes place in a series of gray boxes deliberately set off from the main text.

A third issue I had with the text is its mistaken belief -- unfortunately all too common in action research and related approaches -- that one must identify with the participants and commit to their aims in order to engage in coparticipant research with them. In practice, this can amount to avoiding genuine dialogues and instead using research participants as mouthpieces for one's own beliefs. The authors do engage with this problem to a very limited extent, asking with Katherine Borland, "What should we do when we women disagree?" and following up with an account of an interview in which an informant turned out to be antisemitic. They don't provide much guidance here beyond the uncomfortable recommendation to "acknowledge differences." But of course these differences -- large and small -- will turn up when interviewing any population. Women don't all think alike -- no population does, unless you're investigating incredibly constricted questions with a very small population, and even then it's questionable. I'd argue that action researchers should instead take a page from the ACLU, which finds common ground in the most unlikely places -- joining hands with the KKK to defend free speech rights, for instance, although the two organizations agree on little else. A less evangelical, more ecumenical approach could provide more insights -- and could lead to some innovations that are truly beyond the mainstream.


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