Academic journal article Exceptional Children

These Families, Those Families: The Impact of Researcher Identities on the Research Act

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

These Families, Those Families: The Impact of Researcher Identities on the Research Act

Article excerpt

What is the influence of the qualitative researcher's identity on the design and conduct of research with families of children with disabilities? Daley (1992) has observed that families are "one of the most closed and private of all social groups" (p. 4), and qualitative research methods have the advantage of allowing for the construction of trust and rapport, which are needed for access to the more private meanings of families. The tension between notions of the researcher as a person as compared with the researcher as a collector, interpreter, and conveyor of knowledge, becomes central when the types of information sought are so personal and intangible as to be accessible only through personal interaction. In qualitative research, the researcher is seen as the research "instrument"; hence, self-awareness and ex licit examination of the researcher role are crucial. Peshkin (1988) has expressed this idea in terms of the "I's," or identities, used by the researcher in conducting research.

The issue of self-awareness becomes more urgent when there is an evident power differential between the families and the researcher. Gliedman and Roth (1980) delineated ways in which this differential applies to families of children with disabilities, whereas Herman (1981) argued that this differential is tremendously exacerbated when the family is also poor or from a stigmatized minority group. In this article, I discuss the challenges of conducting qualitative research with such populations.



Although many kinds of qualitative approaches exist, Denzin and Lincoln (1994) described qualitative research as essentially "multimethod in focus, involving an interpretive, naturalistic approach to its subject matter ... [to] interpret phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them" (p. 2).

In the study of families, qualitative research is what Handel (1992) referred to as "a research tradition that is as old as social science itself" (p. 12). Ever since the publication of Thomas and Znaniecki's The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1927), which examined both personal and public records of the experiences of Polish immigrants in the United States, qualitative modes of inquiry have gained increasing recognition in the social sciences, although studies in the fields of education and psychology have been more influenced by the tenets of experimental research.

In 1979, Bronfenbrenner proposed an ecological framework that should inform studies of child and family development. According to Pence (1988), Bronfenbrenner's now famous proposal was intended to "tug loose from their moorings the firm lines connecting developmental research to highly controlled, lab-based studies" (p. xxi). Bronfenbrenner's vision of ecology as a nested system of mutually interactive, proximal and distal social forces, however, was more of a conceptual framework than a prescription for methodology. It has been up to researchers to put the ecological principles into practice (Pence, 1988).

In special education, such work has recently become more prominent. For example, Gallimore, Weisner, Kaufman, and Bernheimer (1989) have engaged in a line of family research based on ecocultural theory, which seeks to identify the effects of ecological variables by examining the "activity settings" of families' daily routines. The naturalistic basis of such research is far removed from the traditional, experimental model.

Whether knowledge is conceptualized as dynamic or static has a profound influence on the way research is envisioned. Many qualitative researchers (e.g., Lincoln & Guba, 1985) have argued that a distinction between the knower and the known is spurious, because these phenomena are so mutually interactive that reality and knowledge are actually created in the process of the research act. This philosophy affects researchers' decisions about the extent of their interaction with their "subjects" while conducting participant observation and ethnographic interviewing. …

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