The problem with research methods textbooks is that they are so utterly boring. Not only is there a stifling monotony as one flips from one to another – saying the same thing (not plagiarized, of course) in umpteen different ways – but they manage to challenge the wakefulness of even first time readers. The problem is that they all set out to tell the reader how to do good research. This turns out to be an exercise in rule following: this is how to construct a measure; don’t collect samples like that; here is how to set up a good and bad experiment; follow these steps to conduct ethical research – and don’t forget to have your proposal screened by a ethics review committee. No wonder students find the subject mind-numbing.
Parker’s irreverent little gem breaks this mould. Qualitative Psychology steps out of the didactic genre. In the place of an edifying list of the rules of method Parker values innovation, participation and debate. Innovation may mean flaunting the methods and ethics of conventional science. Participation may mean that the researcher needs to adopt a different standing vis-à-vis, and forms of interaction with, co-researchers (formerly research participants). And, researchers are encouraged to enter into debate with the theories and methods of the psychological literature. These values underpin an unrelenting commitment to radical research: a form or activity that seeks to challenge institutional hegemony (especially capitalism), promote change and give voice to people.
Qualitative psychology is a tool chest. On one level, Parker appropriates familiar traditions of qualitative inquiry for the purposes of his radical research agenda: Chapters are devoted to ethnography, interviewing, narrative, discourse, and psychoanalysis. Don’t expect to find the usual ‘how to’ chapter you’d expect of one of the plethora of recent edited methods texts. No, each chapter retools the method for the practice of radical research. You’ll be surprised, for example, to see how Parker is reformulating discourse analysis for this project of participation, innovation and change. He is taking discourse analysis in a very different direction to the technicist reworking that some other discourse analysts of his generation have undertaken.
At a second level, the tool chest offers two broad strategies for researchers: Identifying standpoints, and engaging reflexively. To know your standpoint is to know your location or position in manifold theoretical, methodological and institutional fields of dispersion, structured by power, serving the privileged and marginalizing the oppressed. This is the starting point for the radical research agenda: knowing where you are and what you are doing. The strategy that guides practice from this starting point is reflexivity, which is “a way of attending to the institutional location of the historical and personal aspects of the research relationship” (p. 25). Reflexivity takes its bearings form our standpoint, and it helps us understand the broader nature of the action we are undertaking by means of our research.
In constructing and stocking this tool chest, much common sense in qualitative psychology is discarded. Boxes give warnings against community psychology, grounded theory, ethics committees, interpretive phenomenological analysis, conversation analysis, and the free-association narrative interview. In their place are a smorgasbord of radical resources with affiliation to feminism, Foucault and Marxism; peppered with references to radical work being done in interesting places such as South Africa, Colombia, Italy, Manchester and New Zealand.
Qualitative Psychology has definitely broken new ground. It treats the reader as a (potentially) creative thinker and radical practitioner. Rather than rules, it provides tools. While it provides a much wider and more flexible definition of ‘research’ than you’ll find in standard textbooks, I believe that there is still room to expand the category. The limitations of the book are evident in its (implicit) addressee: a psychology student in the developed world. This subject, presumably, is already infused with the traditional experimental and other paradigms which hold sway in this context. In a place like South Africa, in contrast, where .01% of the population hold PhDs (as opposed to 1.8% in Germany, for example), people need training in the pragmatics (know how) of diverse kinds of quantitative and qualitative research which can variously be put to service of a transformation agenda. The addressee, is not necessarily a university students, let alone a psychology undergraduate (future players in the knowledge economy), but any citizen interested in participating in the knowledge society. Qualitative Psychology has taken the first steps in the direction of a new genre of methods textbook. knowledge2go can learn many lessons from this text as it tries to provide researchers with the nuts and bolts for innovation, participation and debate.
Reviewed by Kevin Durrheim