My research investigates the access opportunities that young children from different socioeconomic backgrounds have to the outdoors during their day at nursery or primary school, how this impacts their subjective sense of nature connectedness and what the inhibitors or drivers to access might be on a macro (governmental) and meso (institutional) level. As a PhD researcher one year in to my journey, over the course of refining my proposal and preparing to enter the field, I have become acutely aware of how epistemological, ontological, micropolitical, macropolitical, ethical and practical considerations have shaped and changed its focus. What started out as an investigation placing (nearly) equal weight on three different research methods (participatory research with children, qualitative interviews with adults and policy/literature review), has evolved to be mainly concerned with the micro through the participatory work and further shaped by the practical and macropolitical issues brought about by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps most importantly however, I have had to seriously consider and ‘name’ my ontological position and its place within a broader epistemological framework: a vital part of the process as it provides the underpinning for organising, carrying out and evaluating the quality of the research. This is a process which I have found particularly challenging, as I have had to move away from previous embedded beliefs about the ‘value’ of different types of research; namely the superiority of quantitative methods as underpinned by a positivist outlook.
The irresistible pull of positivism
In social research, positivism rejects speculation, confining itself instead to experiential data (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005) and is most often associated with quantitative research paradigms which are based on a supposed objective reality and which have dominated the research landscape and continue to exert much influence (Bryman, 2016). It has been argued that as humans we have an irresistible urge to classify the world in an attempt to bring order to uncertainty (Keck, 2009) and although positivism as a philosophy has been roundly criticised, it has been argued that there exists a culture of positivism within Western society that depicts the social world as a reality that is both knowable and measurable (Dunne et al, 2005). The need to discover the irrefutable ‘truth’ of causal relationships via the ‘gold standard’ approach of using quantitative methods such as randomised controlled trials (RCTs) has entered the public domain through an increase in the advocacy of evidence-based policy making in a number of different areas that traditionally would not have used this approach. For example, a 2013 analytical review for the Department for Education co-authored by a well-known epidemiologist, proposed that there should be more quantitative research undertaken in schools, with a particular emphasis on RCTs (Goldacre, 2013). It has been argued however that RCTs are not the most suitable method on which to base public policy decisions, but instead reflect governance that emphasises benchmarking and quantification that is free of context (Pearce & Raman, 2014).
The need for a post-positivist framework
In contrast with positivism, a post-positivist outlook proposes that what is observed is always going to be influenced by the observer (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). Post-positivism is most often associated with qualitative research methods which are usually textual, yet still underpinned by a search for coherence and meaning. Qualitative methods have in the past been presented as a less rigorous approach to research: Denzin and Lincoln (2005) state that there has been a tendency to label qualitative researchers as ‘soft’ scientists and their work deemed subjective and unscientific, or their findings interpreted in unhelpful political terms. Because quantitative research methods use key concepts such as validity, reliability, generalisation and replication in an attempt to demonstrate their robustness, qualitative researchers have felt the need to provide alternative ways of showing the rigorousness and credibility of their findings. However, Huttunen and Kakkori (2020) argue that in qualitative research it is important to have a different frame of validation than the traditional ‘Cartesian’ ideas of validity and reliability, whereby an objective researcher makes observations about realities which are true. In contrast, they argue for a Heideggerian notion of truth whereby the intrinsic value of research lies in its ability to awaken novel forms of seeing and thinking rather than an attempt to simply replicate the social world and argue that the most powerful qualitative research will function as a great work of art, enabling individuals to understand the world in a new way (Huttunen & Kakkori, 2020). Willig and Stainton Rogers (2017) further state that the relationship between an individual’s experience and the world is far from simple or direct and that as researchers, our accounts and interpretations of people’s experiences will inextricably be mediated by us and that reflexivity is particularly essential.
Embracing change and moving forwards
When reflecting on these critiques I came to realise that my own ontological position and its location within the broader context of a particular epistemological frame had in fact been forming naturally, almost unconsciously for some time – I just had not yet named it. The overarching epistemological frame informing my work emerged ultimately through my choice of primary research method, the Participatory Action Research methodology Photovoice which draws on a phenomenological tradition through which the researcher enters the world of the researched with no preconceived ideas about what they will find (Rodriguez & Smith, 2018). From there my ontological position naturally emerged as interpretivist/social constructionist. Interpretivism searches for the meanings inherent in people’s actions within the cultures and societies they inhabit and accepts that an individual’s understanding of reality is socially constructed (Chowdhury, 2014). Social constructionists view society as existing both objectively and subjectively, with meanings shared and consisting as realities that are taken for granted (Andrews, 2012). These positions speak to me as I approach my research accepting that children will use their own cultural and social frameworks to help them bring sense to their world and that their personal interpretations will have a direct impact on their behaviour. I propose that the experiences children have with the outdoors will directly relate to the meaning that they place on it.
By working through these epistemological and ontological perplexities, I have in the ‘resolving’ of them, identified myself as a researcher within a particular tradition and this will now shape the direction of my current research, its methods, analyses, conclusions and quite possibly the direction of future research I undertake as well. Although this is a daunting prospect for a novice doctoral researcher, I have come to see that if I want to truly represent the views of young children, my research will by necessity have to be located within a postpositivist tradition and cannot be neat, ordered or linear. As a midwife once said to me, children are not born with a manual and working with them as research participants will be unpredictable – things will almost certainly go wrong but I can embrace this messy, creative, adaptable style of working perfectly legitimately within my chosen research methodology. I can accept the fact that I will be at the centre of everything that I do and will not be a wholly dispassionate, detached observer: my feelings and beliefs are inevitably going to shape the research. This postpositivist epistemology means that I can acknowledge that my understandings will inevitably remain incomplete (Young & Ryan, 2020), while also accepting that my views and agenda are legitimate and valid (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). Change can lead to growth: it has been argued that embracing change is vital to living a fulfilled life and that the more we allow ourselves to adapt and realise that change is the only constant in life, the better we will cope with new challenges as a consequence (Baker, 2020). This is true for both life and also the challenges of undertaking doctoral research. In accepting this, I have moved away from being wedded to the concept of the perfect ‘ideal’ of a research design and know that it is entirely legitimate for me to approach my research in an open, reflexive and creative way.
By Anna Ridgewell
Doctoral Researcher in Social Work and Social Care
University of Sussex
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