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View Article  “Wikileaks, Tahrir Square – their significance for re-thinking democracy”.

April 17th, 2011

Like so many others, I’ve been reflecting on the issues raised by wikileaks, the ‘Arab Spring’, and the current financial and environmental crises.  In part, this is why I wrote  Wikileaks, Tahrir Square – their significance for re-thinking democracy”. Here we see that to achieve their demands for freedom, social justice, democracy they are willing to sacrifice their lives.  There have been extraordinary acts of heroism against the violence of the dictators.  The struggles continue.


But in the West, it is too easy to say that the democratic freedoms that others seek have been achieved without reflecting on whether democracy is a reality for people in their everyday lives.  Few of us actually work in organisations that could be said to be democratic.  Most have top-down management structures that permit little if any real democratic involvement in decision making.  Where in our schools is there the space for real experiences of democratic organisation and decision making?  When it comes down to it, what real experiences do we have of democratic practices in any of the key institutions and organisations of our everyday lives? 


 It seems to me that if we are to create real democracies then as I’ve argued in various articles and books (see) as well as the paper on the middle east and wikileaks mentioned above, there must be a close relationship between education, research and the conditions of freedom with equality necessary for any political, economic, social and cultural organisation through which people meet their needs, their interests, their hopes and their demands.  It seems to me that any State that does not have the vast majority of its economic, social, political and cultural organisations managed democratically cannot be called democratic. 

View Article  DATA
The issue with 'data' is whether we all see the same thing.  A way of illustrating this is by considering those famous 'gestalt' images that can either be seen as say a 'vase' or as 'two faces' looking at each other.  Data depends on how you configure, or make meaningful,  the mass of sense experiences impacting upon you.

As a researcher, I'm always collecting 'data' whenever I'm on fieldwork.  There is, of course, an overwhelming amount of it.  It's composed of the interviews I record, the photos I take, the documents or other artifacts I collect.  It just doesn't stop.  The task is to try an make sense of it, or better, to learn how those I am researching make sense of their world(s).  So I look for opportunities for them to teach me what they see, feel, hear - that is, what they consider to be real and not just rubbish.

That reminds me of the research strategy of an old friend and colleague of mine - Bev Labbett - who decided that what was really interesting is what people threw away.  At the time (early 1980s) he was a researcher on a project headed up by Lawrence Stenhouse at the Centre for Applied Research in Education (CARE) at the University of East Anglia.  This project focused on how 17 -18 year old students made use of school libraries when they were making notes or writing essays.  Rather than looking at the finished product - the essay, the notes - he rummaged through the rubbish bins in the library to see the earlier drafts.  It's like that annoying gestalt image that won't show both images at once - the rubbish is repressed in the effort of making the final good copy.  The bad copy is thrown away.  It is too easy only to collect the 'good' data and ignore the 'bad'.  To put it another way, the good data is often the only data that is visible within a given context.  To see alternatively requires, very often, changing the context or viewpoint.

Early on in my career as a researcher, my research meant that I had to observe classrooms.  Very soon, I realised that the most obvious data I was collecting was the voice of the teacher.  My attention was typically drawn by the centrality of the teacher's position in the classroom.  I thus consciously changed the focus of my attention to look around the classroom - what were the students saying, doing?  When I videoed classroom activities and replayed them to teachers they were often surprised at what they saw (see the Listening and Talking project).  While they were in the thick of teaching, their attention was very much focused on what they needed to do next and on classroom management.  They made interpretations of what they considered to have happened during the class, like:  "It went well, the children worked conscientiously', or 'It didn't go so well, there was too much talking', and so on.  These interpretations were typically challenged by the details shown by the video.  Those chattering children sometimes turned out to be the one's most engaged in discussing the topic of the lesson.  Those who seemed to be writing conscientiously were sometimes simply doodling or daydreaming or thoughtlessly copying.

But all this looks like you can ultimately find out the truth simply by close study or by getting a different perspective on what is really going on.  So, if one can adopt, say, scientific procedure then the data required to tell us what is 'true', 'real', 'good' can be identified.  But that just leads us into another debate - the debate about ontology, that is, the essential nature of everything that there is, and how we can - if we can - get to know it. 

I'll work on this issue in the next posting.

View Article  Radical Democracy and Research Methodology
Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! "Have courage to use your own understanding!"--that is the motto of enlightenment.
(Kant, ‘An Answer to the Question:  What is Enlightenment? (1784) – full text at:

He went on to say "Nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters."

Radical democracy is about freedom.  And radical research methods are about contributing to the conditions under which people can "use reason publicly in all matters."  This kind of freedom was the principle that underpinned the arguments made in the book Radical Research that Jill Schostak and I published earlier this year.

Since co-writing the book, I've been exploring some of the early literature on democracy and the public domain with a view to looking at its implications for research methodology.  Doing this I read Bernays' book called Propaganda and also the BBC documentary called Century of the Self that explored some of the implications of Bernays' ideas for contemporary politics.  In chapter 1 of Propaganda, Bernays wrote:

"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.  Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country."

It is a theme repeated throughout the book and later writes:

"Is this government by propaganda?  Call it, if you prefer, government by education.  But education, in the academic sense of the word, is not sufficient.  It must be enlightened by expert propaganda through the creation of circumstances, through the high-spotting of significant events, and the dramatization of important issues.  The statesman of the future will thus be enabled to focus the public mind on crucial points of policy and regiment a vast, heterogeneous mass of voters to clear understanding and intelligent action."
(Bernays 1928: 128)

The contrast between Kant and Bernays is stark:  a contrast between the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters versus the subtle manipulation of peoples' desires, values, beliefs by a secret government, or put it another way, by public relations in the service of political leaders.  Bernays is thought of as the father of Public Relations.

To what extent is research and education simply forms of public relations or the very condition of democratic freedoms? 

In her 1993 book - The Return of the Political - Mouffe called democracy the unfinished revolution. That is how I think of research, as an unfinished - and unfinishable - project because there are always new viewpoints to bring into debate.  Rather than fashioning the 'public mind' radical approaches to research, it seems to me, are about contributing to the conditions under which  multiplicities of views can be brought into the public arena of free debate.

View Article  Introduction
This blog accompanies the Enquiry Learning Unit (ELU) archives of research papers.  The ELU is home to an Introduction to qualitative research methodology and a number of working papers focusing upon emancipatory approaches to research issues in education, health and information technology. 

From time to time I will be adding thoughts and discussions on various topics to do with qualitative research methodology to this blog.