I spy with my little eye…something to do with ‘being’

Image: Sarah Trummer

I’m used to falling down rabbit holes in my doctoral research, and do so quite deliberately, enjoying and valuing the adventure. The process satisfies ‘wonder’ through access to the new, the forgotten, the unnoticed or uncharted. Challenging thinking and cultivating insight, it can produce or trigger deliciously rich memorabilia [data] and new connections [ideas]. And somehow, after various permutations of head-scratching, confusion, or thrilling, evocative, illuminating moments, as if tugged by some invisible thread, or slug of magic portion, I can arrive back at the surface, back on my main path, albeit, altered, seeing, even sensing differently, my ‘horizon’ (Gadamer, 2004) changed.

Surfacing anti-stats beliefs

In the early doctoral days, seniors set micro research projects, the chance to experiment with various qualitative and quantitative designs. The latter for me, a deep dive into the scary world of statistics, a means to collect and make sense of numerical data, and embrace analysis impregnated with Latin, Greek, and mathematical operators. Important too, I felt, given my doctorate research takes shape in the fourth industrial revolution. A context in which big data and competitive insight are predicted to headline in demands on future research (Miles, 2018). I stand today respectful of quantitative research design, and grateful of my experience in its execution and project management, the statistical analysis, and data visualization, to achieve the requisite insights. I have indeed filtered this learning into my own university pedagogic design and practice [Beat the Data Tidalwave: Make it Visual] but a concern to not turn to something more deeply ‘human’ gnawed at my soul. A constant that would lead me to commit finally to hermeneutic phenomenology, and to work towards a “broadened notion of rationality“, for the production of “action sensitive knowledge” (Van Manen, 2015).

I make clear I acknowledge robust quantitative data offers the opportunity for reduced bias, at least at the analysis stage (Churchill, 2011) and enhanced generalization, objectivity, and accuracy (Polit & Beck, 2010), but my head and heart remain qualitative. Neither a distaste for math, nor repression of some form of statistical anxiety (Onwuegbuzie & Wilson, 2003; Gorton et al., 2018), but three long term personal attributes/habits yielding a limited and fragmented opinion of statistics:

1. A love of the written word, and a deep-seated perception that words can tell you more than numbers
2. A long tradition of re-quoting Disraeli “Lies, damned lies, and statistics” within my personal and professional spheres
3. A self-labelled unstructured thinker attracted to the “messy analysis” of qualitative inquiry, a delicious “multi-layered, involved process that continually builds upon itself until a meaningful and verifiable interpretation is achieved” (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015)

My Holy Grail of Truth

At the start of this journey, I secretly longed for a paradigmatic shake-up, the opportunity to exfoliate and expose layers of my planned research design, to consider or preempt the consequences. I was truly open to inspiration from a more scientific paradigm, at least as means to decipher truth from embellishment with precision, although unprepared to lay down all humanist tendencies. I did not, however, predict the philosophical and systematic unbundling of my research positionality would demand no less, a deconstruction and reconstruction of myself, my values, my sense of meaning and being in the world.

I live to tell the tale, to share that I have tasted and touched ‘those’ essentially indescribable moments, when the cloud dissipates and you ‘see’ something or ‘know’ something, in its full light or fullness, for the first time. I cannot as yet fitfully describe the way phenomenological research has enriched, and brought genuine joy. Phenomenology has helped with the bigger philosophical questions, on what it means to be human and helped me face grief, in a world in which I can sometimes feel lost in. In my research context, it is an endeavour to try to more fully grasp what it means to actually practice as an educator, a teacher. And through the requisite deep-dive in to the philosophical and methodological foundations of phenomenology, I stand confident that it is perfectly okay, scholastically sound, and important, to understand what it means to “act responsibly and responsively in all our relations….with those to whom we stand in a pedagogical relationship” (Van Manen, 2015).

Not unlike Alice (Carroll, 1865), who first introduced me to the spellbinding territory of the rabbit-hole, I genuinely feel my doctoral journey has been as much as about my own progression into ‘being’ and questioning the so called established ‘logic’ of my world, than solely a commitment to engage in rigorous human science. Like Alice, I have felt most uncomfortable in my body and mind, facing extreme changes and challenge, endured a sense of self that has been destabilised and deconstructed, and on many occasion felt I have run head first into, and sometimes against a ‘system’ that seems overly preoccupied with the ‘outputs of the behavioural or experimental sciences’, or at least that which can be measured or generalised. Yet I report a realisation or summation, that, whilst the world may resist definitive interpretation, we can indeed, purposefully pursue ‘the progress of humanizing life and humanising institutions to help human beings to become increasingly thoughtful and thus better prepared to act tactfully in situations” (Van Manen, 2015: 21). My specific context, education.

Back at the riverbank

I planned the outline of this blog just this weekend, an infusion of early and current doctoral reflections, but mostly triggered during one small window of time, journeying home from a mini-break on the Jurassic Coast. I am sat in the front passenger seat, my three children safely nested in the back. We take turns, “I spy with my little eye”…I smile. I have a new depthful window into the world, there is no longer a limitless number of objects around me. We all may ‘see’ a selection of objects in front of us, that we may succeed in objectively describing, but accepting, as humans, we have an embodied relation with the world, opens up so much more space, so much more potential for understanding. That when we embrace our subjectivity, learn from it, and fight the urge to solely abstract or measure, potentially, we powerfully regain touch with the real world.

In my own research context, I willingly and enthusiastically take opportunity, in an increasingly technologically mediated world, to turn to the personal and relational dimensions of teaching-learning and interacting (Van Manen, 2015).


In Celebration of Path Writing: A Personal Journey

I’ll do my thinking with a spot of ginger and bacon!


Carroll, L. (1865) ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, London: MacMillan Publishing.

Churchill, E. J. (2011) ‘Is quantitative research better than qualitative research?’ [blog]. Available at: https://emilyjchurchill.wordpress.com/2011/11/25/is-quantitative-research-better-than-qualitative-research/ [Accessed 02/10/2018].

Disraeli (n.d.) in University of York (2012) ‘Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics’ [online]. Available at: https://www.york.ac.uk/depts/maths/histstat/lies.htm [Accessed 05/10/2018].

Gadamer H-G. (2004) ‘Truth and method’. 2nd revised edn. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Gorton, V., Ralston, K. & MacInnes, J. (2018) ‘Investigating Statistics Anxiety: Preliminary Results’. In: NCRM Research Methods Festival 2018, 3rd – 5th July 2018, University of Bath. (Unpublished)

Miles, K. (2018) ‘Quantitative Research & Big Data: A Powerful combination’ [online]. Available at: https://gobranded.com/quantitative-research-big-data-powerful-combination/ [Accessed 02/10/2018].

Onwuegbuzie, A.J. & Wilson, V.A. (2003) ‘Statistics anxiety: Nature, etiology, antecedents, effects, and treatments – A comprehensive review of the literature’, Teaching in Higher Education, 8(2), p. 195-209.

Polit, D.F. & Beck, C.T. (2010) ‘Generalization in quantitative and qualitative research: Myths and strategies’, International Journal of Nursing Studies, 47(11), p.1451-1458.

Roller, M. R. & Lavrakas, P. J., (2015) ‘Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach‘, New York: Guilford Press.

Van Manen, M. (2015) ‘Researching Lived Experience: Human Science for an Action Sensitive Pedagogy’, Second Edition, Oxford: Routledge:

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