The Influence of Ethnographic Case Study Research On
Decision-Making In A Primary School At A Time of Rapid Change
by Denis Hayes
© D Hayes, Faculty of Arts & Education, University of Plymouth, 2000
This short paper is based on my experiences of interviewing teachers during a two year ethnographic case study (Spradley, 1979; Powney and Watts, 1987; Merriam, 1988) about teacher involvement in decision making at a time of rapid change in a primary school in the south-west of England. As a tutor in a local teacher education faculty with links with the school through student placements, I learned of the head teacher's belief that close staff participation was necessary for effective decision making. As I was interested in this aspect of school policy and practice, it gave me an ideal opportunity to get close to the action at a time of rapid change in curriculum organization and school governance (Hayes, 1995; Hayes, 1996). Following the agreement of staff and governors to allow me into the school after reassurances about confidentiality and non-participation had been given, data were gathered through (non-participant) attendance at staff meetings and governors meetings and a series of interviews with serving teachers in which I sought their views about their role in, and the head teacher's policy for, staff involvement in decision making. As part of the research, all the teachers were interviewed at least twice; the head teacher was interviewed about once every half-term. A large number of informal conversations were held with school staff. I gave the teachers opportunity to comment on my findings to correct any factual errors and key respondents were offered a 'right of reply' to my analysis.
In this paper, I shall discuss my experiences during the time of the case study of the limitations and opportunities presented through using interviewing, and my concerns over the way in which my intended stance as a non-participant was compromised. I shall conclude by referring to the way in which the interview schedule and associated informal contacts appeared to influence staff attitudes and encroached upon the policies concerning the school's decision making procedures.
Earning trust and settling in
There was little problem in gaining the co-operation of teachers (Thompson, 1993). I approached them in a gentle fashion, enquiring whether, in their busy schedules (of which I was genuinely conscious), they could spare me half-an-hour to chat about my research. I suggested that the anticipated time-limit would be around thirty minutes in the expectation that a weary teacher would be willing to spare this modest amount of time, but would be unlikely to respond so favourably to a whole hour or more. Secretly, I anticipated that many of the chats would exceed this allotted time. In practice, a half-hour slot was often adequate for the initial round of semi-structured interviews, though they occasionally extended to forty-five (Drever, 1995). As I became a familiar sight around the school, members of staff would cheerily remark something to the effect that 'people will think you work here!', though after a few terms of visits, I appeared to be accepted as an appendage to the staff rather as (say) a 'supply' teacher might be. The headteacher remarked favourably that she felt that I was never intrusive, confirming that my attempts to be uninvolved seemed to be successful. It also meant, however, that I needed to nurture the position and ensure that I did not do anything to damage the development of the positive relationship. As time passed, I was finding the tape-recorder to be rather obtrusive and increasingly resorted to a reliance upon oral comments and taking notes longhand during the interview and/or writing a summary as quickly as possible afterwards. In my many interviews with the headteacher, I relied completely on this approach as she expressed a dislike for the use of a recorder.
I wanted to approach the interviews in such a way as to avoid sounding superior or giving the impression that I was an outsider intruding into the school situation with the intention of telling them what they should be doing. I did not use the term interview as I felt that its formal sound might act against the kind of trusting and friendly relationship that I sought, accepting Riches position (Riches, 1992) that probably the most neglected aspect of interviewing is 'the need to establish good interactive relationships with interviewees... The gaining of good quality information in an interview depends upon establishing good relationships' (p. 219). Similarly Woods (1996) suggests that the interview is not just a device for gathering information but 'a process of reality construction to which both parties contribute, and by which both are affected (p. 53)'. However, the advantages gained by seeking a closer bond with the staff proved to be a double-edged sword, as I explore later in this paper.
As part of the interview schedule, I was interested to know how I was being perceived by teachers in the school. From their responses, it appeared that I would need to spend more time discussing with them my own role and the main purpose of the research. There were some down-to-earth questions about why I attended the staff meetings, why I took copious notes, and where it was all leading. It also became clear that I still had some work to do in persuading a few staff in the school that I was not likely to be a hindrance to any career aspirations they may have had or being viewed favourably by the headteacher. Two staff mentioned that I might be used by some teachers as a transmitter of their own viewpoint about the school (especially to the headteacher) without them having to reveal their position openly. Nevertheless, the responses indicated that I was not interfering appreciably with any of the normal processes operating within the school. I was seen as an independent researcher by those less familiar with my past history of working at the school, and 'an old friend' by those who knew me better. I was generally viewed by staff as impartial and unintrusive.
The Impact of Informal Exchanges
The interview' often continued beyond the specific time as we walked back to the staff-room or out into the car-park. Throughout the research, during informal conversation following an interview, a teacher sometimes referred to that time with comments such as: As I was saying when we were chatting the other day.... On other occasions, two teachers would approach me and begin to talk openly about some of the underlying issues. Sometimes several staff sat together in the staff room and shared something close to their hearts which they, as a group, wished to air within the security of the 'closed membership'. Short of walking out of the room, it was impossible to avoid being seen as a 'guest member' of the group. Although they rarely referred to me or asked me to comment, their willingness to disclose their feelings in this way alerted me to the fact that my attempts to see each interview as a separate 'neutral' act, unaffected by group interaction factors, were wide of the mark. The issues raised through interview and other conversations were impinging upon the staff discourse.
Freed from the social conventions existing between interviewer and interviewee, it was difficult to maintain the detached posture necessary to retain 'non-participancy'. I found that the distinction between subject and interviewer became blurred as I was inexorably drawn away from being an outsider gaining data for later analysis, towards a confidant, adviser and colleague. It was a difficult balance to maintain: too much distancing during the informal occasions might have jeopardised my standing with teachers; too much contact brought me in danger of excessive familiarity which might be carried into interviews. The position was exacerbated by the fact that some teachers were genuinely anguished by relating their feelings about intractable problems and areas of school policy with which they were unhappy (particularly their disdain for the head teacher's method of operating). Having sympathetically listened to respondents pour out their woes and anxieties, it was not always easy to walk away without offering some crumbs of comfort and, in weaker moments, thinly disguised advice.
Influence on Teachers' Thinking
The semi-structured interview schedule was designed to allow me to make comparisons between interviewees' responses, yet to allow respondents to develop their own thinking in a manner which helped them to have some ownership of the interview. (Conscious, nevertheless, that to hand over too much control might result in wasted time in respect of the research, Denscombe, 1995.) I also sought to respond to the points raised by Stenhouse (1978) who argued that over time and with a more intimate knowledge of the circumstances and subjects, the researcher constructs a 'second order' of understandings. That is, insights were gained through a re-consideration of the responses in the light of further understanding about the context and the personal experiences and perspectives of the respondents. It gradually became apparent that the respondents as well as the researcher were re-considering the interview discussion and re-formulating ideas outside the official interview time. During succeeding interviews, it was clear that teachers had been digesting and reflecting upon the issues from the preceding interview during the intervening weeks. Teachers' replies seemed to grow more sophisticated, thoughtful and reflective. Their initial reaction against the generally-held view that the school's decision making process was unwieldy and divisive, was replaced by a more discursive interaction, aided by the fact that I found myself using the respondents as 'confirmers' or 'deniers' of the perceptions I had gained from previous interviews (Burgess, 1985). I started to develop my interpretation of events using data which were, for me a trigger to remembrance of lived events (Hull, 1985). The interpretation of data was not static as my understanding of comments and responses altered as I became more familiar with individuals' preferences, values and circumstances. Although it was important as part of the ethnographic case study to consider wider contextual factors, my increasingly close relationship with the staff opened up fresh insights about their perceptions which were denied to others. In effect, the more that respondents confided their deeper feelings and desires, the more difficult it became for me to represent those individual perspectives without breaking confidentiality, and the harder it became in subsequent interviews to retain my emotional detachment. I was in danger of becoming a counsellor rather than an interviewer!
Influence on School Policy Decisions
In conducting the interviews, I was aware that there was a possibility that whoever I spoke to would talk to colleagues about what was said before I had interviewed them, though I tried to offset this natural tendency by requesting to each respondent that our discussion remain confidential. I also became aware over time that the large number of interviews and casual conversations I was having with staff were affecting their perceptions of the issues in which I was interested. For some teachers, these issues were previously unthought of considerations; for others they confirmed or refined their thinking. Alongside the fact that some teachers were publicly airing some of the issues from interview sessions, a defining moment in shaping my understanding of the influence that my presence was having in the school was when the headteacher told me that since we had conducted our regular interview sessions, she had become more aware about the need for collaboration in decision-making, especially the significance of involving her deputy. The likelihood of privately discussed issues from interview spilling out into the public arena became such a possibility that when I was present in staff meetings as a silent observer, I was afraid that someone would suddenly refer their ideas to me or claim that because such-and-such an issue was mentioned by one of their colleagues, I had somehow breached confidentiality. I was particularly sensitive to the fact that the head teacher was struggling in her attempts to convince staff that they new decision making procedures were helpful, and in her attempts to build her case might use me as a witness during a staff meeting in such a way as to suggest that she and I were mutually engaged in shaping policy behind closed doors. Some staff had shared with me their deep unease about the head teacher's method of carrying out policy decisions, and any hint that I might be colluding with the head would have been disastrous for the future of the research and my relationship with the school.
My role as researcher
Evidence drawn from the case study suggests that the term non-participative is not synonymous with non-influential'. My presence in the school did affect teachers perceptions and awareness about the decision-making process and it appears that a number of factors impinged upon the validity and reliability of the evidence gained from interviews and other communication with school staff...
First, I assumed from teachers' willingness to be interviewed in the first place and their apparent candour during the interviews, that they trusted me. I was pleased to be considered trustworthy; it boosted my ego and gave me a sense of fulfilment. At the same time I wondered if some respondents thought that I was vulnerable, even naive, and therefore capable of manipulation as they fed me the messages which, they hoped, would eventually filter back into the decision-making system and influence outcomes. In truth, I had no way of knowing whether the respectful or the manipulative creed was predominant in their responses.
Second, it was difficult to know when respondents were being truthful and when they were withholding or understating aspects of their beliefs and opinions. This is not to suggest that they were lying but that they were unwilling to disclose anything which might detract from their principle purpose of influencing my thinking. Of course, it is impossible to determine which respondents were presenting a fuller version of the truth and which were limiting what they said. Perhaps if I were to return to them now, they might be more willing to acknowledge their genuine motives and express themselves more fully. On the other hand, they might further confuse the picture by drawing upon insights which have emerged for them in the few years since the interviews but which had not occurred to them at the time.
Third, it seems that respondents were not all clear about the purpose of the interview or the implications of revealing material to someone in my position (working in the school and perceived as influential). At the time I imagined that I had, through an ethics protocol and verbal explanations about the nature of my research, explained the position sufficiently well to reassure them that there were no conspiracies lurking beneath the surface. On reflection, I'm not sure whether I over-estimated or under-estimated their capacity to understand what was going on. Respondents who grasped the implications of talking about their perceptions of decision-making might also have been those who saw their opportunity to influence me to their point of view; those who were uncertain about the nature of the research might have been circumspect about what they revealed because they were unsure about the impact it might have upon their own working lives or careers. One way or another, respondents' understanding of the research and its implications was likely to have influenced the detail and reliability of their comments.
Fourth, I wondered whether their responses were deeply considered beliefs or superficial comments. My interview questions focused upon their experiences of the school's decision making procedures and their view of its operating efficiency. The 'experiences' part was straightforward as they simply had to explain and make comments about their individual encounters with the workings of the system. Their views on the motives underlying the head teacher's actions were less straightforward. Some respondents were clearly unimpressed with the head teacher as a person and unwilling to give her the benefit of the doubt.
The limited amount of time available to conduct the interview also meant that respondents were unable to give a lot of thought to their replies or clarify meaning other than by re-ordering or re-shaping my question to accommodate it within their own framework of meaning. Despite my attempts to insist that I did not assume any superior status simply because I was asking the questions, the very fact that I (and not the respondents) designed the questions in the first place, meant that the issues raised were inextricably linked to my grasp of the situation. In asking questions, I assumed that the respondents would be able to operate within my framework of meanings in articulating their replies. At the time, I interpreted the way in which some respondents went off at a tangent as a character trait. I now consider that it was sometimes due to my failure to spend more time ensuring that we shared a common understanding of the terms and concepts involved in the area under consideration. When respondents began to answer a question, only to hesitate after a minute and enquire 'Was this what you wanted to hear?' I reflect they may not have been displaying a desire to do what was right in the circumstances (like a naughty child) but rather confirming that they had entered my realm of meaning (or were at least making themselves understood). Respondents may have been more aware of the importance of shared meanings than I was!
A case study involves spending time in understanding the context and taking it into account when interpreting the situation. In doing so, the researcher runs the danger of adopting a different role from the distinctive and 'non-participant' one intended. The structuring of interviews gives the interviewer the right to determine the forms which answers may take (Platt, 1981), but the more the interviewer loosens the structure, the more likely that the subjects will begin to stray from the intended interview route (and thereby reduce the 'acceptability' of the data to the researcher) and the more they are likely to offer explanations, suggestions and interpretations that the interviewer may feel is beyond the respondent's brief. Once the question-answer evolves into a dialogue, the interviewer may inadvertently be overstepping the 'non-participant' role and becoming a 'co-worker' in formulating policy. The interview then acts as a problem-solving exercise rather than a data gathering one. Platt's distinction between an interviewee who is a respondent (giving responses to questions posed) and one who is an informant (offering explanations or analysis) is particularly relevant in ethnographic case study of the type described in this paper.
Despite my efforts to remain impartial and detached from the decision making process, the need to gain staff trust and become unthreatening so as to discover their perceptions of the structure led me into a series of discourses with teachers that appeared to impact upon their thinking and feed into their contributions at the many staff meetings held during this time. As such, my presence in the school was a contributing factor in shaping school policy. Towards the end of the two years, both the head teacher in the main staff meeting and the leader of the age-phase discussion group tried increasingly to draw me in to conversations, sometimes accompanied by a knowing look and a verbal 'I know you've got a lot to say on this matter'.
In the event, the original decision-making structure was rationalised, the number of meetings reduced, and the edifice of 'contrived collegiality' (Hargreaves, 1992) slowly dismantled. The extent to which these changes would have happened anyway are difficult to judge. I can only speculate that the head teacher's determination to involve staff more closely was met by a series of spoiling tactics that were not evident at the commencement of the research (Price and Reid, 1989; Gaziel and Weiss, 1990). Added to this were the occasions when, much to my alarm, a member of staff would (innocently) quote almost word-for-word from one of our conversations in support of his or her viewpoint.
The final version of the decision making process appeared (at least in part) to be an attempt to the concerns expressed by staff during interview which had not been, to the best of my knowledge, spoken aloud during any meeting. I reached the conclusion that either the teachers concerned had spoken to the head teacher about their concerns privately, or I had unwittingly picked up the pollen of their ideas during interview and spread it around the school in as I buzzed my way from place to place.
The evidence from my experiences described in this paper suggests that the developing personal relationships with subjects in ethnographic research reveal new perspectives and insights for the researcher, but also carry a responsibility for the researcher to use the knowledge wisely. It cannot be assumed that the relationship between the interviewer and subject will remain a detached one; indeed, such a bland approach is against the spirit of qualitative research. Even if the subject has not given a great deal of critical thought to the issues raised through the interviews, the act of conducting an interview enlarges the subject's vision and creates fresh thinking which may not otherwise have taken place. This process, in turn, impinges upon the subject's conversation and attitudes and may, over a period of time, be translated into a set of different attitudes. Researchers, too, when immersed in a case study of institutional change and decision making, have to tread warily, lest their influence becomes more pervasive and significant than was ever intended or conceived.
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