08 September 2007

Questions About Research Questions

I’m just about to begin the empirical portion of my PhD process. My research protocol calls for about five organizations of diverse types, configurations and sizes. So far, one organization has officially signed on, three others are “strong maybes,” which means that my request – together with the informed consent information – is wending its way through the organizations’ respective administrative processes. I have an introduction more or less pending with a fifth organization. If I’m very fortunate and all of the prospective participant organizations agree, I will have a research domain that is as broad and diverse as one could possibly achieve within the size and time bounds of a qualitative, constructivist ethnographic PhD thesis (which is a fancy way of saying, relatively small sample size).

Having grown up with – and mostly shucked off – the mythology of the objective researcher, some conceptual artefacts remain. One that I have been wrestling with is, how much of my valence theory model would, should, or could my individual participants know about beforehand? Traditionally, by which I mean, researcher-dominant, one-way flow of information from subject (sic) to researcher, the participants are kept relatively in the dark about the researcher’s objectives and hypotheses so that their responses aren’t tainted by any attempt to please the researcher, or feed expected answers. In this situation, the ideal would be to attach an information vacuum nozzle to the subjects’ ears, and suck out all the necessary information from their brains. The answers in this case are thought to be honest and not influenced by the researcher’s frame of reference, expected outcomes, or any critical considerations. Or so goes the mythology.

This view, of course, is diametrically opposite from my research approach and indeed, from my specific, custom methodology. In general, I believe that research participants are, in effect, co-researchers, with the ability to learn and benefit from participating in the research as I will from facilitating and enabling it. To this end, I tend to share my own experiences in what I hope is more of a conversation than an interview. But I’m still hung up on how much of my specific research questions I should share, or at least make available, beforehand – it’s hard to completely shake off one’s early conditioning.

But, let’s face it: my Valence Theory is no secret. For anyone interested in the approach I take, it’s all here on the blog, not to mention the now dozens and dozens of conversations I’ve had with all sorts of people who have taken a keen interest in what I am doing, and have contributed to my thinking by sharing their own experiences, anecdotes, insights, and relevancies. (And to each and every one of you that has granted me the privilege of listening to my ideas and sharing yours, I offer a sincere thank you!). My eventual research participants, assuming they’re interested in checking me out before sitting down to a one-to-two hour conversation with me, can gain a pretty fair idea of what I’m looking for by perusing my blog anyway. So, as the cliché goes, in for a penny, in for a pound. Here are some of the key, thematic research questions that I’m looking to explore through the empirical work over the coming months – with an invitation to you, gentle reader, to participate.
  • Identification: What valence relationships exist in organization? How are they expressed and experienced?
  • Effect-ive Theory: Are there particular configurations or interactions among valence relationships that lend themselves to an organization enacting effect-ive theories of action (that is, are the intentions of decisions actually expressed in the effects that are created, and are there feedforward processes that anticipate the effects)?
  • Reciprocity: Are valence relationships necessarily reciprocal? Are there types of effects that tend to be associated with reciprocal vs. non-reciprocal valence relationships?
  • BAH vs. UCaPP: Are there configurations of valence relationships, or characteristic complex interactions, or both, that tend to be associated with relatively more-BAH vs. relatively more-UCaPP organizations?
  • Praxis for Organizational Change: How are organizational change challenges, strategies, issues, and problems affected within an organization that is framed in valence, as opposed to traditional, terms?
  • Critical Concerns: How effectively are issues of power relations, control, discipline, resistance (anyone notice Foucault lurking here?), voice, marginalization, privilege, and subjectification surfaced, made explicit and negotiated in an organization framed in valence terms?

And now the invitation: What key thematic areas have I missed? If you were in my place, defining and investigating the nature and characteristics of Valence Theory, what would you be looking for? And, if you’re one of my research participants and are indeed checking me out, what would you ask me about if our roles were reversed? What do you think is important for me to know about, or seek out, in the process that lies ahead? Please let me know in the comments.

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interfaced said...

In addition to the themes that are proposed, another interesting note might be in regard to change. How do the systems of organization change to allow or forbid certain relationships, and how do the people change from inside to outside the organization(or vise-versa).

Mark said...

Thanks, interfaced. These are interesting questions in organization dynamics and culture. What I think you're raising are:

First, questions of discursive practices - what's allowed in the organization's culture, and what's not. These may tie to issues of power, discipline, and maintaining the status quo in allowing/forbidding, and encouraging/discouraging certain types of relationships, and relationships among certain circles.

Second, I think I hear you referring to how people are assimilated into the organization's culture, changing their worldviews and practices from what they were outside, to what is acceptable inside, and vice versa as they assimilate into other cultures among other organizations. Classical views of organizational culture (eg. Schein) as learned behaviours in response to problems (I'm over-simplifying here), expressed as valence relationships is an interesting consideration.

With regard to "outside," according to valence theory, the definition of the organization boundary becomes quite fuzzy, so long as there are any sorts of valence ties remaining. Cultural infiltration becomes a somewhat murky, complex process, especially at first. I'm imagining a biological metaphor that looks like a viral or bacterial infection vs. immune response. Occasionally, there are BAH processes that act as an antibiotic. (But now, I'm really mixing metaphors - and I still want to see the metaphorest for the metatrees.)

Judi Piggott said...

Have been reading your blog with interest but intermittently (as a treat to myself - thanks for all the great links and YouTube connections!), always meaning to write a cogent comment but never getting to it.

I am fascinated to follow your research into organizations for many reasons, but here's why I am responding today: I was recently hired as E.D. for an organization whose mandate is to provide interventions and support to the whole 'capacity-building/sustainabilty' continuum for nonprofit organizations. That means the more we can know about what makes organizations work effectively, the more capable we will be to focus our efforts and leverage the resources we have to do that.

The focus on making organizations more effective, but maintaining the underlying paradigm of how things work, within, between and among the organizations themselves, leads to the same kind of action dressed in different language, leading to the same result. I think there is a quote from Einstein that fits here.

The organizational structure, group dynamic and underlying assumptions of the people who lead the my organization - the one taking leadership for organizational change in the social sector - is currently being reviewed with this in mind. Pretty simple, but highly risky. Those with courage, and who have seen years of effort that has been as misplaced as moving deck chairs on the Titanic, are willing to ask the hard questions of themselves as funders, board members, and aging leaders.

Are you interested in studying the organizations that are organized to help other organizations?

Some days, positioned as I am, I feel like Horton, hearing a Who. But that story turned out alright, right? Please keep up the good work.