Knowledge and Methodology

Knowledge, Methodology & Philosophy



Introduction. 1

Praxis a key theory of Learning. 2

Competing Paradigms. 3

Which research approach to adopt?. 5

Symbolic Interactionism.. 8

Critical Theory: A Philosophical framework for research. 10

Critical Theory as methodology. 12

Reconciling a theory to a methodology to a research project . . . 13

Action Research: A method of Enquiry. 15

Research Design. 16




Cohen draws on the work of Hitchcock and Hughes (1995:21) to establish that ontological assumptions (assumptions about the nature of things) give rise to epistemological assumptions (ways of researching and enquiring into the nature of reality), these in turn give rise to methodological considerations and these in turn give rise to issues of instrumentation and data collection. (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2011, p. 3)

So the choice of methodology is therefore a crucial first step in terms of defining the relationship between:

  1. what tools of research to utilise (ie the methods)
  2. how I see the world (a question of ontology)
  3. the way in which that world may be discovered, understood and recognised (questions of epistemology).

As a clear starting point, Kerlinger suggests research as a way of discovering the truth. He proposes three key moments of development which helps to flag the process of research: experience, empiricism and self-correction (Kerlinger, 1970). Put another way, whilst perhaps masking the complexity of a long term research project, Kerlinger is proposing a simple framework which simply summarises such an endeavour, suggesting that the project is based on a personal experience, which can be logically developed into a hypothesis and then developed, clarified, synthesised and interpreted through empirical evidence, leading to a final conclusion or set of statements, which self-corrects the original intention.

As I started my own research journey, I was struck by the position paper, written by Barkho and Saleh and published by the Journal of Applied Journalism and Media Studies, which articulated a key concern of my own, namely: ‘what is central for media research? Is it practice or theory?’ (2013, p. 4).

They ask a number of provocative questions that appeared to my own initial starting point (experience) and could therefore be relevant to my own project. For example, they ask if media scholars are under any obligation to relate their theories to practice? Or, whether theorising is sufficient to explain the social reality of the media?

So even at the earliest stages of my project, when I was constructing some initial ideas, I found myself questioning the value of an exclusively theoretical research approach, as it appeared to me that research into media studies requires a strong foothold in social interaction and a recognition of social reality. As such, even from the outset, I wanted my project to be more than just thinking and reflection. I wanted it to have a tangible social connection to individuals, organisations and most importantly the experiential existence of students who are studying this subject.

I also recognised their postulation that media practitioners generally discard and don’t trust media research findings, and felt in agreement with them that ‘the gap between media theory and media practice needs to be bridged’. Barkho and Saleh point to the work by R J Bernstein claiming that he supports an approach to research and philosophy which must be ‘relevant and applicable to today’s world of media systems’. (Bernstein, The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory, 1979). In response, Barkho and Saleh suggest that media research needs to draw on what they term as ‘recommended special streams’ such as, ‘praxis-based media research’ (ibid). For my own journey, I needed to identify and understand what was meant by such terms.

Praxis a key theory of Learning.

The Journal of Applied Journalism & Media Studies has taken as its’ initial starting point the educational notion of praxis, an Aristotelean concept, specifically set out in The Nicomachean Ethics, the journal also connects this term with American pragmatism, which has its early conception in the work of C S Peirce, subsequently developed more substantially in the work of William James, later by John Dewey and more recently by Richard J Bernstein.

In the first instance, praxis can be traced back to Ancient Greek society and placed in Aristotle’s threefold understanding of the three basic activities and disciplines available to man: theoria, poiesis and praxis (πρᾶξις), which essentially linked to three types of knowledge:

  1. Theoretical, to which the goal was truth,
  2. Poietical or productive (the aim being production) and
  3. Practical or praxis to which the aims was action.

Thus, as Barkho and Saleh identify, ‘praxis as a discipline is not easy. It may demand more rigour and sophistication than theory because it directly deals with human beings and the way they go about their lives.’ They also identify that media theory has often been more concerned with ‘theory building’ rather than a practical application, ‘hence the gap that separates theorists from the institutions that they investigate’.

As mentioned before, even in my early investigations towards this research project I could easily identify the gap between classroom and workroom practice and I wondered if those who work in the media industries are somewhat sceptical of a theoretical approach to media studies; perhaps giving more value and priority towards skills, competencies and training – either given on the job or learned independently while working – over a purely theoretical or conceptual approach to learning and development. In my initial research enquiries there certainly appeared to be an initial reluctance to work more closely with schools and students and I wondered if this is why Barkho and Saleh proposed a praxis based research approach for media and creativity.

For Journal of Applied Journalism & Media Studies the reason for using a praxis based approach is to counter the ‘the preoccupation of social science with postmodernism and its heavy emphasis on fallibilism’ (Saleh & Barkho, 2013, p. 6)  To engage and question these approaches the Journal of Applied Journalism and Media Studies (AJMS) looks towards the critical work of Jürgen Habermas, Paul Taylor and Richard Bernstein among others ‘for the need of objective validity’; as Bernstein writes ‘there is no way of analysing concepts and judgements without reference to language. And we cannot understand language and speech acts except in the context of social and communal practices. (Bernstein, 2010, p. 170)

According to Saleh and Barkho for these thinkers, ‘social science research has to aim at some degree of objectivity and seek constant dialogical communication with its subjects’ (p. 6). For instance, a key area of study that appeared useful for my own line of enquiry is the philosophical tradition known as American Pragmatism, as it appears to have sympathy with ‘philosophical conceptions and practical results’, the title of a lecture delivered by William James on 26th August 1898 to the Philosophical Union, at the University of California, Berkley.  As Richard Bernstein stated in his lecture at Beltoit College in 2013 ‘to be pragmatic is to be eminently practical, to know what the real world is really like and to adopt to its realities’

In his lecture Professor Bernstein noted that it was at the time an unknown philosopher and academic – C S Peirce – who first introduced the word pragmatism into the philosophical canon and indeed, it is felt that any consideration of pragmatism should begin with Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. Peirce laid out the basic pragmatist tenet that the meaning of a statement lies in its consequences and he gave his views the name “pragmatism” (Smith, 1999,2011) In short, this an approach to philosophy, primarily held by American philosophers, which holds that the truth or meaning of a statement is to be measured by its practical (i.e. pragmatic) consequences.

Referring to my own intentions I was always keen to ensure that my research project would be more than  a 80,000 word commentary, and it was always my intention to formulate and develop not only a better understanding of classroom and workroom practice, but to actually put in place a number of objectively real structures that could provide some insight and knowledge into ways in which agents of change could look to bridge the gap and provide much more reliable and transparent pathways for creative people to develop and populate the creative industries.

Competing Paradigms

So, where to start? In chapter 1 of Research Methods in Education, ‘The Nature of Enquiry’, Cohen et al puts forward a broad framework of investigation that attempts to position a range of competing paradigms. Crudely summarised, these can be seen as falling into two separate conceptions of social reality. Basing their writing around the work of Burrell and Morgan (1979), they ask “is social reality external to individuals . . . or is it the product of individual consciousness?”

Cohen draws up a range of competing paradigms and initially sets up a conflict between nominalist and realist or exaggerated realism debates. Drawing on initial conceptions developed by Plato and later revised by Aristotle, both concepts act as a competing dualism of how we apprehend our social reality and existence. Exaggerated Realism holds that there are universal concepts in the mind and universal things in nature. There is, therefore, a strict parallelism between the being in nature and the being in thought. (Knight, 2012)

This is an approach countered by the notion of Nominalism which ‘invents a world of reality corresponding exactly to the attributes of the world of thought’ (ibid) which suggests that what are called general ideas are really just labels ‘mere verbal designations’ for a collection of things or events.

In other words, there is a way of approaching social science research which can be can be characterised by ‘procedures and methods designed to discover general laws, which may be referred to as nomothetic’, against an emphasis placed on explanation and understanding of the ‘unique and particular’ behaviour which may be termed idiographic. (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2011)

This therefore presents a sense of knowing, understanding and being as either a set of universal concepts that may be apprehended as hard, objectively real and tangible, an approach which is both universally understandable and available to all. Or, a world where thought is separated from reality, where knowing and being are subjective, fragmented and atomised into individualised and personalised accounts, experiences and understandings. As Knight puts it, Exaggerated Realism and Nominalism find little difficulty in ‘establishing a correspondence between the thing in thought and the thing existing in nature’ but ‘an antinomy arises between the world of reality and world as represented in the mind’.

So this dialectical proposition sets up a difficult starting point for any researcher. Is it the case that we need to look at the world as a series of objective and identifiably real set of things, that we are able to engage with by investigation and analysis in order that the ’thing’ may be able to change for the better (assuming that we may be able to establish what is better or not?). Or do we investigate the individual and subjective understanding of such ‘things’ and attempt to reproduce that understanding into a set of questions and answers which will somehow have an effect on the thing itself?

Cohen draws on the work of Burrell and Morgan, to suggest that researchers will either view knowledge as ‘hard, objective and tangible’ or see knowledge as ‘personal, subjective and unique’ (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2011, p. 6). For Cohen this highlights the distinction between a determinism or voluntarism approach to research.

In a graduate paper for the University of Essex, Francisco Pérez investigates Anthony Gidden’s ‘Structuration Theory’ as a way of understanding the dualistic nature of subjectivism and objectivism. Basing his argument around the ‘dichotimist concepts’ of ‘structure’ and ‘agency’, Pérez puts forward the idea that ‘Structuration Theory’ allows ‘structure’ and ‘agent’ to be conceptualised not as separate entities but as ‘different sides of the same reality (ie the two sides of a coin) brought together through practice’ (Pérez, 2009). However, central to this idea there is also the suggestion that (subjective) ‘agents’ when and while engaged in social practice within (objective) social structures are able to exert change and influence ‘in an ever flowing circle’, or as Pérez writes:

Agents draw upon social structures in order to act and, at the same time, they reproduce these same or slightly altered structures, which in the end, are established as the new conditions of action for the next cycle of the structuration process.

Here then Giddens seems to be prioritising the role of subjective agent in the process of social change, although as Pérez notes, Giddens seems to have ‘an overly optimistic view of the ‘agent’, citing much criticism from those who see the voluntaristic nature of Structuration theory as ‘dangerously leaning towards the agent’s perspective and overemphasising the role and freedom of the agent to the detriment of the constraining pressures of social structures’. For example, Pérez argues that in Gidden’s account ‘there is not a clear, material tangible reality ‘out there’ which exerts pressure on the agents to act in one way or another.’

Pérez points to the work of Bourdieu which he feels can be regarded as the major alternative to ‘Structuration Theory’ as a plausible attempt to bridge subjectivist and objectivist approaches in the study of human activity. Highlighting a set of key concepts: ‘habitus’, ‘fields’ and ‘capital’ (Pérez, 2009) around which this logic was explained.

More on this???

But where does this leave me?


Which research approach to adopt?

As I started to develop my initial ideas for this research journey, I decided fairly early on that I wanted to base my research and investigation in to a ‘structure’ where young people (acting as ‘agents’) progress from key stage 5 into some pathway of career development in the creative industries. In this sense, there are multiple ‘agents’ working across a number of different ‘fields’ of study. As I started the project, it was important for me to recognise and engage with a range of tangible, objective agencies, institutions and structures. For example, local media professionals who are looking for future employees and ways in which they can strengthen their workforce and business and who may be persuaded to engage in new ways of working with schools and students. I also needed to recognise the role that policy makers exerted as agents making an impact on structures. In other words, it was important to research current policy making decisions, aims, strategies, initiative and objectives which could be reconciled into understanding the context of my research – the aims and aspirations of current school students who had ambitions as future creative employees. Of which I will write more in another chapter specifically dealing the literature research that I have undertaken for this project.

Similarly, from an objective, realist approach I was looking to identify particular individuals within particular groups. So from within my teaching groups, I felt that there was always a small number of students who were interested in studying media as a way of developing a career route or professional pathway into the creative industry.

As such, although the individual may have a specific perspective and a set of individual and subjective needs, there is, I believe, an objective set of elements (which may at times display subtle differences), but which does nevertheless provide a clear and objective set of identifiable characteristics that could be apprehended, understood and positioned. The final aim is that a much more beneficial and productive structure of training and development could be put in place for the benefit of the ‘objectively identified’ community.

In other words, a set of clear practical approaches could be put in place to identify:

  1. whose needs are to be met,
  2. what strategies could be put in place and developed

So that:

  1. A set of measurements and tests could be implemented
  2. To provide a measurable outcome of success

A process which could be an on-going cycle of development.

So overall, it seems to me at this stage that I am looking to develop a framework that apprehends a range of social structures that are real and concrete and work within this set of realities to engage with the way in which individual social actors progress towards some objectively identifiable end point.

Located in a framework put forward by James Arthur, this is an ontology that works in an ‘external realist’ posture. It is reductionist and deterministic, very much assuming knowledge of ‘the way things are’. (Arthur, 2012). In terms of epistemology, the investigator and investigated ‘object’ are assumed to be independent entities; enquiry takes place as if in a one-way mirror, where the investigator does not influence or is influenced by the object and replicable findings are ‘true’. (Arthur, 2012)

However, as I came to understand over the course of my academic research, such an approach does not really fit into either the way I see the world (ontology) or the way in which I was trying to create meaning (epistemology) and actually although the framework above suggests a solid set of objective entities that could be measured at a distance, the concept of working with real people in a number of real environments, for example, school and work, did not lend itself to an external realist posture and actually required quite the opposite.

However, before going into more detail on this I think it may be worthwhile providing a brief outline of the different approaches characterised as ‘positivist’ and ‘anti-positivist’, as this seems to me to help to define the different approaches that could have been applied to my own study.

The following table from Burrell and Morgan presents contrasting positions as a schema for analysing assumptions about the nature of social science, including key concepts such as ontology, epistemology, methodology and human nature (taken from Burell and Morgan)

Nominalism ←                Ontology                 → Realism
Anti-Positivism ←            Epistemology              → Positivism
Voluntarism ←            Human Nature            → Determinism
Idiographic ←             Methodology             → Nomothetic

Among others, Beck (1979), draws on the work of Auguste Comte as a key thinker in developing the notion of positivism, which turns to observation and reason as a means of understanding behaviour. In other words, social phenomena could be understood in the same way as natural or scientific behaviour and phenomena, by observation and investigation together with the application of rules, ideas and formulas. The conclusion seems to be that knowledge can only be advanced by some means of experiment and conclusion. As such, positivist researchers are analysts and interpreters of social reality, generating laws, formulas and rules that may be applied and appointed with a degree of positive action unfolding for the benefit of knowledge, society and the individual.

However, critics of the positivist school would see a certain flaw in this approach. Namely, that studying blocks of objective reality as the basis of knowing and understanding belies and undermines the subjective differences that individual social moments contain. As human behaviour is so complex and diverse with so many subtle differences, the result is a multitude of physiological, societal, psycho-sociological, political, economic, cultural, ethnographic and other interpretations which could impact on both the method of research and the result. As Cohen expresses this dilemma – in reference to Nesfield-Cookson (1979):

The precise target of the anti-positivists’ attack has been science’s mechanistic and reductionist view of nature which by definition, defines life in measurable terms rather than inner experience, and excludes notions of choice, freedom, individuality and moral responsibility.

Critical terms often lobbied at the positivists are the dehumanising, depersonalising and alienating perspective that this theory takes up. As Roszak argues, ‘science in its pursuit of objectivity, is a form of alienation from our true selves and from nature.’ (cited in Cohen p14). Again support from Cohen suggests that, ‘the difficulty in which positivism finds itself is that it regards human behaviour as passive, essentially determined and controlled, thereby ignoring intention, individualism and freedom.’ (p15). Or as Habermas asserts more succinctly, ‘positivism is unable to answer many important and interesting areas of life.’ (Habermas, 1972, p. 300)

The tension between the individual social agent and the operating structure whereupon they weave is neatly summarised by Layder (1994) and helped to guide the theoretical underpinning for my own approach to research in that,

‘humans exercise agency – individual choice and intention – not necessarily in circumstances of their own choosing, but nevertheless they do not behave simply or deterministically like puppets.’

So for me this means that I am looking to explore the relationship between ‘agent’ and ‘structure’ and therefore need necessarily to engage with the individual subjective nature of the agent whilst recognising the objective reality of the those structured organisations: school, university, policy, funding, enterprise and employer and somehow seek to understand and reconcile these two conflicting conceptions into singularly useful methodological framework.

So was there anything already in place that I could use and build on for my own approach?

Again Cohen is useful as a starting point for a new researcher, as he suggests that humanist psychologists present a model of people that is positive, active and purposeful, with an approach which can be recognised as idiographic as opposed to nomethetic. By probing at accounts of individual agents and their actions, humanist psychology endeavours to come up with an understanding of ‘what those persons were doing in that particular episode.’ (p17) This seems to be a useful approach to my own research in that I will be looking at accounts of individuals who are not currently satisfied with the current working relationship between the classroom and the workplace and are keen to look at a way of developing new forms of social interaction and social movement so that a more productive framework could be put in place that supported those students who were interested in developing a creative or media career pathway. Or, put another way, discovering agents and structure who were interested enough to develop both a better understanding of what is required and to attempt to implement new avenues of exploration and development.

From a theoretical perspective, a way forward could be found in the school of thought known as phenomenology.

Referring back to the position paper from The Journal of Applied Journalism and Media Studies (AJMS) academics such as Alfred Schütz, provide a good starting point, as his work bridged sociological and phenomenological traditions to form a social phenomenology, which is ‘the study of the formal structures of concrete social existence as made available in and through the analytical description of acts of intentional consciousness’. Accordingly, the object of such an analysis is the meaningful understanding lived world of everyday life: the Lebenswelt, or “Life-world”. Or as postulated in Cohen (citing English and English) ‘the study of direct experience taken at face value; and one which sees behaviour as determined by the phenomena of experience rather than by external, objective and physically described reality. (p. 18)

For the AJMS, media research and media theories need to be useful to the community and will have to be relevant to ‘the human activity which has created them’ (Schutz, 1964), which is something that echoed my own belief and approach during the early stages of research.

As such the task of phenomenological sociology, like that of every other phenomenological investigation, is to account for, or describe, the formal structures of the object of investigation in terms of subjectivity. To ensure this approach is distinguished from the “naive” subjective descriptions of the man in the street, or those of the traditional social scientist, is to see this process as developing a body of knowledge that relates empirical observations of phenomena, in a way that is consistent with fundamental theory, but is not directly derived from theory (though they may incorporate principles and laws associated with theories).

Symbolic Interactionism

Cohen looks at variations within this approach and I felt that the theoretical framework known as symbolic interactionism, appeared to be most suited to the project that I was gradually developing. Drawing mainly on the work of Mead, although also associated with noted researchers such as Blumer, Goffman among others. The defining notion that seemed most appropriate to me is that:

Instead of focussing on the individual and his or her personality characteristics, or on how the social structure or social situation causes individual behaviour, symbolic interactionists direct their attentions at the nature of interaction, the dynamic activities taking place between people. In focussing on the interaction itself as a unit of study, the symbolic interactionist creates a more active image of the human being and rejects the image of the passive, determined organism. (p. 20)

Looking directly at the work of Mead (1962), symbolic interactionism proposes the idea that reacting, interacting, responding and developing as a consequence of our found environment is what makes us human. But more than this we are able to interpret, define and understand the relationship between ourselves as individuals and ‘the other’, which for Mead is the central mechanism of existence:

This mechanism enables the human being to make indication to himself of things in his surroundings and thus to guide his action by what he notes. . . The conscious life of the human being . . . is a continual flow of self-indications. (Mead, 1962, p. 180)

Accordingly, this is a constructivist point of view where ‘reality is not external to human existence but determined and defined through social interaction.’ (Howell K., 2013, p. 81) Thus symbolic interactionism identifies the process in which the individual and the community can be recognised in a symbiotic relationship of both ‘self’ and ‘other’. As Howell puts forward in an earlier work, ‘through language and structure we become a generalised other . . . we attain consciousness of self as generalised other’ (2000, p. 27)

Reflecting on this critically, would be to identify that ‘community and self are intrinsically linked and the distinction between self and the community difficult to ascertain.’ (Howell K. , 2013, p. 89). As such, there arises a key critical issue that faces any research project based upon this paradigm: as necessarily all statements produced will relate to the value of the community (think about the project that I am undertaking in a small community), so therefore all statements produced should be ‘treated with suspicion and continually doubted.’

Although, this may be limitation of process, for certain thinkers such as Gergen (1994), this ‘does not curtail knowledge development but leads toward greater democracy in thought and discussion and the enhancement of critique and reflection of the human condition’ (Howell K. , 2013, p. 93). In summary, this paradoxical framework reflects the significance of critical theory for this approach; providing that self-critical understanding and awareness may enable the transformation of objective reality and subjective understanding. According to Howell, ‘for constructivism, humanity alone is responsible for knowledge development and understanding is a matter of interpretive construction on the part of the active subject’ (ibid)

Similarly, Guba and Lincoln (1989) position the constructivist paradigm, as maintaining that realities are not ‘objectively’ out there but are constructed by people. They also highlight the position of the researcher who cannot act as an independent observer, but must necessarily become absolutely dependent for whatever existence they have (p. 13)

However, such an approach does raise a number of critical questions. For instance, such an approach develops a ‘relativist’ reduction of truth and knowledge, ‘reality is constructed so all constructions are true realities. Thus can given truth in one construction be truth for all?’ Further, truth can ‘only be realised for a given situation and not for another; consequently, it can be true and false simultaneously.’ (Howell K. , 2013, p. 90)

The work of Guba and Lincoln (1989) also considered the notion of axioms with regard to the constructivist paradigm, proposing that constructivist axioms involve ‘holistic, multiple realities’ with Howell commenting that multiple realities raise more questions than answers. In other words, only levels of understanding can be achieved, thus only limited possibilities of generalisation and outcome can be achieved. This is usually reinforced by research which is often time-bound and context-bound, favouring a hypothesis and approach of idiographic statements expressing individual experiences and understandings, as opposed to general nomothetic statements, which, it could be argued create a difficulty in distinguishing cause from effect across the working project. As my own research continued, this was a difficulty that was continually raised and the question was whether something was better than nothing? Whether a small scale, small community project could actually provide anything that was useful in terms of either theory or practice?

On the other hand, in rejecting accepted or normal interpretations, a constructivist approach recognises that the ‘mind is active in the construction of knowledge and knowing is interactive with data’ (Howell K. , 2013, p. 91) This approach is an inviting proposition for educational researchers, but does have some criticism, with limitations of inaccuracy, misleading information, less control and incomplete research and data. Similarly, the hermetic nature of study can sometimes neglect to take account of the bigger relationship that exists between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’, and therefore just as positivist theories can be criticised for their ‘macro-sociological persuasion, so interpretive and qualitative models can be criticised for their narrowly micro-sociological perspectives’ (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2011, p. 21)


To try and draw some conclusions from this early enquiry would be to suggest that, to a greater extent, that I am starting to lean towards more naturalistic methods and away from a positivist interpretation.

However, to continue to define a complex (and at times competing) framework of knowledge, philosophy and methodology, I would like to briefly outline some of the epistemological stances that underpin my research.


Critical Theory: A Philosophical framework for research.

A clear distinction between methodology, epistemology and ontology is not an easy task to define in itself, let alone to define with regard to large and at times daunting doctoral enquiry.  Thus, from a personal perspective I was always leaning towards the notion of critical theory as a starting point and foundation for my research, perhaps even only in the hope that this may the most relevant shroud of theory with which to clothe my skeletal research.  I don’t want to embark on a history and development of Critical Theory, as this is not the purpose of this section, nevertheless, as Stephen Bonner writes:

Critical theory in its concept formation in all phases of its development very consciously makes its own that concern for the rational organisation of human activity which its task is to illuminate and legitimate. For this theory is not concerned only with goals already imposed by existing ways of life, but with men and all their potentials. (Bonner, 2011, p. 19)

From the founding figures of the Frankfurt School to Habermas, there seems to be a sense of scale that really aims high, ‘to clarify the changing conditions and preconditions for transformative action’ where ‘other forms of thought were seen as affirmative of the existing order in spite of their self-proclaimed neutrality and objectivity.’ (Bonner, p. 22) As such, I have always been inspired by the ‘Grand Task’ put forward by exponents of Critical Theory,

Bonner refers to Max Horkheimer’s essay ‘Materialism and Metaphysics’ (1933) for setting out the point where Critical Theory sought to make its claim, for instance, condemning Positivism and its offshoots for dismissing subjectivity and ethical concerns, while analysing society through criteria derived from the Natural Science and similarly also condemning Metaphysics for ignoring the philosophical relevance of the material world.

Whereas,Critical theory was intended as a general theory of society fuelled by the desire for liberation. Its practitioners understood that new social conditions would give rise to new ideas and new problems for radical practice – and that the character of the critical method would change along with the substance of emancipation. (2011, p. 24)

Drawing on the work of Theodore Adorno, specifically Minima Moralia (1951) and An Essay on Liberation by Herbert Marcuse (1972) Bonner suggests that the Frankfurt School were engaged in ‘redeeming the repressed potential with the lived life of the individual’ (2011, p. 29). Tantamount to such concerns was a Utopian discourse, ‘abolishing not merely social injustice but the psychological, cultural and anthropological sources of unhappiness’ (ibid).

As I mentioned earlier, there is grand scheme at play within the discourse of Critical theory that appears heroic and noble in its quest for transformation, liberty and freedom, that looks for the coordinates charting a path towards Utopian existence. The discussion of unhappiness, meaninglessness and isolation, reconciled with concepts such of alienation, reification, individuation, commodity fetishism, the disciplinary idiot and the division of labour, imbue contempt for current socio-political structures and an appetite for radical action and real change. As Bonner puts forward:

Modern life would increasingly privilege the use of expertise and narrowly circumscribed areas of responsibility with a hierarchical chain of command. The ability to grasp the whole would vanish; what the Germans call the disciplinary idiot would supplant the intellectual; and ethics would be relegated to a domain outside of science and political life. (2011, p. 42)

Grand themes. Grand ideas. But how does a small town project called Creative Pathways fit into such a plan without a sense of hubris or ridicule? How can such a small idea reclaim individuality, creativity and solidarity against the great erosion of humanity? Before leaving Bonner’s articulation of Critical Theory, it might be worth highlighting some of the criticism of this approach as in many ways such shortcomings may be the starting point of minimising (before realising) my own project.

As Bonner notes, the assaults on system logic ‘carry a price’, threatening to ‘plunge critical theory into relativism’; it remains stuck in analytical concerns, with a central thesis that ‘remains defined by what it should oppose’ (2011, p. 33). In summary, Bonner writes:

The Frankfurt School originally saw itself articulating a new form of materialism infused with critical reflection, a capacity for fantasy and the prospect of resisting an increasingly bureaucratised world. But it became very less clear what practical purpose its speculative inquiries were meant to serve. The understanding of resistance grew increasingly vague. It was as if the real conflicts of interest, the real imbalances of power, were vanishing within a world totality defined by alienation and reification. (2011, p. 34)

So could Creative Pathways be recognised with such a Grand Narrative? Could one drop of transformative action contribute to the bigger struggle without appearing trite, inconsequential, irrelevant or facetious?

Critical Theory as methodology

The problem with attempting to use critical theory as a research paradigm is that ‘when we examine the works of members of the Frankfurt School, none claimed to have formulated a unified approach to social investigation and criticism’ (Howell K. , 2013, p. 75).

As already implied, ‘the aim . . . is to serve the emancipatory project’, (Alversson & Skoldberg, 2009, p. 144), a utopian premise, that without clarification remains resolutely and pragmatically difficult to apply. Similarly, Howell suggests that ‘Critical Theory is about hope in a cynical world’. It involves ‘ideas relating to empowerment of the people’ where ‘transformation [and] conscious emancipation is central’. Research is therefore not about ‘the accumulation of knowledge but political activity and social transformation’ (Howell, 2013, p. 81).

Therefore, if approached from another direction it may be easier to understand and apply critical theory in terms of a research paradigm, as a negative realisation. In other words, it may easier to identify what critical theory is not, than to easily frame up the new position that it puts forward?

As a starting point, it seems clear that thinkers from the Frankfurt school, such as Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and Fromm rejected positivism. For example, Howell notes that when the Frankfurt School left Germany they were ‘shocked by the positivistic nature of research in the USA and how this form of research was taken for granted in the social sciences’ (2013, p. 76) to the extent that they were responsible for challenging the notion of the ‘objective observer’ challenging and disputing also the ‘specific methodological rules for acquiring knowledge’ (Alversson & Skoldberg, 2009, p. 145).

Having worked through the devastation of the First World War and now working under the rise of National Socialism in Germany the Frankfurt School appeared to have questioned the result of the Enlightenment project. As Eric Fromm (1997) wrote, ‘Enlightenment taught man that he could trust his own reason as a guide to establishing valid ethical norms and that he could rely on himself’ (p. 3) but men now ‘pay for the increase of their power with alienation from that which they exercise their power’ (p. 9).

Here then we identify the way thinkers of the Frankfurt School developed a critical theory that engages with (and as such questions) established ideas of the Enlightenment project, with the result that we now question notions that ‘human beings determine their own destinies’ which gives an impetus to social research, (Howell, 2013, p. 97). Indeed, through the lens of critical research there is the implication that this ‘has removed both spiritual and rational guidance and rendered nature an objective entity external to human existence’. (ibid).

As Howell (2013) puts forward, a central and generalised perspective of critical theory is the idea that such an approach engenders and empowers critical beings who can then question the status quo. Accordingly, therefore, a main idea of critical theory was to formulate a social theory based on a range of philosophical positions and empirical theory, which as Max Horkheimer (1972) considered as a research programme should absolve the opposition between the individual and social structures and should embrace the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity.

In this sense, critical theory is a philosophical approach that can be clearly identified as political. Indeed, Adorno and Horkheimer (1997) considered the paradigm of inquiry was about connecting critical theory with everyday life in the interest of abolishing social injustice. Thus ‘research is not about the accumulation of knowledge but political activity and social transformation’ (Howell, 2013, p. 81)

In summary, Howell (2013) summarises this position as one where ruling elites should be challenged, where a greater equality and liberty should be sought. An approach that makes an attempt to expose positions of power between institutions, groups and individuals, that identifies the rules and regulations and norms that prevent people from taking control of their own lives, and the means by which they are eliminated from decision making and be consequently controlled.

Once again: big ideas for a small project. So that once more the same question presents itself to me: how do I reconcile such big thinking to such small work?

From knowledge, to philosophy, to methodology for research . . .

In the 1960’s Jurgen Habermas raised an epistemological discussion around critical theory which was based on principles of self-reflection and emancipation, which indicates that reflexivity is a central mechanism for critical theory, for instance, the ‘realisation that the dominant culture is not a natural state of affairs’ which is perhaps only ‘revealed through interaction between the researcher and researched.’ (p. 81) John Dryseck in his  essay Critical Theory as a research paradigm (1995) interpreted and developed this notion further, suggesting that as a research paradigm, critical theory can be applied by subordinating control and understanding in favour of emancipation and liberation. Specifically, within a research project such as my own, this means that a social science approach should understand:

the ideologically distorted subjective situation of some individual or group . . . explore the forces that have caused that situation of some individual or group . . . explore the forces that have caused that situation and . . . show that these forces can be overcome through awareness (Dryseck, 1995)

Consequently, as Howell (2013) notes, critical theory involves reflective action, specifically the ‘reflective action of those individuals and groups involved in the research programme’ (p. 83). Continuing with a critical distance between current research demands and the limitations of positivism, Habermas identified the main difficulties of positivism and a possible solution whereby, instead of ‘controlled observation . . . there arises participatory relation of the understanding subject to the subject confronting him.’

It is a paradigm, according to Habermas where it is no longer ‘the observation but the dialogue – a communication in which the understanding subject must invest part of his subjectivity’ (2004, pp. 10-11). In the same work Habermas seeks for a theory of the social sciences applicable for social systems, as distinct from machines or systems, one that reflects subjective tendencies and takes into account ‘the relationship of inter-subjectivity and the relation between ego and group identity’ (p. 13). Similarly, referring to Schutz (1964) the Journal of Applied Journalism & Media Studies (AJMS), prioritises media research and media theories which need to be useful to the community and will have to be relevant to the human activity which has created them.  In other words, the task of phenomenological sociologist, like that of every other phenomenological investigation, is to account for, or describe, the formal structures of the object of investigation in terms of subjectivity.

In summary, it is therefore possible to understand a general perspective of critical theory as approach towards social science research which constructs an ontology where reality is shaped through social and historical processes and may be defined as ‘historical realism’.

Howell (2013) supports this idea and goes on to position the epistemological aspect of the critical theory paradigm which considers that findings and theoretical perspectives are discovered because the investigator and the investigated are intrinsically linked through historical values, which must influence the inquiry. As such, this leads to a specific methodology, which he identifies as dialogic and dialectical in approach.  In this methodology ‘structures are changeable and actions affect change’ and theory is changeable and developed in an interaction between researcher and researched, where ‘historical values influence the analysis’. (p. 81)

Epistemologically this links to the theory of ‘constructivism’, where (as suggested previously) research results and thus reality is locally constructed and based on shared experiences and consensus, including those of the investigator. As Howell suggests: ‘theory in this paradigm is relative and changeable, reliability and prediction almost impossible and cause and effect difficult to identify’ (2013, p. 88). Or, as Navon writes, ‘for constructivists the mind creates reality and claims that facts are produced by human consciousness’ (2001, p. 624). Similarly, Greene (2000) underlines the notion that constructivists seek to understand contextualised meaning, recognising the meaningfulness of human actions and interactions, as experienced and construed in a given context.

Echoing the sentiment of Max Horkheimer, Howell suggests that ‘both subjective and objective elements exist and a participative process develops reality’, consequently the methodological position involves ‘collaboration and action with everyday existence’, indeed, ‘the participatory paradigm relies heavily on action research’ (2013, pp. 88-89). Early pioneers of action research, such as Lewin (1946) argued an action research experiment must express theory in such a way that the results of the experiment can be fed directly back to the theory, as well as the proposition that theory can be directly expressed in action.

So perhaps it is now worth considering exactly what it is I am planning to do. And again how can such big ideas relate to such a small project?


Action Research

Action research is sometimes called ‘practitioner based research’ and according to Cohen, can be seen as a ‘powerful tool for change and improvement at the local level,’ where some change or feature will result in a beneficial and improved outcome or goal (p. 344). As Ferrance argues action based research is a positive course of action for teachers and is often ‘addressed towards a problem that they have encountered themselves’ and that the research becomes more effective when they are encouraged to examine and assess their own work and then consider ways of working differently. (Ferrance, 2000). Both of which have resonance with my position and seem to be an attractive model to structure this research project.

Defining action research further would be to suggest a combination of action and research which renders the action a form of disciplined, rigorous enquiry, in which a personal attempt is made to understand, improve and reform practice. (Hopkins, 1985). Overall, the aim is to improve practice and as such there is a reflective and reflexive element to this particular approach. As I will establish there is an approach that revolves around action, diagnosis and reflection so that at each stage of the cycle the researcher is encouraged to not only reflect on their own development and practice, but also to become part of the process of development.

In simple terms this means that the researchers are also participants and practitioners in action research – they are part of the social world that they are studying. In other words, ‘reflexivity is an integral element and epistemological basis of emancipatory action research’ (Hall, 1996) As such, there is a self-consciousness and awareness of being part of a project, which has as much involvement from me as those that the project is hopefully going to be set up for. It may be therefore necessary to track and monitor the effect of a participant-as-researcher-and-practitioner, as clearly there is a personal involvement in terms of perceptions, feelings, emotions, actions, opinions, which Tricia Le Gallais explored in her own research paper from 2008 (Wherever I go there I am: reflections on reflexivity and the research stance)

Nevertheless, the key focus of action research is that it is concerned ‘equally with changing individuals, on the one hand and, on the other, the culture of the groups, institutions and societies to which they belong.’ (Kemmis & McTaggart, 1992, p. 16). From this perspective it is possible to position and understand action research from within the critical school of thinking as first developed by the writers of the Frankfurt School and developed subsequently by other academics including Jürgen Habermas.

As Cohen notes, it is possible to locate ‘action research in the German tradition squarely as ‘critical social science’ – ‘a hermeneutic activity of understanding and interpreting social situations with a view to improving them’. As such, this approach rejects positivistic views of rationality, objectivity, truth and methodology, preferring hermeneutic understanding and emancipatory practice.  (p. 349)

To position the methodological approach within a recognised academic and philosophical approach would be to see this kind of research as ideographic, dialectical, hermeneutical. In terms of the framework presented by Arthur, such an approach recognises the ‘variable and personal nature of social constructions’ and suggests that ‘individual constructions can be elicited and refined only through interaction between and among investigator(s) and respondent(s)’.

Conventional hermeneutical techniques are used in interpretations and compared and contrasted through a dialectical interchange. It is not a matter of eliminating conflicting or previous interpretations, but to distil a more sophisticated & informed consensus construction.  (Arthur, 2012)

Cohen also notes that such an approach is a ‘praxis-based act’, noting with reference to Habermas that action research ‘empowers individuals and social groups to take control over their lives within a framework of the promotion, rather than the suppression of generalizable interests (Legitimation Crisis, 1976). Indeed, ‘empowerment’ appears to be a key term in this type of research, but could easily be open to criticism – too utopian and ‘unrealisable’.

A key schematic characteristic of an action research approach is the adoption of an ongoing, cyclical process that allows action to feedback into theory, which improves and develops the framework of action. This cyclical notion of research and action is characterised by a number of models, of which the following have been useful in developing my own approach, specifically the 5 point action model by Greenwood and Levin (2000) and the full action research cycle by Tripp (2003). I have also been influenced by the “flow of fourth generation evaluation” (Guba & Lincoln, 1989) and the short works by Ferrance (2000) and Hopkins (1985) who have also contributed useful written documents to this topic.

From a historical perspective it was Schön (1995) who advocated that it was time for a new scholarship, a new way of knowing that meets the everyday needs of people working in real-life situations. The new scholarship suggested action research as a form of practical theorising (in action) appropriate to all professional practice including education. As Schön (1995, p. 31) suggests, “if teaching is to be seen as a form of scholarship, then the practice must be seen as giving rise to new forms of knowledge” and further,

If community outreach is to be seen as a form of scholarship, then it is the practice of reaching out and providing service to a community that must be seen as raising important issues whose investigation may lead to generalisation of prospective relevance and actionability. (ibid)

As McNiff (2000, p. 2). expands such propositions are ‘rooted in the unarticulated tacit knowing of practitioners as they try to make sense of their lives.’ McNiff recognises that such practical theorising is not yet highly valued by the academy and the theory-practice gap remains, suggesting that research from traditional organisation studies and practice is “far removed from the worlds of real-life practice which are, to use Schön”s language, messy, uncontrolled and unpredictable” (ibid). This raises the paradigm of the teacher-researcher of which Pring (2015) among others: (Stenhouse, 1975; Hargreaves 1996; Elliot, 1991; Putnam and Borko, 2000) have commented upon, highlighting the importance of the teacher as researcher. Indeed, Pring (2015, p. 158) states that such practice is “crucial to the growth of professional knowledge”. Pring argues for a greater recognition of professional judgement developed from classroom, practitioner based research which could usefully contribute towards an understanding of professional activity, which in turn could shed significant light on other, similarly conceived situations. It holds a social political position that echoes critical theory, one of emancipation, change, reflexivity and calling into question the normative values of the status quo.

This standpoint serves to underline the importance and significance of the teacher-as-researcher perspective and the importance of “situated cognition” (Putnam & Borko, 2000), a concept which recognises the value of those who know what they do, but want to reflect on what they do, for the better and for change. It is a contribution to the research community, that uses a focus on an improvement in practice to a growth of knowledge, even if this is “context bound, tentative, provisional and constantly open to improvement” (Pring, 2015, p. 157). As McNiff (2000, p. 4) points out action research “is undertaken by people who want to improve their understanding of their practice in order to improve their dealings with others in social situations.”

The field of action research is therefore able to cover a wide range of different disciplines, for example, the experiential learning movement (Kolb, 1984) action learning (Revans, 1982) & (Marsick & O’ Neil, 1999), Participatory Research (Park, 1999), Action Science (Putman, 1999), Action Inquiry (Torbet, The Distinctive Questions Development Action Inquiry Asks, 1999), and Co-operative inquiry (Reason, 1999). As such, it is clear that action research lends itself to the teacher-researcher paradigm, as Pring puts forward this is a new approach to scholarship where action research can be contrasted with theoretical research:

It aims not to produce new knowledge but to improve practice . . . the conclusion is not a set of propositions but a practice or a set of transactions or activities which is not true or false but better or worse. It is “situated cognition”. By contrast with the conclusion of research, as that is normally conceived, action research focusses on the particular, thereby not justifying generalisation, no one situation is unique in every respect and therefore research in one classroom or school can illuminate or be suggestive of practice elsewhere. (2015, p. 153)

In simple terms this means that the researchers are also participants and practitioners in action research – they are part of the social world that they are studying. As such, there is a self-consciousness and awareness, of being part of a project, in which the researcher is “constantly adjusting to unforeseen circumstances, responding to the levels of understanding of the learners [and] trying new approaches” (Pring, 2015, p. 143)

McNiff (2000), breaks this process down and recognises three separate action research paradigms:

  1. Critical theoretic social science
  2. Empirical research
  3. Interpretative research

Of which the latter – interpretative research – forms the basis for my own enquiry. As McNiff (2000). sets out this approach encourages practitioners to undertake their action enquiries into their workplace practice, acting perhaps as coaches, who are “often positioned as field tutors, managers, consultants or academic supervisors. The aim of these supporters is to observe, describe and explain the research of those whom they are supporting or otherwise monitoring.” (2000, p. 201) It can therefore be established that contemporary forms of action research place great importance on collaboration between all those involved in the inquiry project, aiming to help the individual practitioners develop skills of reflective practice and organisation as well as helping community members develop a culture of open inquiry as part of their work life.

A more realistic criterion for this methodology is that it leads to successively better understanding and in order to carry out such an inquiry, a process must be instituted that first iterates the variety of constructions (the sense-makings) that already exist, then analyses those constructions to make their elements plain and communicable to others, solicits critiques for each construction from the holders of others, reiterates the constructions in light of new information or new levels of sophistication that may have been introduced, reanalyses, and so on to consensus – or as close to consensus as one can manage (Guba & Lincoln, 1989) (Greenwood & Levin, 1998) (Bryman, 2012)

Indeed, Habermas (1976) notes in his book Legitimation Crisis that action research empowers individuals and social groups to take control over their lives within a framework of the promotion, rather than the suppression of generalizable interests.  Indeed, ‘empowerment’ appears to be a key term in this type of research, but could easily be open to criticism, as being too utopian and ‘unrealisable’. I also recognise that such an approach could be seen as grandiose and fey for such a small scale initiative as a parochial media work placement scheme, however, I hope I have established that this framework is the most appropriate academic foundation for my research and I would argue that change for the better is not based on a league table of scale, size or impact, but rather that if change for the better can be identified at an intellectual level and apprehended, encoded and implemented at a practical level, then change is emancipatory, worthy and worthwhile.



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