Miner, traveller or archaeologist? reflections on discovering truth

In the design phase of the research into Clergy Review for my 2016 Masters in Business, I paid attention to issues of ontology and epistemology – the way we think about truth and knowledge – and took a Critical Realist perspective. This constructionist view accepts that reality is only ever accessible to humans through language, and perceptions created with images and words. However it does not rule out the existence of an objective reality that exists independent of our ability to experience it, a "deep underlying structure that can be known, though never in a final way" (1).  

In considering the theory I might build from the rich data provided by the participant interviews and analysis, I was informed by two contrasting metaphors of the research interviewer, first described by Kvale (2) but also used by Qu and Dumay (3). They suggest that conceiving of the interviewer as either a miner or as a traveller can represent different contrasting epistemologies, and therefore conceptions of the goal of the interview. In a mining metaphor, truth is seen as buried metal to be unearthed; knowledge is already there, waiting to be discovered. The traveller metaphor is more organic and participatory; the researcher travels with locals, listening to their stories and differentiating their meaning in the narratives retold back home. Mining the data is implied in positivist research while the traveller metaphor  is more about social construction.

Thinking about these useful images brought a new one to mind. Having travelled in the Middle East,  I had often seen reconstructions of ancient dwellings, built up from a footprint unearthed by archaeologists. Using their knowledge and skill, but also their imagination, these experts came up with what, say, an Iron Age house may have looked like. The point where ancient stones stopped, and modern reconstruction began, was marked by a thin blue line about 30cm above ground. It seemed to me what I wanted to do in this project was unearth some realities on which I could construct a credible theoretical house; that new metaphor fitted with the preconceptions of my critical realist ontology, and with the localist perspective I had adopted.

Localism comes from Alvesson’s typology of theoretical perspectives on the interview method, and provides a useful lens for reflections on the researcher role (4). He distinguishes neopositivism  (studying facts, where the interview is a pipeline for truth) and romanticism (studying meaning, where the interview is a human encounter) from a third perspective, localism, where both respondent and researcher are actively constructing ‘truth’ and the interview is an opportunity to explore and even create meaning. This both/and nature of the third perspective fits with a critical realist epistemology, unlike postmodern paradigms  which suggest there is no real world, only one we create. I was seeking new horizons of knowledge while simultaneously remaining committed to empirical description (5). Qu and Dumay’s work melds Alversson’s typology with the three classic interview formats – structured, semi structured and unstructured - to match an interview method to each paradigm; they assert that semistructured interpretive interviews are most appropriate to the critical reflections of the localist perspective.  My brief interview guide included rapport-building and demographic inquiry, leading into open-ended questions about the research topic. The interviews flowed well, and covered topics taken from my indicative questions plan but mainly following the participant’s interest and energy.

As I reflected on my role during the interview season, I realised I was indeed taking a localist perspective and that my knowledge, power, age, gender, ethnicity and denominations were somehow influencing the interviews. I did engage with the stories told, and the thoughts and emotions revealed, and in a sense helped construct the interviews through my own knowledge and concerns. However the flow of the interviews and the responses of the participants reassured me that what I contributed was helpful rather than obstructive, and their response to the summary of the final thesis was thoroughly affirming. This was indeed “discovery” - the archaeologist constructing a hypothetical house on the codes excavated from my participants’ data.

To think about: Have you paid attention to issues of knowledge and truth? What researcher perspectives fit best with your own thinking?

1. Thatcher: A. (Ed) (1999).Spirituality and the Curriculum.  London: Cassell. p. 23. 
2. Kvale, S. (2007). Doing interviews. London: SAGE Publications.
3. Qu, S. Q., & Dumay, J. (2011). The qualitative research interview. Qualitative Research in Accounting & Management, 8(3), 238-264. 
4 Alvesson, M. (2003). Beyond neopositivists, romantics, and localists: a reflexive approach to interviews in organizational research. The Academy of Management Review, 28(1), 13-33. 
5 Fontana, A., & Frey, J. (2008). The interview: from neutral stance to political involvement. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Collecting and interpreting qualitative materials. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.