For the past few months I’ve been doing a weekly Pilates class, primarily for some neck problems but also to ‘strengthen my core’. Yes, my tummy is flabby, and if I try to stand on one leg I’m rather wobbly. The wonderful physio who takes the class has tactfully and encouragingly pointed out that it’s necessary to 1) be aware of our core, 2) gradually build up our core, and 3) keep using it – don’t just think about it for one hour per week.
But this blog is not about my pathetic muscles (which are responding to the Pilates, by the way); it’s about my research project. And the concept of core strength is relevant here, too. Some months back, I read a very interesting article by a nurse researcher about the importance of a ‘disciplinary core’, and the necessity for a researcher to identify not only her/his disciplinary core, but to locate the study’s methodology within that core (Thorne, 2011). She makes the following statement:
“Absent a disciplinary core, the generic health researcher risks a great deal of conceptual confusion. I think we all ought to be quite cautious in how we engage with that species of scholar. Although they might use familiar terminologies and syntax, one might argue that they are not only foreign language speakers, but actually an entirely different life form.” (p.451)
This statement has stayed with me, niggling in much the same way that something in your sock niggles uncomfortably until you are irritated enough to take it out and see whether it’s a grass seed or something that might, in fact, bite you. The reason for the niggle stems from its implications for a researcher who takes an interprofessional perspective (my undergraduate degrees were in nursing and social work), who wants to look at the world through the participants’ (non-disciplinary) eyes, and who is particularly interested in participants’ views about a formal service ‘system’ that comprises multiple disciplines. It seems to me that my study has no easily-identifiable disciplinary core at the level of researcher, participants or context. Oh dear. Am I an alien life form?
Having given this a great deal of thought, I’ve decided that yes, I probably am, and that’s a GOOD thing. Postgraduate research is all about finding out new stuff, or at least looking at familiar stuff differently. If I try to locate my study within a single discipline I am at risk of understanding the participants’ experience only to the extent that it intersects with my own. Thorne and I agree that the methodology has to emerge from the question. I’m still thinking about that, and trying to reconcile it with the argument that the methodology should be based on the disciplinary core. Does it mean that researchers from different disciplines should only ask questions that are within their own disciplines? To a certain extent of course, this is reasonable for purely pragmatic purposes. A geneticist in a lab is hardly in a position to ask about the narratives of people in the community…at least, not for research undertaken within the context of the genetics lab. But how do we research questions that arise in the world that exists outside a specific discipline?
If I understand her correctly, Thorne draws a distinction between applied health and social scientists and their research purposes. She considers that health research should stick to solving health problems, while social sciences apparently are better placed to theorize about them (p.450-451). As a social worker, I’m profoundly uncomfortable with that distinction. I’m not sure why these two domains need to be mutually exclusive. If they are not, though, how does one combine them without losing one’s disciplinary core? If, as Throne suggests, there is overlap in the area of interest but distinction between disciplinary philosophies, should we not be working towards a shared philosophy (in the interests of the wider world) rather than shoring up the walls between us?
At this point in my cogitations, I’m thinking that the difficulty lies in assuming that research lacking a clear disciplinary core has no core at all. Maybe Thorne wasn’t ever suggesting that. I don’t know. But I am feeling comfortable that my research can (MUST) rise above disciplinary parameters and still have a strong core. The core, rather than being located in a single professional discipline, must be located in the ‘discipline’ of the participants, and in my own capacity for reflexivity. That way, I can work with confidence towards a result that is characterised by both strength and balance.
Thorne, S. (2011) Toward Methodological Emancipation in Applied Health Research. Qualitative Health Research 21(4), 443-453