Holding On Together

Conversations with Barry

I have been thinking a lot about Barry recently. My guess is that re-entering British society has intensified some of these engagements. To re-enter is to once again encounter the finely-grained nuances and calibrations of an obsolescent class system. In examining the dress code and accent of each individual person you have the best indicator of class location and of the various resistances and loyalties that are embedded in this social structure. Barry Troyna's dress code was a mixture of avid Spurs supporter ''up for the cup'' and rapacious street punk. Likewise his accent and his speech reflected the argot of the Spurs' terraces. It was genuinely as if he had never been away.

In contradiction to the North American working class that I leave behind, pockets of English life still represent some of the resiliences and resistances that have been polished over many centuries. At its best, and of course I romanticize, the dress coding and argot of working class life can still capture the chirpiness, the carnivalesque elements of an enduring culture. To use a phrase of the moment, it is to have some experience of the ''flaneur''. What did this mean in the case of Barry? He knew full well that his appearance and language carried a cost in terms of his acceptance into the higher reaches of English professional society. So, was it simply a romantic yearning back, or holding on, to some mythical golden age of East End working class life? Or could there have been some intellectual and political purpose behind the ubiquitous jeans, feathered haircut and rhyming slang? Having talked in some detail with him about this, and sharing some ''insider knowledge'', it is perfectly clear to me that it was the latter. Barry was committed to the emancipation and empowerment of historically and structurally disadvantaged groups in British society and ''holding on'', as he did, in spite, or because of, the personal 'cost', was part of a succinct, specific and political life project to refine and reflect resistances, resiliences, and loyalties. He wanted to give something back.
In this paper I want to focus on Barry's concerns about the part that research might or might not play in the empowerment and emancipation of disadvantaged groups. I was lucky in that, in his last two years we spent a good deal of time working on a life history project in Canada which was particularly concerned to examine the potential for life history with regard to the education of racial ethno-cultural minorities (a project funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada).

Barry was enthusiastic about life history approaches and had used them both as a teaching strategy and in research. Nevertheless, questioning taken for granted assumptions and conventional wisdoms, always making everything problematic was ever his way and he had some important epistemological and ethical questions to ask about life history. In particular he was concerned, and it has to be said, sceptical, about claims that individuals and groups can achieve some degree of empowerment and emancipation through use of the methodology. Fortunately, some of the conversations that we had about these issues were recorded enabling me, to some extent, to revisit and reappraise the kinds of things that we were mutually exploring. Returning to a transcript of a tape also gives an opportunity to 'see' Barry at work as an interviewer and, in however slight a way, to recapture a sense of the man himself.




Ivor Goodson
Professor of Learning Theory
Education Research Centre
Mayfield House
University of Brighton
East Sussex
Tel: +44(0)1273 644560/4559
Fax: +44(0)1273 643453


BT: We spoke a bit about the interview itself.... and you reckon that you choose to be fairly passive, fairly recessive. Two questions arising from that. Firstly, can you give me a justification for starters, and the second question is, is that the routine start? Are there any situations in which you would change that?

IG: Taking that in reverse order, I guess there would always be situations where I would change being a reflexive researcher (ha, ha). But in terms of being passive, that's the question of my analysis of the stages that one goes through in an interview for life history; so whilst I would start passive, I would think one would get more and more active as the process went through. So we talked a bit last week about these three stages which are not discreet, but which I believe exist, which begin with a more passive attempt to elicit what I call the raw narration of the life story from the life story teller which of course isn't raw but which is a script coming from them without much prompting. So, in that sense, the interview is passive in that first period where they're eliciting that prime narration, the first narration, a kind of script to the life, but then there would be some more stages which I describe as collaboration and location where you would ask a series of questions about that first narration of the life story which seemed to locate it, challenge it and interrogate it and position it, sociologically and historically.

BT: So it would become progressively focused?

IT: Yeah, progressively focused and progressively more interactive I think to be honest with you. Progressively, I would prefer to say, collaborative.

BT: What happens if your respondent... didn't want the interactive relationship that you request?

IG: You mean all you get is just their first telling of their life script? Well, all you've got is their first telling of the life script.

BT: Does this undermine the whole enterprise for you?

IG: Not necessarily but I mean, obviously, you have to deal with that as it is which is something where you haven't had any chance to seriously interact or question or locate as I call it, and so it would be of limited use and it would be particularly of limited use for me because I see the collaboration around that initial life story as a crucial piece of collaborative research and investigation and what works. That seems to me that the very important stage for me in trying to get some sort of collaborative 'trade' going with the life story teller otherwise, I mean, they end up with exactly the knowledge of their life that they first had and their understanding hasn't been broadened in some sense as mine hasn't either. So the collaboration around that first telling of the life story script is a crucial trading point for research, understanding, investigation, theory building, whatever that collaborative pact that we develop with the life story teller is.

Barry takes Ivor up on the implications of what he has said for the nature of the power relationship between the researcher and the life storyteller. Taken at first glance it seems as if Ivor is adopting some sort of superior role vis vis the storyteller in that he can help them to understand their life. Such a position appears to be at odds with his contention that the project avoided or minimised 'neo-colonialism'. Ivor's response again put the emphasis on collaboration:

BT: Why would they want (their) understanding of their lives to be enhanced by you?

IG: I'm not saying it would be enhanced by me. I think it would be enhanced collaboratively: a simple distinction. Why would they want me to be part of their enhanced understanding, to rephrase you? Well, because I think it's often useful for some people, sometimes, to have another person or another presence while they work through and, in fact, another position, if you will, somebody standing there in an alternative position involving them in a conversation about their life. Some people would want that conversation, some wouldn't, so I think the question of why would people want enhanced understanding is obviously a key question. Some people do and some people don't. My business has tended to be to try to help people broaden their understanding of themselves, but that's just my purpose, but I would want to work with people who had that as a belief that they wanted to pursue, that they want to come to understand their life, their life history, better. I would imagine that I wouldn't be working collaboratively with people who didn't because, clearly, they wouldn't collaborate, I wouldn't want to. That would be fine, I have no problem with that.

Although Glesne & Peshkin reckon, 'in most instances... the researcher maintains a dominant role that reflects his or her definition of the inquiry purposes. As long as the purposes are his or her own, the researcher sustains a power imbalance that may or may not get redressed' (1992, p. 82), my view, and Barry's, is less hesitant on this matter. We share the contention that researchers remain in a super ordinate position at all stages of the research process (see Frankenberg, 1993, for instance). The degree and significance of the power imbalance varies and depends upon the relative social and structural positions of interviewer and interviewee (see Neal, 1995; Walford, 1994) and upon the theme of the research. Concern centres on what the researcher does with the information given by the informant, on the means by which the information is elicited, and what the informant is told about the research and what it will involve for them. With regard to this last point, Ivor explains why he does not initially go into detail about what collaboration involves:

BT: So at the initial stage of the life history enterprise, you would explain in detail what is required of these people? What their commitment should be? What your role is?

IG: Yeah, I don't know whether I would is the truth... laying out in detail what the collaboration is about is actually jumping the gun. Because... many people might not want to go to stage two. So if you, and they have the right not to, so if you from the beginning define this as something which is about enhancing their understanding or working with them towards understanding, which is the way I prefer to put it, you're kind of pre-judging immediately the kind of person that you are seeking and the kind of collaboration you are seeking. Obviously, there are as many positions on this as there are people. And I think it is perfectly legitimate to say, as some people have, actually, 'look, I've told you my life story, that's enough, I don't want to know any more', that doesn't invalidate that particular rendition that you've got, it is a life story which you have not been able to collaborate around, but it is still a life story.

Ivor is emphasising that much hinges on the respondent's willingness to become involved. He cannot do what he wants without their agreement to collaborate with him. Put this way there does appear to be some redressing of the way in which the relationship between researcher and researched is usually perceived. And of course, the nature of this relationship is critical.

Much has been written about relationships in research interviews. Feminist and black researchers have been particularly concerned to explore the dynamics between the two parties and to develop methods which are less hierarchical than those where only the researcher asks the questions (Hill Collins, 1989; Reinharz, 1992, for instance). In the case of this project, interviewer, interviewee relationships are clearly of significance because the interviewees are 'vulnerable' ethnic minority members and the interviewers are white and are associated with a high status institution, a university. And yet, following this line of argument means eventually ending up being constrained by a simplistic, reductionist logic; namely that only women can interview women, only ethnic minority members can interview members of the same ethnic minority group, and so on. This demand for symmetry has the potential to deny other, arguably more important structural and individual differences between group members (Allen, 1994, for instance). It also seems to deny the researcher's responsibility to be reflexive and actively to research, rather than make assumptions and take things for granted. Also, and, in my view, of paramount significance, is that it fails to acknowledge the importance of the personal relationship which develops between any two people. It is extremely difficult to conduct interviews with someone who, for whatever reason, you dislike, regardless of whether or not you share key characteristics. That Ivor also shares this view is reflected in his response to Barry's question as to why his respondents should trust him, and what benefits they derive from the collaboration.

IG: I don't think I can answer that theoretically. You see, I think the question about who collaborates with whom and why they do it is... a deeply personal one. Often to do with eye contact, body language, chemistry, background, a million things which are quite impossible to legislate or predict so there is no answer in a vacuum to what you say. All that I can say is that some people at some times have trusted me, and I don't quite know why. I can certainly list a number of things that the shadowy researcher, as you described me, might bring to this trade, this collaborative action, which would be a whole range of different kinds of thoughts and insights about life stories over time and about school histories and curriculum histories. There is a range of information that I would bring to the collaboration which might be different from the range of information that the life story teller would bring and would, I think, make for a nice fusion, a nice collaboration. As to why people might or might not trust the shadowy researcher, that is just inevitably a matter of personal negotiation around the issue of when you first start talking to somebody about whether they would like to do life story work with you.

Some researchers have written about the techniques they use to expedite the development of relationships which are likely to be productive in terms of the data they result in. Oakley's (1981) paper on 'reciprocity' was highly influential in this context. Others, however, have questioned the ethics of such manipulation (e.g. Measor & Sikes, 1992). Barry asked Ivor if he would deliberately use any strategies of this kind.

IG: Yes, I think I would. I mean, one of the things that I deeply believe in as part of the collaborative conversation that follows the initial kind of unmediated narration of the life story, is a lot of exchange around the life story, the researcher and the life story of the life story teller. So I would nearly always in my conversation, in that conversation, in the collaborative second stage, bring in quite a bit of information about my own biography. Now, whether I would, as I have done sometime, also give them a sort of potted written account, sometimes I do that and sometimes I don't but the judgement about that is a very personal one. Sometimes people... before they even tell you their life story, would like to hear a little bit about who you are and what you are doing and what your value position is. And sometimes I've said, 'have a look at this, it is a potted biography', or, 'have a look at this, it's something I've written'. So I would sometimes give them text or sometimes I would introduce it in that sort of conversational collaborative stage, either at the beginning before they tell their life story, or more likely, in more detail in that second collaborative period. And again, I mean, I don't think I'd want to divide everyone of these into different stages, where you always start with narration and then you move to collaboration and location. I think sometimes you just get into a terrific conversation from day one. But often it works in the way I described.

What Ivor is emphasising here is the essentially personal and individualistic nature of the methodology. Just as some people don't make very good life storytellers, so some are not likely to be very good as life historians. The role demands being able to get on easily with people, but more than this, it calls for the sort of person that people want to talk to. It is very difficult to specify the characteristics that are needed because so much comes down to what Ivor calls intensely 'idiosyncratic personal dynamics'; but a genuine interest in people's stories, the ability to listen beyond what is actually being said and to ask pertinent questions, and the willingness to share one's own experiences, are all necessary. Life history is a methodology for nosy people who are intrigued by the minutiae of others' lives. It's for people who read novels like 'A Suitable Boy', 'War and Peace', and 'The Magic Mountain', rather than aficionados of detective and adventure tales.

Put this way life history is not a conventionally 'scientific' methodology, at least not according to positivist criteria. It cannot easily, if at all, be made 'reliable' because so much hinges on the particular relationship which develops between the two parties. Nor can 'validity' be assured because, once again, what is told and the way in which it is told, is, to some extent, dependent on that relationship. The concepts of 'validity' and 'reliability', so important in the canon of positivism, are not appropriate in assessing this methodology. This is not to say, however, that the method is without rigour, or that there are not techniques which can be used to situate life stories within their social context and, thereby, imbue them with wider meaning than they possess when left to stand alone. It is with respect to this that Ivor, like Bertaux (1981), makes the distinction between life story and life history.

IG: The crucial distinction to grasp for me, is the distinction between life story and life history. The life story as I understand it is the version of events that you render to me over time. Your partial, selective story. It is a story and we all have one. Often the story we tell ourselves. ... One of the most common questions in seminars is, how do you get people to tell their life story? My answer to that is, how do you stop them, they nearly all do. One of the reasons it sounds so rapid when you switch on the tape-recorder is that most of us have already got a script that we've rehearsed endlessly with ourselves. In other words, we are storying animals and we constantly story our lives and when someone asks us for a story (Ivor snaps his fingers) it's there, we've got it.... The question now is what you get when you get that. That's the story anyhow and there might be a different number of life stories and we would tell different stories at different times in our life. The life history would seek to position and locate that story by bringing in other data, other insights, other theories, other questions which have not been raised in the initial rendition of the story. So it would, you know, to use Denzin's phrase, it's not a phrase I like much, but it captures it a bit, triangulate. You would bring other sources and you would get other documents, other historical factors, maybe even other testimonies which would position and question and you would collaborate around the original life story in the light of those life history documents. So you would move from story to life history by, in my case, that crucial intermediary collaborative act which brings in other data and other questions to try and locate the quotes of the life story and make it, render it, life history.

Another issue related to the centrality of the personal relationship between interviewer and interviewee concerns how researchers learn to use the methodology. Barry raised this point:
BT: I have a problem... It is a problem with this whole issue of reflexivity... which is, how would you describe this process? You put a great deal of emphasis on one's own personal resources, being intuitive, 'duck and dive' when necessary, the development of certain tactics which are appropriate here, but not there, and so on. How does this coalesce around the methodology; how can you package this as a methodology which others can learn from? It seems there's a whole array of different and individualised tactics.

Ivor's response is that it is indeed difficult to socialise young, inexperienced researchers and that, in direct reply to Barry's question
IG: Rather than doing what I think implicitly most people want us to do which is, as you say, your phrase, 'how do we package your methodology?', I think that there are some methodologies which are frankly unpackageable because... personal dynamics are themselves unpackageable.

There are dangers attached to such an idiosyncratic approach. An inexperienced, or even an unlucky, experienced, researcher can find themselves out of their depth. In some respects the life history interview situation does resemble the approach used by Rogerian counsellors and interviewees do sometimes use it for therapeutic purposes. At other times, life stories just become painful. As Lynda Measor and I wrote elsewhere,
'There are problems of the 'intimate' and 'painful' areas in life histories that may be full of purport and intellectual interest for the issue under discussion, but raise traumas for the individual. Self-reflection is a fashionable and useful tool, but there are things in perhaps every life that the individual prefers to forget, and emotionally it may be necessary for them to do so.... A life history does deal with intimate material, and carries a high ethical load as a result' (1992, pp. 222-223).

Barry's view was that the dangers are, perhaps, heightened in Ivor's project because of the differential social and structural power possessed by the researcher and the ethnic minority teachers. He also raised the possibility that, by focusing on the teachers rather than endemic racism, the research might, in some way, actually exacerbate the problems ethnic minority teachers face. Ivor's reply brought the discussion on to research as 'empowerment', a notion that Barry has strong feelings about.

IG: But what's the logical conclusion for that if you are asking difficult questions of people? Not to ask them? Not to speak to them about it? What's your alternative? Silence?

BT: Well, one of the arguments which goes on in race relations research is, the focus shouldn't be on the black community, the focus should be on racism. How would you respond to that?

IG: No, I think it is a legitimate question, but you can see what I'm saying and it comes back to whether.... we exacerbate questions by talking to people and questioning people about things, or whether we help create the flow of dialogue around perilous and problematic issues, and I think a lot of that cannot be prejudged. I think it depends on the way it's done. I don't inevitably always think that asking difficult questions of people, even if they are, as in some case, as is quite rightly the case here, in subordinate positions, that inevitably these invoke some form of colonising or genome or whatever you want to call it. It depends on the form of the collaboration, the form of the trust, to use your phrase, and the form of the trade..... it would be wrong, I think, to say across the board.... if you ask difficult questions of people who are differentially located in the power structure (it) inevitably exacerbates their situation. I don't think it does inevitably exacerbate. It might, on the other hand, it might actually help and enhance their understanding of their situation..... So it all depends on the nature of the conversation and the dialogue and the form it takes. It might exacerbate or it might enhance.

BT: I guess I'm dubious that it could ever enhance and I'm dubious because I don't believe in the empowering properties of research. I think it's a grandiose and disingenuous conception of social and educational research which has been perpetuated from, reproduced mainly for the benefit of, the social and educational researchers.

IG: I'll buy that.... which is why we are now talking about the form of research which certainly has properties behind the - which is certainly attempted to engage in more everyday life kind of conversational forms of research... You may well be right that any form of interaction across such power divides inevitably exacerbates. I would be reluctant to accept that. I think that even if, if we for a moment could conceive of less grandiose forms of research, and I would hope that in some ways this might be one route to that, I would be reluctant to think that conversations across power divides could not enhance understanding because that would mean simply that groups can't talk to each other in any meaningful ways.

BT: Understandings of what? Understandings that they are members of oppressed groups?

IG: Well no. Let's push it a bit more. What about if, for example, let's take teachers and let's for a moment think of them as an oppressed group, which certainly some people would argue they are and certainly they have some properties of an oppressed group. Let's for a minute imagine that the kind of conversations around life history, around studying the teacher's life and work, led teachers to have much more vivid and cognitive maps of the groups of people that influence them, of the groups of people that oppressed them, and the groups of the sort of strategies that might work against those oppressive practices. And if those cognitive maps of resisting oppression or of understanding how oppressions are administered came out of the conversation that we are talking about, I would think that might enhance teachers' understanding of the world in which they live and work. I would think that would be a good thing.

BT: It's a liberal humanist position to adopt isn't it? They are all dressed up, to use Meatloaf's phrase, they are all dressed up with no place to go. OK. So now they know that the world is an oppressive place in which they live and there are certain things that have gone on in their life which have accentuated their vulnerability. What would you do about it?

IG: Mine might be a little humanist, yours sounds unduly determinist in the sense that.... to pursue the argument that when people have a better understanding of how they might politically and actively work for a better world, is meaningless. Is to cut up almost any possibility in action. Is that what you are doing?

BT: No. What I'm saying is that the life history methodology, with it's highly individualised focus, doesn't actually prepare the ground very well for collective action.

Barry makes tough demands on researchers and research by implying that outcomes should lead to social change (Troyna, 1994c). Traditionally one of the chief values attributed to life history, it's 'supreme' value in Herbert Blumer's opinion, is it's ability to take seriously 'the subjective factor in social life' (Blumer, 1979, p.81). 'Giving voice' through life history to marginalised peoples is clearly not in itself going to result in structural changes but there are few methodologies which have this effect (but see Fay, 1987; Harvey, 1990). What life history does do is make accounts of experience accessible to others and raise the awareness of the life storytellers when these things would not have happened without the research.

And accounts of experience are important factors in the process of social change. Rosa Park's story, for example, constitutes a form of life story which most of it's hearers could historicise and contextualise and who knows how many people were politically mobilised by hearing it. It is, however, true that a focus on individuals can mean that the power of social constructions and imperatives to influence lives is neglected. It can isolate individuals by appearing to privilege their experiences, thus preventing them from joining with others in some form of collective action. And it can also lead to erroneous assumptions that either every one else belonging to the same group shares the same experiences, or that the individuals concerned are completely idiosyncratic 'one offs'.

Whilst maintaining that 'one-on-one' work is of value, Ivor does, however, have a strategy to minimise some of the effects of individualised life history. This involves groups of two or three teachers working collaboratively together on their life stories and life histories. Barry found this a more attractive proposition.

The corollary of the question, what of value do respondents get out of life history work is, what do researchers get from it? This question applies, of course, to all types of research, but it may have added poignancy here.

BT: The reality is that Professor Ivor Goodson will go to New Orleans and Kings College, London, and here, there and everywhere to talk about this research. That's the reality. There is an inevitability about that that may be over determined. How would you respond to the claim, therefore, that, that to use perhaps an indelicate phrase of Patti Lather, you are simply involved in 'rape research'?....

IG: I think it's, again, I don't think you can give total admissions or definitive restrictive answers to what might or might not be there. It's obviously quite conceivable that this could be presented as 'rape research' in a sense that, yes, I have these conversations and then I go off to other arenas and talk to different audiences, in different ways about these things. But it begs the question of what I do in these other audiences and other places. If I thought that I gave addresses which presented the people I've talked to in an unwitting and unwilling light, then yes, that would obviously be a prime case of rape 'research', but it begs the question very much, of what I talk about. As a matter of fact, I never talked about anyone's life history in the places that you've just talked about. So I never talk about those personal histories in a personal way in those places. I do talk about the methodological and ethical issues that they raise and the possibility that this may be 'rape research', but then that's something that I should talk about and it's important to talk about in those hallowed halls of the academy. But, I mean, all I'm saying is that it begs the question of how one talks about this research in other places. One might talk about it in a way that does confirm the allegation of 'rape research', or one might talk about it in ways that raise issues which in some sense resonate with the concerns of the prior collaborative life history work. So it may or may not be exploitative.

BT: But the rhetoric still remains, doesn't it, in so far as you talk in terms of the three stages of narration, collaboration, location and hope that with the subject you will achieve those goals. You can go through those stages and achieve it. That's the ambition, that's the aspiration and it may or may not happen. What will happen is that ultimately you have responsibility, the research team has the responsibility for selecting, filtering and representing that person's life in the academy, either personally through being invited to talk in New Orleans, or through the written word of an article in the Journal of Education Policy or whatever. So there is no doubt whatsoever that you will benefit as a researcher from this activity. There is some doubt that the life history teller will benefit. That's more dubious.

IG: Absolutely true.

BT: OK, if you accept that, is it morally reprehensible to engage black people in this project, given your own hegemonic position as a white, male, Professor?

IG: For a white project on black people?

BT: Yeah, that's right, I don't want to develop a hierarchy of oppression... Well, maybe I would focus on black people because it is well documented that this has been, this relationship of the colonised is well documented in the literature.

IG: But what you are asking is a question that seems to me to move beyond blackness.

BT: Yeah

IG: This is a question about researchers, privileged researchers in this case, dealing with groups at other levels of their hierarchy, normally subordinate positions. I don't know. I don't know how you resolve that... I've just done a summer school where I was doing life history work with principals and administrators who are, I think you'd admit, a less oppressed group than some of the groups of teachers we've been talking about. By researching upwards you turn some of these issues on their heads, but that isn't the way out of the problem. I mean the issue is if you are researching or conversing with, or however you want to present the relationship, oppressed groups, you are implicated in the differential power structures of society. But frankly I can't see any way that you could suspend that. You can either try and deal with it and seek not to exacerbate it and to confront and to find strategies that resist it in your work as far as you can, but you are still, since you are located in a power structure, you are still implicated. And you are as well as them.

This part of the conversation touches on the issue of whose story is the research really about? The life story teller has their story that they tell, and others that they don't tell, and the researcher has the story that they tell when writing up the research which, in itself, is a part of their wider life story. What happens when the storyteller's story doesn't fit in with that of the researcher? Ivor's project focuses on ethnic minority teachers so he clearly has a story that he wants to tell in which experiences relating to 'race' and racism are expected to play a part. What happens if the teachers themselves do not recount such experiences?
BT: OK, so if from this project you had two or three appointments with life history tellers and the issue of ethnicity, racism did not emerge, would that not prove troublesome to you?

IG: I think it would not worry me at all if it didn't emerge in the, what I call, early stages of narration of the script. It would worry me enormously if in the interactive collaboration and the discussion it wasn't raised because I would expect to raise it... One of my questions in that next phase would be, 'OK, you've told me your life story but I don't have any sense of you as a black man and that is what I see in front of me, why is that?' So yeah, I would pose it in that form, but the important point to grasp is, I would be posing that question in a very different way to the way we talked about using it yesterday. Where you go in and say, 'OK, you're a black man, tell me about it'. One way you'd obviously get that, the other way, you've got a longer run at the issue and I much prefer my strategy to yours.

BT...But the issue didn't come up with Walter (one of the life storytellers in Ivor's project)

IG: It didn't with Walter yet... but that's not over yet.

BT: But that's 300 pages (of transcript)!

IG: Yes that's 300 pages but what we've still got to do.... is go back and raise a lot of other issues about location..... Walter and I need a conversation about that before we push at some new questions.

For Kathleen Casey's self-confessed 'activist' women teachers, 'being a black teacher means ''raising the race''; accepting personal responsibility for one's people, and, especially, for the education of all black children' (1993, p.152). Talking about their 'race' and their experiences of racism was part of the life story they chose to tell Kathleen. This was not the case for Walter and Ivor, or at least, the issue did not appear to have arisen. On one level, perhaps, life historians have to accept that people tell the story that they, for whatever reason, want to tell to the person who is listening. If this does not involve their 'blackness' then that has to be accepted as part of the methodology. They can be asked, and the reasons why they may not wish to talk about this may be illuminating, but it is up to them and then to the researcher's interpretation which they may or may not agree with.

But it also depends, to some degree, on what questions are asked. In the present case, the pertinent question is, is it possible to talk about 'race' and racism without emphasising 'otherness'? Barry asked this:
BT: How would you respond to the observation that what this project is doing is strengthening the sense of otherness? A tendency that characterises race relations research, where decontextualising black people from the normal conceptualisation of the teacher identifying the others as odd, different or deviant while naturalising whites in that role. How would you respond to that?

IG: I think I would respond with a counter to you which is to say that by going out and pushing from the beginning to blackness and other issues, you're doing that.

BT: I'm responding to a research agenda in a tactical way. The research agenda has been set by you and your colleagues and that research agenda differentiates black teachers from others.

IG: Yeah, but you see, in some ways you want it both ways there. Which is that you're saying that you want us to get at this sense of otherness and that it hasn't come out yet, and then you are turning around and telling me that I'm strengthening their sense of otherness. You can't have it both ways. The truth is, I think, we've tried in ways that are not always successful, I would accept that, to try and deal with the question of otherness, which is undoubtedly there with any of them, whether that be a racial other or an other, other we've tried to deal with that in ways that give a reasonable degree of voice to the beginning, to the person, to phrase that particular question as they will themselves. Now that doesn't get me off the hook of otherness but it allows the otherness to be dealt with by them, rather than from day one by you when you go straight in and say, 'OK, tell me...' No, I don't think either of those solves the problem of how we've researched otherness. They are just two different ways of going at it, I think. And I wouldn't, I think, claim priority for this method but I think it's at least a sustainable way of approaching a considerable problem in our society.
Holding On Together
Conversations with Barry
Date of interview:
Location of interview:
University of Western Ontario, Canada
Ivor Goodson / Barry Troyna
Trentham Books
Life History
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Appears in:
Researching Race and Social Justice Education - Essays in Honour of Barry Troyna

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