Self-observation/Critical Reflection-in-research and Critical Reflection-on-research

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Rodríguez, Noelie and Alan Ryave. Systematic Self-Observation (Series: Qualitative research methods series – Volume 49). London: Sage, 2002.

Systematic self-observation (SSO) is a process for paying attention to a specific feature of one's normal experience. This method holds that important insights into social life can emerge through seeking to discover, describe and understand the familiar and mundane. Like Sawyer’s approach to improvisation, SSO is rooted in Erving Goffman’s work on the practice of everyday life, while also drawing on psycholinguistics and conversation analysis in conjunction with ethomethodology and symbolic interactionism. Phenomena studied with this approach include making and withholding compliments and lying and spreading rumours, though it also applies to non-verbal interactions such as shaking hands, smiling, and nodding.

Noelie Rodriguez and Alan Ryave provide a useful description of SSO in their text Systematic Self-Observation as part of the series Qualitative Research Methods. As the authors assert, this empirical approach values subjective experience, introspection and the everyday details that are sometimes too “soft” or idiosyncratic for study by rigorous social scientific investigation. At the same time, SSO recognizes the inherent biases of highly structured scientific research methods. These include their inability to accommodate insights not directly pertaining to the research question as well as their failure to account for the complex, situated, occasioned, fast-paced and improvised reality of social life. Another benefit of SSO is that it privileges the informant’s interpretation of “their actions done or their words said.” In contrast to other approaches for intra-psychic study, the researchers do not interpret the findings through interviewing the informants. Rather the data is written in the informants’ own words. Consequently, Rodriguez and Pyave recognize the value of SSO beyond scientific research; their text includes useful discussion on its application to pedagogical, spiritual and other practices.

SSO asks informants to stay mindfully attentive—watching for the natural appearance of a particular and recurrent behaviour. Discerning an aspect of life practice for study is therefore the first step in this approach. Rodriguez and Ryave describe this as follows:

The informants are told to just observe when the phenomenon shows up. For example, when the topic of study was withholding compliments, our informants were told:

Go about your daily social life as you normally do. Observe when you find yourself withholding a compliment. Do not withhold a compliment on purpose, do not alter your behaviour—just observe it.

Once you become aware that you are withholding a compliment: Do not judge it or question it.

JUST observe it.

The second step involves describing this aspect in written form. Accurate description begins to emerge after the course of several cycles of discernment and documentation, making SSO a kind of longitudinal study. Rather than analyze these descriptions, the field notes should only describe what occurred. Critical reflection comes at the end of the process, ideally resulting in greater self-understanding.

SSO will serve me as a tool for critical self-awareness. Through blogging about the intersubjective aspects of my collaborative engagement in a private journal over the last year, I have recognized the need to isolate and address certain actions, many of which pertain to my dual role as project collaborator and facilitator. As a technique for considering the relationship between specific actions and the constitution of my collaborative subjectivity, SSO may also help elucidate the notion of the “collaborative subject” that underpins my research.

Significantly, this approach shares many of the principles of Donald Schön’s concept of reflection-on-action with one important distinction: SSO focuses on a particular action, thereby making it a more fine grained version of methods like Schön’s. Both the specificity and sensitivity of this approach are well-suited for observing the minutiae of collaborative art practice, where the discrete utterances of individual interlocutors can have a profound impact on group dynamics. By using SSO to sensitize myself to the impact of my specific actions on other collaborators and their response to my actions in turn, I aim to develop a personal way of collaborating that is more considered, creative and empathetic.

To supplement SSO as a method focused on a specific behaviour, I propose to use Schön’s paired processes of reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. The former is defined as an action-present—“a period time, variable with context, during which we can still make a difference to the situation at hand—our thinking serves to reshape what we are doing as we are doing it.” As discussed in the methods section on improvisation, being able to respond to circumstance—be it dialogic, technical or otherwise—is a core skill of collaboration. I will therefore adopt Schön’s approach in an attempt to become more cognizant of what I am doing while I am doing it.

Collaboration, however, involves many kinds of “doing,” which is where reflection-on-action figures in my research. In addition to the private blog mentioned above, I have also started brief notes on the Critical Practice wiki charting the development of my wiki use. Additionally, I will begin keeping a public blog on the various projects comprising my research at Weekly reflections written in a style and tone appropriate for their online publication will track the development of my research overall.

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