SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONISM AS A FOUNDATION FOR THE RESEARCH

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CHAPTER 3: RESEARCH INQUIRY

INTRODUCTION

In this chapter, I have detailed how reality in the context of the current research process has been created through the sharing of dreams about student leadership in a South African university. This action was facilitated by the use of a social dream drawing technique. Once the dreams had been shared in a social context, the process of creating a reality’ around this issue was studied by way of discursive psychology through a psychosocial lens. Such a psychology is defined as an umbrella term that refers to social constructionist or critical psychology approaches, focused on the analysis of language and discourse (Nightingale & Cromby, 1999). The landmarks in this chapter include the details of the research process such as the research approach, strategy and method as well as the strategies employed to ensure quality, research ethics and reporting.

POSITIONING THE INQUIRY

To reach a decision on the research methodology, design and the methods, it was very important to consider the best fit research approach, including the data analysis method, the nature of the data and its components as well as the best way possible to report the data while prioritising the ways to ascertain rigour in order to articulate the findings regarding the research question. As such, aligned to the pluralism stance of this thesis, a methodological pluralism was adopted. This also means that a binocularity position was taken in data analysis. Below, in Figure 3.1, a diagram depicts the approach taken in the methodology used, in an integrated manner.
The investigation was positioned within pluralism, as indicated, providing for the adoption of methodological pluralism as inspired by Barnes, Caddick, Clarke, Cromby, McDermott, Willis and Wiltshire (2014) and binocularity similar to Frosh and Young (2008). Hence more than one approach or method (Frost, 2011; Ussher, 1999) was used for data analysis. It is said that this way of doing research creates a platform to study complex social questions using multiple methods (Chamberlain et al., 2011). The approach seemed to promote innovation and creativity, extending the scope of the research as well as appearing to deepen the scope of the data (Frosh & Saville Young, 2008; Werzt, 2011). As a result, pluralism afforded me the opportunity to examine different levels of the data in various ways that could be integrated (Chamberlain et al., 2011).

POSITIONING THE INQUIRY CONTEXT

The current research was set in a South African university context. These universities are described as higher education institutions composed of public and private universities (Higher Education Act 101, 1997). Other universities in South Africa include those that are small campuses of foreign universities, which would mostly fall in the category of private universities (Le Grange, 2011). The university of interest in this study is a public one (Universities in South Africa http://www.dhet.gov.za/SitePages/UniversityEducation.aspx). When conducting this research, embedded in social constructionism, it was important to understand this setting. In social constructionist research, the research data is informed by context and culture within the setting. This demanded my having insight concerning these constructions in which the data are embedded as advised by the ideas of Burr, (2003); Hoggett, Beedell, Jimenez, Mayo and Miller, (2010); Jefferson and Hollway, (2005); and Willig, (2013). My insights allowed the credibility of the research to be strengthened (Creswell, 2014). I thus took this opportunity to express these insights in the following manner. In my time as a student at the same university where this thesis was researched, I had also spent time as a student leader. At the time of data gathering, I had been employed by the said university from which the data was gathered; more particularly, I was employed in the Department of Student Affairs where the central focus of my job focus was to work with student leaders. I am thus very familiar with the ins and outs of student leadership at this specific university. While I have noticed that there have been some changes, the nature of student leadership at this university has remained relatively unchanged from the time when I was actively involved.
The university where the research was conducted is situated in a relatively affluent area of the city. Students from a variety of backgrounds, including diversity of race, religion, communities, social class and social economic status, belief systems, political affiliations and convictions as well as their philosophy on life and the status of the country and current affairs are attracted to this university. With its origins in the previously predominant Afrikaans language, culture and societal positioning and with the biases that this kind of social category imposes, the turn-about in the political landscape of South Africa as well as the transformation that has been given as a task to institutions of higher learning seems to have brought about heterogeneous diversity into the university in terms of culture, race, social class, language, societal position and so forth (Sharp, 2006; Sharp & Vally, 2009). As such, the student population has altered over time, which in turn has resulted in the needs of the students changing.
Nevertheless, South African universities have carried over the culture of having Student Representative Councils (SRCs) over the years. As discussed elsewhere in this thesis, SRC’s display a history of occupying a political role which has resulted in the view that their role is to assist to administrate politics in the university context. As the student populations have undergone changes, the role of student leadership in university has also been challenged to evolve (Jansen, 2003; Luescher, 2010). According to my desktop research into university websites and in line with the work of Lumadi and Mampuru (2008) the student support departments in universities, where student affairs is the core business, are described as platforms wherein universities launch activities such as development initiatives, which may include leadership opportunities and /or development. These activities include the management of the SRC, which is a common leadership structure in South African universities, although not an exclusive one. Various universities have introduced other types of leadership structures, which either work with or diverge from the SRC. Most of these activities, however, seem to be managed within the student affairs related departments. This is the case in the context of this research, where the SRC and other student leadership structures are managed in the Student Affairs department. The Department of Student Affairs is headed by a Director of Student Affairs at the same university.

ARTICULATING THE RESEARCH STRATEGY

The purpose of a research strategy is to provide guidelines in terms of the manner in which the research will be conducted (Verschuren & Doorewaard, 2010). This may include deciding who would the participants be and why; how the question was answered, which relates to the data gathering methodology; what the appropriate framework to contextualise the data would be; what the data would represent when it has been transcribed and whether there is an appropriate resource to process the data in order to answer the research question and so on. As may be obvious from a reflexivity point of view (Jefferson & Hollway, 2005; Parker, 1997) the strategy might change, adjust or adapt during the research process, suggesting the iterative nature of qualitative research (Barbour, 2007). This required the researcher to be ‘in tune’ with the process (Willig, 2013). Moreover, when data is participant driven, the data provided by the participants could provide opportunities for the researcher to apply an open mind to the research process, which may play out in the reflections that are made on the data (Barbour, 2007; Parker, 2010).

Taking a pluralism stance

As indicated above, the principles of qualitative research in the context of social construction perspectives where a pluralism stance is taken, guided the strategy of this study. This strategy was deemed appropriate for a research approach that would incorporate social and psychological elements, given my interest in studying student leadership from a social constructionist perspective while simultaneously listening for the social dynamics, which contain emotional content (Clarke, 2002; Hollway & Jefferson, 2012). A psychosocial research approach was thus indicated as fit for purpose in that it examines both the social and psychological content of the data while maintaining interest in the discourse (Clarke & Hoggert, 2009; Parker, 2015). Furthermore, according to Clarke (2002), addressing unconscious forces and motivations adds another level of analysis to research that is social in nature and which gives us a deeper understanding of both individual experiences and social psychodynamics that operate in the construction of a research environment.

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The procedures

The student leaders who participated in this research were engaged with in their natural context. The natural context for student leaders has been accepted to be that of a university in South Africa. The procedures necessary to reach and involve them were as follows:
The appropriate gatekeepers were approached. Once the gatekeepers had been contacted and I had been welcomed into the environment, student leaders were invited to participate in the research process. Judgement (purposive) and volunteer sampling was used. During the group facilitation session, these leaders participated in a process of data gathering through the social dream drawing technique. This technique was chosen given its non–threatening nature, which created a conducive climate for deep and ‘close to home’ discussion to take place as taken from the work of Hollway and Jefferson (2012). It is also a method that is situated within psychosocial research (Long, 2013). The discussions were recorded and transcribed for the purpose of studying the conversation. In this case, it was studied by means of discourse analysis using a psychosocial lens (Boydell, 2009). Rigour, as underlying the procedures for this research, was an essential consideration. For me, this was of paramount importance, given the pluralistic perspective of this research. Greckhamer and Cilesiz (2014) have asserted that in terms of rigour, it is key to remain consistent and cognisant of the worldview and philosophical underpinning of the research, throughout the process. I thus focused on implementing the convictions of these authors of 2014, especially since I used discourse analysis (DA). Upholding research ethics and ethical conduct, according to the guidelines of the HPCSA, was also essential to me in terms of procedure.

Reflection and reflexivity

It is my view that in any research project, reflection is an important activity to engage in as a researcher (Valandra; 2012). According to Alvesson and Sköldberg (2000), reflection is the continuous assessment of the relationship between the researcher and the participants and of how this relationship impacts on the findings of the data. In addition, reflection is also the continuous assessment of the researcher’s openness to exposing their work to critical review, which Freshman, Cahill, Walsh and Muncey (2010) advocate as criteria for rigour. Furthermore, self–reflexivity is also essential. This includes my awareness of self within the process, including the influence I might exert on the process and on the research outcomes (Charmaz, 2006). I therefore engaged both in reflection and self-reflexivity by keeping a research diary where I wrote down all my experiences, emotions and thoughts regarding the research process. In addition, I collected newspaper articles that relate to the title of the research and I participated in close supervision as well as presenting my research at conferences (one international and one national); in this way exposing my work to debate, critical feedback, questioning and suggestions. Coming from a social constructionist worldview with a pluralistic stance, I was open to differences, while also being candid about how and why things were done (Chamberlain et al., 2011; Drummond, 2010; Greckhamer & Cilesiz, 2014).
Moreover, it is also important to note that in some sections of this document I do share my reflections with the reader (Clayton, 2013; Daley, 2010). At times, I share about the journey that I have been on to arrive at the decisions that I made and which I regarded as necessary in my approach to this project regarding methodology and methods. In the context of this research therefore, reflection as well as self-reflexivity allowed me in my researcher role to think through the strategy, over and over again as well as to allow for feedback where others, such as my research supervisor, were able to deepen and challenge my thinking regarding the research strategy. In particular I was able to thoroughly reflect on the use of a psychosocial research method alongside a social constructionism perspective. As a result, I enquired through literature searches, consulted with my research supervisor and explored the topic with colleagues. Another purpose for which I have used the avenues mentioned, occurred when I sorted out the logic in the flow between the chapters and within the chapters. Something I further think significant to mention is that at the beginning of the process, I had thought that I would include a separate literature review chapter in the thesis. This ambition was adjusted, given the iterative nature of the process. The final decision was to use literature in the integration chapter in a deductive manner, so as to weave it into the findings and interpretation of the data (Creswell, 2014; Demuth, 2013). This made the discussion of the latter fuller and thicker for me, by having to put everything in one place in an integrated manner. By this, I mean that my findings have been used to confirm what has already been established in literature. Furthermore, looking at my findings simultaneously with existing literature; it has also been possible to say what existing literature disputes in terms of my findings but also what seems to be different between my findings and the existing literature. Lastly, literature was relevant to provide evidence that my findings extend into the existing literature. I found this to be an efficient way of working and presenting my work. As a result, engaging in reflection and reflexivity, I pursued a more ethical and rigorous research process which I believe to be more transparent, a quality which has been noted to be important in qualitative research as alluded to by (Demuth (2013), Freshman et al. (2010) as well as Greckhamer and Cilesiz (2014).
Remaining flexible and ‘in tune’ with the flow of the data were particularly central and beneficial in this research process when considering the data studying method used. Additionally, these attitudes seemed important given my interest in how student leadership is socially constructed in a South African university as guided by the work of Burck (2005). This could at times result in an abstract outcome or even a complex and complicated one, which in turn, could pose questions about the methods used to establish trustworthiness (Barbour, 2007). On the other hand, the same question raises points of interest regarding issues of psychological processes related to the construction of reality concerning student leadership in a South African university: what is happening, how it is happening and why (Ford 2010; Parker, 1997). A detailed description regarding the research methodology journey that I undertook has been documented in this chapter. In essence, I would like to communicate the point that quite intentionally, I have prioritised reflection as a very important aspect of my research strategy.

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Upholding good ethical conduct

Throughout the above discussion, the point was made that it was central to this strategy to uphold good ethical conduct. This conduct was guided by the Health Professions Act, 1974; the ethical rules of the HPCSA Psychology Board, the generally accepted guidelines for research in the psychology field as well as the code of conduct signed with UNISA and the Faculty of Economic Management Sciences, the Department of Industrial and Organisational Psychology, including relevant documents and policies in the university where the student leaders were sampled. A further, in-depth discussion on ethical considerations is provided later on in this chapter.

Rigour

Ensuring rigour has also been important as part of the research strategy, particularly in terms of using discourse analysis. This is because, as Greckhamer and Cilesiz (2014) suggest, the process of maintaining a process of discourse analysis that can be verified by objective means remains challenging. Discourse interpretation is subjective and the study of language is dependent on the interpretive lens used to study the language as well as the means that reality is being constructed (Parker,2015). In this research furthermore, the discourse was studied with a psychodynamic lens which amplifies the volume of the subjectivity in the text that was interpreted to respond to the research question. Transparency, as suggested by Demuth (2013) and Greckhamer and Cilesiz (2014), has thus been an important principle to work with towards the credibility and the trustworthiness of the methods followed. Strategies used to ensure credibility and trustworthiness in this research are further discussed in section 3.6.11 in this chapter.

Gatekeepers and culture brokers

One of the essential role players to identify prior to the entrée step consisted of the culture broker(s) or gatekeeper(s). Culture brokers serve as potential recruiters of participants and may possess some inside knowledge regarding the values and culture of the potential participants (Liamputtong, 2010). In my case, a key culture broker was the student leader who has helped me with the recruitment of participants. In addition, gatekeepers are people in the community where the potential participants live and potentially hold the ‘keys’ to enter that community (Visser & Moleko, 2003). For this research, this role was held by one person – the Director: Student Affairs. I submitted the proposal to the Director the proposal of the research, a copy of the consent form, information letter as well as proof of registration at the University where I am registered as a student, not forgetting a copy of the ethical clearance granted by the same university to conduct this research.
In the case of this study; it appeared to me that the above activities were facilitated by the fact that at the time of data sampling and gathering, I had been employed in the same Department. The culture broking and efforts in terms of creating rapport and trust with the relevant role players were facilitated by my position as an insider.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
DECLARATION
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
TABLE OF CONTENTS
LIST OF TABLES
TABLE OF FIGURES
LIST OF APPENDICES
SUMMARY
CHAPTER 1: ORIENTATIONS
1.1 INTRODUCTION
1.2 BACKGROUND AND MOTIVATION
1.3 PROBLEM STATEMENT
1.4 AIM OF THE RESEARCH
1.5 SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONISM AS A WORLDVIEW FOR THIS RESEARCH
1.6 FUSING SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONISM WITH PSYCHOSOCIAL RESEARCH: A PLURALISTIC POSITION
1.7 RESEARCH DESIGN
1.8 FINDINGS
1.9 DISCUSSION
1.10 CONCLUSION, LIMITATIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
1.11 CHAPTER LAYOUT
1.12 IN A NUTSHELL
CHAPTER 2: SETTING THE WORLDVIEW SCENE
2.1 INTRODUCTION
2.2 WORLDVIEW OF THIS RESEARCH
2.3 MY JOURNEY WITH SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONISM
2.4 SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONISM AS A FOUNDATION FOR THE RESEARCH
2.5 RELATIVISM AND REALISM TENSION
2.6 MULTIPLE REALITIES IN SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONISM
2.7 SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONISM AND PSYCHOSOCIAL RESEARCH
2.8 LANGUAGE IN SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONISM
2.9 THE RELATIONAL PROCESS AND THE RELATIONAL SPACE
2.10 RELATIVITY AND SUBJECTIVITY
2.11 THE PLACE OF AGENCY IN A SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONIST STUDY
2.12 THE POSITION OF THE RESEARCHER IN SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION RESEARCH (AS A PRIMARY LENS)
2.13 IN A NUTSHELL
CHAPTER 3: RESEARCH INQUIRY
3.1 INTRODUCTION
3.2 POSITIONING THE INQUIRY
3.3 POSITIONING THE INQUIRY CONTEXT
3.4 ARTICULATING THE RESEARCH STRATEGY
3.5 RESEARCH APPROACH: QUALITATIVE RESEARCH
3.6 RESEARCH METHODS
3.7 REPORTING
3.8 LIMITATIONS OF THE METHODOLOGY CONSIDERED
3.9 IN A NUTSHELL
CHAPTER 4: FINDINGS – THE DREAMS
4.1 INTRODUCTION
4.2 THE SIX DREAMS OF THE SIX STUDENT LEADERS
4.3 A SUMMARY AND BRIEF INTEGRATION OF THE FINDINGS
4.4 IN A NUTSHELL
CHAPTER 5: INTEGRATION – FINDINGS AND LITERATURE
5.1 INTRODUCTION
5.2 LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS FOR DISCUSSION
5.3 DEFENDED STUDENT LEADERSHIP IDENTITY
5.4 IDENTITY IN STUDENT LEADERSHIP
5.5 RELATIONAL DYNAMICS
5.6 CONVERSATION ABOUT THE ANXIETY OF WORKING WITH DIVERSITY DYNAMICS
5.7 TRUST: THE KEY TO HOSTING THE CONVERSATION ABOUT DIVERSITY DYNAMICS IN A SOUTH AFRICAN UNIVERSITY
5.8 BLURRY
5.9 THE FLIPSIDE OF THE MIRROR
5.10 THE CO-CONSTRUCTION OF STUDENT LEADERSHIP IN A SOUTH AFRICAN UNIVERSITY: A SPACE FOR A CONVERSATION ABOUT THE ANXIETY OF WORKING WITH DIVERSITY DYNAMICS
5.11 IN A NUTSHELL
CHAPTER 6: REFLECTIONS, CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
6.1 INTRODUCTION
6.2 MY EXPERIENCE AS A STUDENT LEADER
6.3 MY LENS AS A UNIVERSITY EMPLOYEE
6.4 THE LIFE OF NEO IN THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF STUDENT LEADERSHIP IN A SOUTH AFRICAN UNIVERSITY
6.5 MY REFLECTION ON THE FINDINGS
6.6 CONCLUSIONS
6.7 CONTRIBUTIONS OF THIS STUDY
6.8 LIMITATIONS TO THE STUDY
6.9 RECOMMENDATIONS
6.10 IN A NUTSHELL
REFERENCES
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