Where does social research cross the line?

I am sitting in a tiny plane, travelling to a tiny Australian town to facilitate two sides of a very big debate. “What on earth will these decent, hard working country folk make of a ‘social researcher’ from Melbourne in their midst”? I ask myself. To this group there is a clear set of issues; points of difference which, surely, no amount of ‘social research’ can hope to reconcile. They are probably expecting a judge or a professional negotiator, so I’m going to have to position myself carefully if they are going to have faith in the process I put before them. Time to recline, sip tea and consider the boundary between data collection and conflict resolution.

Analysing people’s language and behaviour to elicit a deeper response certainly requires research skills, but it is exactly this kind of probing and empathy which takes the researcher beyond observation towards a distinct intervention. In my early in–depth interviewing days I discovered that respondents viewed my interest in them as an opportunity to contemplate experiences they may never have had the luxury to talk about. I remember interviewing an elderly couple in Hobart after a bushfire affected their suburb. The recent fire, coupled with my arrival at their doorstep – notebook in hand, were enough to bring back their traumatic memories of the 1967 Tasmanian Fires which left 62 people dead, 900 injured and over seven thousand homeless. For communities that are encouraged to pick themselves up and carry on after disaster, stories, and the feelings that accompany them, are often bottled–up; sometimes for years.

It is this cathartic element of social research which often enables people to move away from their initial position or ‘gut feeling’, towards a greater acceptance of different perspectives. The transition, if well facilitated, can be almost entirely driven by the respondent’s own reflective thought processes; a factor which makes people far more accepting of the conclusions they reach.

As rubber hits tarmac in a puff of blue–grey smoke, I am jolted into a resolution that my presence is in this community is required for a number of very good reasons. By introducing an element of third–party objectivity to a contentious debate, the participants can enter a space that they rarely visit in daily life. The process of enquiry will enable the hitherto adversarial participants to take a broader view and, with any luck, identify common ground on which they can enter into a more amicable dialogue. Buoyed by my rather self congratulatory train of thought, I disembark the aircraft and walk with confidence to test my theory.

Tom Lowe