What Counts as Research?

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“Every research activity is an exercise in research ethics; every research question is a moral dilemma, and every research decision is an instantiation of values.”

                                    –Joshua W. Clegg and Brent D. Slife

I’ve been asking myself this titular question for the last year or so and especially in the last months as I’ve been working to revise the research section in the next edition of The Everyday Writer. I’ve been encouraging students to see storytelling as part of the research process and to look for sources in what might seem like unexpected places: back porch gatherings, attic archives, cookbooks and diaries, and many forms of oral knowledge. And from all kinds of people, not just experts sanctioned by print publication. People like my grandmother, for instance, who graduated from the 9th grade—the highest grade available in her county—but was a walking archive of local knowledge, including ways to make medicines from plants that she had learned from the indigenous people there. I treasure the tape recordings I made with her when she was 95—but only recently have I thought of her as a bonafide “source” for research.

I’ve been reading, too, as you probably have as well, trying to stretch my thinking beyond Eurocentric research models and methods. Most recently, I’ve been studying the second edition of Bagele Chilisa’s Indigenous Research Methodologies:

Social science research needs to involve spirituality in research, respecting communal forms of living that are not Western and creating space for inquiries based on relational realities and forms of knowing that are predominant among the non-Western Other/s still being colonized. . . . I belong to the Bantu people of Africa, who live a communal life based on a connectedness that stretches from birth to death, continues beyond death, and extends to the living and nonliving. (2)

Chilisa goes on to argue persuasively that research communities must expand what counts as knowledge and knowledge production and practice, as well as who counts as a valid and valuable source. She asks that Indigenous peoples of all worlds be given equal rights “to know, to name, to talk, and be heard” (4).  

Recognizing the need to decolonize research methods and procedures is a first step, and it is one that Chilisa and other Indigenous researchers are helping us take. But it is only a small first step. Going beyond recognition to action, to actual change in practices, requires much more knowledge and understanding and involves, as does all research, important ethical questions. When Chilisa calls for more and better cross-cultural partnerships and collaborations, for instance, she warns that social justice research that uses these practices must change them, to make certain that they are completely inclusive. That would include using Indigenous forms of gathering information as well as Indigenous analytical frameworks—no easy task for researchers schooled only in Western traditions.

I am left, after reading this book, with more questions than answers, especially about how first-year student researchers may learn and practice research based on Indigenous as well as Western principles and procedures. My approach thus far is to move very slowly on this project while I continue to read and to learn from colleagues like Bagele Chilisia, to whom I am mightily indebted. I’ll write more as I learn more, and I would love to learn from YOU.

Image Credit: "Weathered Porch" by Thomas James Caldwell, used under a CC BY-ND 2.0 license

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.