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Higher Education Research &


Development
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The stories we need: anthropology,


philosophy, narrative and higher
education research
a

Cecily Scutt & Julia Hobson

Student Learning Centre, Murdoch University, Perth, Australia


Published online: 01 Feb 2013.

To cite this article: Cecily Scutt & Julia Hobson (2013) The stories we need: anthropology,
philosophy, narrative and higher education research, Higher Education Research & Development,
32:1, 17-29, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2012.751088
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2012.751088

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Higher Education Research & Development, 2013


Vol. 32, No. 1, 1729, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2012.751088

The stories we need: anthropology, philosophy, narrative and


higher education research
Cecily Scutt* and Julia Hobson

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Student Learning Centre, Murdoch University, Perth, Australia


As higher education research is largely practised by those immersed within the
university, the questions we ask, and the stories we tell, over time co-create the
university itself. Using Bruners concept of the narrative mode, we argue for a
revaluing of narrative and storytelling within higher education research. We
ground our discussion in examples of research challenges where traditional
quantitative methodologies leave certain things unsayable and look to our two
disciplines anthropology and philosophy for solutions to these challenges.
Anthropologys intimate and complex historical relationship with narrative offers
us a range of narrative devices unusual plots for research accounts, rich data,
an ability to tell individual stories in micro-time and wider group narratives.
Philosophy offers us a new view of imagination in epistemology and allows us
to extend the boundaries of sight beyond individuals, considering the possibility
of examining the university itself as a character, a reexive subject. We argue
that our disciplines capacities to tell these rare tales oddly shaped personal
narratives, group narratives, narratives with unusual characters, quests, reversals
and tricksters, and stories that ultimately morph back into questions allow us to
nd again some of the forgotten things of higher education research.
Keywords: anthropology; higher education research; narrative; phenomenology;
research methodologies

Introduction
As governments take an increasing role in dening good research (Holligan, 2011) in
the UK with the Research Assessment Exercise, with Australias Excellence in
Research for Australia and with New Zealands Performance-Based Research Fund
there is a risk of valorising some methodologies over others. In education research in
the USA, there has been a turn to the quantitative in the US National Research
Council reports in 2005 and the American Educational Research Association in 2006
(Freeman, deMarrais, Preissle, Roulston, & St. Pierre, 2007). Within higher education
research, this trend is mirrored in the strong presence of quantitative research methodologies in journals such as Studies in Higher Education (Tight, 2011).
Within qualitative research, Tights (2011) review also demonstrates that surveys,
interviews and documentary analysis greatly outnumber other forms. When the eld
of higher education research can be mapped by a few core concepts and approaches
(Kandlbinder, 2012), and researchers can refer to the ubiquity of interview-based
research in education (Tummons, 2012, p. 304), it is not surprising that a recent
review of the research literature in higher education journals has called for a broadening
of the eld (Haggis, 2009). In this paper, we argue that strategies from our original disciplines anthropology and philosophy may be of particular use in this broadening.
*Corresponding author. Email: c.scutt@murdoch.edu.au
2013 HERDSA

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C. Scutt and J. Hobson

Higher education researchers are immersed researchers all of us are products of


higher education and many of us currently research within its institutions. Thus,
even more than other forms of social research, our research makes specic methodological demands upon us (see also Stierer & Antoniou, 2004), particularly as our
research practice then helps co-create the university itself. It is thus impossible to get
outside the subject of our research. The strengths of our two different disciplines
are that they are effective in working in these kinds of contexts. Whilst recognising
that research contexts, epistemological positions, methodological frameworks,
methods and research questions often exist as a wicked and entangled problem
(Trowler, 2012), we argue that higher education research needs the strategies of our disciplines and, in particular, their use of narrative modes.
Writing as teachers of research students, working within a student learning centre,
we ask: what seems unsayable within traditional higher education methodological
approaches that methodologies from our separate disciplines would make sayable
once more? We nd this doubled disciplinary orientation leads us to surprisingly
similar conclusions about the necessity for personal narrative in research accounts,
about reexivity, the complex nature of subjectivity and agency and the role of forgotten things in telling stories in higher education research.
Thus we call on those strategies within anthropology and philosophy that invoke
what Jerome Bruner (1986) has called the narrative mode. In using the term narrative
here, we are following Bruners distinction between two modes of human thought. One,
which he calls the logico-scientic or paradigmatic mode, is looking for universal
truths truths independent of context. The other is the narrative mode, which
deals with vicissitudes of human intention (p. 16), which he argues is a basic category
of the human mind. Anthropology and philosophy have a long and detailed history in
applying, critiquing and rening the narrative mode.
Cultural anthropology has used personal narrative as a central authorising strategy
since its inception, and this has undergone a searching critique in the last few decades.
An understanding of this history offers us insight into both how to use narrative modes
well and how to grapple with their inevitable political pitfalls. Traditional anthropology
also allows more data into the picture portraying the intentionality and agency of
those we study through more literary writing and exploring change over micro-time,
which may be obscured within normative research modes. It also allows us to describe
individuals experiences of social life, and therefore education, within group processes.
Phenomenology asks questions over taken-for-granted concepts and allows us to
zoom out to the macro level, where questions of value and meaning reside. Phenomenological research begins with the lived world and explores meaning, interpretation
and understanding, rather than making claims for external objective forms of
knowing (Van Manen, 1997). It offers, therefore, a neat t for immersed researchers
in their lived experiences of higher education (Grant, 2008). It also offers opportunities
to listen for, and attend to, the role of imagination in epistemology and to what determines subjectivity.
We nd ourselves turning immediately to personal narrative to articulate the methodological and epistemological politics and challenges we face that is, we are using
narrative modes to make a case for narrative modes. As our paper moves from considering the use of personal narrative, to narratives of other individuals, to narratives of
group interaction and beyond that to wider and stranger possibilities, we celebrate
the capacities of our disciplines to tell increasingly rare tales: stories of heroes, tricksters
and peculiarly constituted characters; strangely shaped and reversed accounts, and

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stories that ultimately morph back round into questions once more. These are, we argue,
the stories and the questions that those of us in universities most need.
The anthropologist speaks
In making a case for the power of the narrative mode for higher education researchers, I
begin with a personal research narrative. I am currently attempting to write up a structured silent writing space run for research postgraduates for nearly four years. Most
Mondays of the year I have sat in a large, high-ceilinged room with a changing cast
of students and we have written, in utter silence, for three hours. I have spent hundreds
of hours there now, spoken to students afterwards and in the breaks and written in that
silence myself. I have lived through concerted campaigns to make me run more, run
them for longer or run them over two days and watched with great pleasure as,
encountering refusal, groups of participants have started to set up additional writing
spaces, using the same structure, for themselves. I would like to give an account of
this popular, silent, yet social, program and ask: how is it working and why is it
working?
My understanding of the norms of publishing in higher education research tends to
push me to offer a quantitative analysis. Thus 1175 evaluation sheets for the rst 3.5
years need to be entered into software, coded and analysed. The thousand pieces of
paper appear to have a weight that my own personal participation and observation
does not. A thousand sheets of paper cant be wrong, can they?
Yet if Im allowed to use narrative in depicting The Writing Space, I can tell the tale
of the exact moment when this program seeded off new student-run ones. I can write
about the quality of energy in the room the creative, generative, alive silence.
Using the coded data, on the other hand, all I can give you is a table with a column
for how many students wrote something like the atmosphere/ ambiance as a positive
aspect of the program. Which is stronger? Which is more truthful? Which more likely to
convince you to experiment with writing spaces too?
Perhaps we should be open to a report from the individual immersed researcher, the
theorising of teachers built on lived experience. This goes beyond the ethnography
practised by educational researchers (Hemer 2012; Tummons 2012), which tends to
emphasise the observation end of participant-observation (e.g. Paxton, 2012). Traditional anthropology allows us a richer facility with personal stories, narrating both
thick description and thick participation (Lillis, 2008, p. 382). These stories offer
some interesting models for higher education researchers.
Telling stories the anthropological way
Whenever pressed in debate over some point of theory or metaphysics, [older anthropologists] would shake their heads sadly, draw languidly on their pipes or stroke their beards
and mutter something about real people not tting the clear abstractions of those who
had never done eldwork. They evinced genuine pity for those deprived fellows, but
the matter was perfectly clear to them. They had been there, they had seen. There was
nothing more to say. (Barley, 1986, pp. 78)

Personal narrative has always played a particularly vital role for anthropology. Pratt
(1986) argues that the presence of personal narrative in traditional ethnographic
writing plays the crucial role of anchoring [the] description in the intense and

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C. Scutt and J. Hobson

authority-giving personal experience of eldwork (p. 32). Ethnographic authority lies


in the writers claim to have really been there, and to represent that to the reader.
The ethnographer, as many commentators have argued, is anthropologys research
instrument (Lewis, 1999; Powdermaker, 1966). Even the most objectivist accounts
must draw on that magical experience of interpersonal and cross-cultural encounter
(Peace, 1990, p. 18). Thus, it is important to represent oneself in the eld, to establish
ones presence using narratives of arrival (Pratt, 1986) and to make claims for the length
of association with the people one is studying. Traditional ethnographic texts will also
tell you how closely they lived with their people. All this self-representation must be,
as Malinowski (1978) exhorted us in 1922, absolutely candid and above-board (p. 2).
The concern with lengthy immersion is still with us. Goody (2005), for example,
praises French anthropologist Godelier for the length of his eldwork among the
Baruya, and makes a clear assumption that this authorises Godeliers wider work on
kinship. Similarly, when discussing what strengthens validity in qualitative research,
Freeman et al. (2007) also valorise extended immersion: Being there matters
(p. 28).
If traditional ethnography already had recourse to personal narrative as an authorising gesture, the advent of feminist, postmodernist and postcolonial voices has only
strengthened the presence of autobiography in ethnographic writing. An increasing
attention to ethnographic representations, and an increasingly anxious discussion of
the linked problematics of ethnographic writing and ethnographic practice, became
visible in the large edited collections by Behar and Gordon (1995), Clifford and
Marcus (1986) and many others (on this see Geertz 2002; Wolf, 1992). This conversation called for foregrounding the researcher within the text as well as more clearly discussing the role of the researcher in the eld. Feminist theorists also consistently called
for researchers to make themselves explicitly present in research accounts (Hartsock,
1987; Oakley, 1981; Stanley & Wise, 1983; and many others). If we recognise the
necessity for researchers to write themselves back in to the research text, an increasing
role for personal narrative becomes an ethical and political as well as methodological
necessity, not simply a strategy for claiming authority. Anthropologists concerns
here have also been reected in wider calls by qualitative researchers for reexivity
in research accounts (Holstein & Gubrium, 2011).
But in embracing personal narrative modes, anthropology then had to contend with
the problematic politics of narrative modes. Higher education researchers can learn
from the history of this struggle.

The problematic politics of quests


Traditional anthropology has often constructed personal narratives as quest narratives,
as ethnographic narratives traditionally involve journeying to the eld in far places
and exotic cultures. These accounts often resemble what Campbell (1972) calls a
hero quest, where the adventure involves a dangerous encounter with the exotic a
move away into otherness, the gaining of knowledge, transformation or treasure and
the return to home bearing boons and gifts. Here is anthropologist Paul Stoller
(1994), writing about his work in West Africa:
My implication in things Songhay has grown over a period of twenty years. During that
time, I have been a theory-testing anthropologist, a wide-eyed apprentice to sorcerers,
and a practitioner of sorcery. When, in 1979, a sorceress in the town of Wanzerb

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paralyzed me, I left the relative comforts of the Songhay social world and experienced for
the rst time the Songhay world of eternal war (p. 359, emphasis added)

This emphasis on long immersion, apprenticeship and questing beyond worlds certainly sounds like the classic quest, complete with trials and the triumphal return with
the ethnographic knowledge.
Thus, if we are going to look to anthropology for models of personal narrative, it
appears we are likely to write quest narratives, either openly or covertly. These kinds
of narrative may be particularly useful for the teacher-researcher, as ethnographys narrative of long immersion best matches research that, given the realities of research, only
teachers are likely to be able to sustain. Further, the problematic role of an ethnographer
in the eld, often strongly marked for difference, maps in interesting ways onto a
teacher attempting participant observation, also across the visible power differences
of teacher and student.
But hero quests as plots inevitably encode problematic politics. The most trenchant
critique of the quest plotline comes from feminist literary theory. Some critics argue
that quests can be reclaimed for women, where others call for writers to go beyond
quests to multivocal narratives, reversals, subjects in the process of dissolution and,
indeed, language in the process of dissolution (Daly & Caputi, 1988; DuPlessis,
1985; Weedon, 1987). These twists on the hero quest are fruitful, and are visible
within the work of experimental ethnographers (Scutt, 2002). They are models we
can apply to the construction of personal narratives in higher education research.
Thus, in writing about The Writing Space, rather than seeing myself as a hero
cracking a culture (Mead, 1973), I might represent myself as an initiate being
instructed by powerful others as Bell (2002) does in her account of learning from
Warrabri women. Or I might start to disrupt the quest and write an account of increasing
confusion and loss of condence (a Descent of Inanna tale) as Briggs (1970) did in her
painful account of eldwork among the Utku. I might write a reversal plot, looking at
how my subjects saw me, as Dumont (1978) did in his classic ethnography of the
Panare. I might more radically disrupt the quest account, as Tsing (1993) does in her
study of the roving Meratus who do not stay passively in the eld, by putting my
own subjects on the move perhaps by recognising that The Writing Space participants themselves are researchers writing up research in this space. Or I might become
more deconstructive, as Visweswaran (1994) does, examining perhaps my own mixed
subjectivity as both teacher of, and writer within, this writing space.
Anthropologys facility with personal narrative, and its historical struggle with the
politics of personal narratives, offer us insight into not only how we might appropriately
portray the researcher in higher education research, but provocative models for new plots.

Stories, time and the individual


In a recent review of higher education research journals, Haggis (2009) argues that
current epistemologies tend to ignore different types of dynamic interaction and
process through time (p. 389), as well as struggling with the complex and the eeting.
Similarly, McArthur (2012) has called for expanded methods, including ctional strategies (p. 424). Anthropology may offer some answers here.
The relationship between anthropology and literary writing has always been intimate. Malinowksi (1978) in 1922 was already exhorting ethnographers to be exact
but not dry (p. xvii). More experimental ethnographies explicitly use dialogue

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C. Scutt and J. Hobson

(Behar, 1993), individual characters (Abu-Lughod, 1993) and claim, as Stoller (1994)
does, to work more like a novel than an anthropological monograph (p. 360). Clifford
Geertz, famous for calling for thick description, has admitted himself a novelist
manqu (as cited in Olson, 1991, p. 3). This kind of writing allows in a lot of
complex data. St Pierres (1997) claim that her research project involved transgressive data, such as emotions, dreams and sensory appreciation of landscape, is not particularly transgressive for experimental ethnography, or even for earlier eldwork
accounts such as that of Briggs (1970).
Furthermore, this more literary use of narrative invites time and agency into the
picture events played out by multiple human agents over time which traditional quantitative research may obscure. It thus returns Bruners intentionality and its vicissitudes
to research accounts it has the potential to animate research (Holstein & Gubrium,
2011) and it responds to Haggis call for the representation of process through time.
For example, in the case of The Writing Space research, a central experience was
the student campaign to get more spaces set up, and the moment when they started
to set up their own. It might be possible to nd a peak of campaigning in the quantitative analysis of surveys, but it would also be possible to lose this history in the background radiation of requests to run it more often, especially if the coding was
clumped into semesters. But the lived experience of this, and the web of intentions,
is not visible in the quantitative data. The best source for seeing these human actions
unfold is still my own account, which of course may not be valid. Yet seeding
like this is surely the ultimate success of a program?
Allowing individual narratives space further allows us to recognise that if something is happening among a group of people, the same thing is not happening to
each person. This is a vital insight for educational research. The push for quantitative
evidence in education research criticised by Freeman and her colleagues (2007), above,
has perhaps been inuenced by the notion of evidence-based medicine. Anthropologys
attention to understanding within-group interactions makes the aw in this analogy
clear. Researchers can give individuals different drugs, or dosages, and track the
varying effects. But a group of people in a classroom are not all getting the same
dosage of education. There are group dynamics different people may encounter
very different events within that classroom. In The Writing Space, one person may
be happily typing loudly, while another just beside them fumes in silent annoyance.
This makes simple variables difcult.
Anthropological theory also allows us to talk about group experiences. The value of
The Writing Space appears to lie not simply in uninterrupted space to write, though that
is certainly helpful. Student verbal comments about motivation, about community and
about collegiality speak consistently about something else, as does my own lived
experience of writing in such a place. This educational intervention relies on a
group, and involves a group dynamic, albeit a silent one. Anthropological theory
may better help us understand what is happening here. With a theory about the lived
experience of group life, and in particular ceremony and ritual, we might better understand why students prefer to come to this program than sit at home or in their ofces and
write quietly there for three hours instead.
Why anthropology?
An understanding of narratives role in ethnography reminds us that research accounts
are always personal and embodied stories, and that identifying the teller of the story is

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vital. It further makes clear that our portrayals of ourselves researching are likely to
draw on our own cultural stories, especially if we are not conscious of what we are
doing. This awareness makes it possible to choose different plots and portrayals, as ethnographers, especially the feminists, have increasingly done.
Anthropology also offers higher education research more literary, emotional and
sensory writing, writing that emphasises agency and enables us to explore change
over micro-time, which may be obscured within normative methodologies. It also
remains conscious that individuals experience social life and, therefore, education,
within group processes.
Anthropology also has its disruptive moment disrupting our taken-for-granted
norms by telling persuasive stories of cultural others (Scutt, 2002). In higher education
research, we might do this by looking at education in very different cultures to cast
doubt on our own concept of a university. In this way, anthropology uses its rich
capacity for telling stories to question larger stories a provocative use of the narrative
mode.
The philosopher speaks
Working as an academic for the past 25 years, I have noticed many things that lie
hidden and forgotten in the crevices and cracks of teaching and learning at the university. I catch quiet glimpses of these forgotten things as I go about my teaching. One
such is the experience of partaking in thinking. As Birkerts (1994) remarks, All is relative, relational, Einsteinan. Thinking is now something I partake in, not something I do
(p. 11). This is a phenomenon that I have noticed over the years, that sometimes thinking arrives in the room. Hopefully, this occurs when I am teaching a class (but I have to
admit, not always) but when thinking does arrive often sitting quietly in a corner
everybody in that room, whether they are talking or listening or writing or reading,
perks up a little. There is a general rise in the level of intelligence and it is a collective
rise, like catching a wave: we are all carried along to a greater height. Part of what I
hope to do, as a teacher, is to invite thinking into the room by actively practising quietness and then, sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I see thinking slowly sidle in.
However, I nd little in the quantitative methodologies used in higher education
research to assist me in explaining or reporting my experience of thinking (or mind)
as an external phenomenon that has an independent existence from individual minds.
So it is to philosophy, my original discipline, that I turn and, in particular,
phenomenology.
Phenomenology generates detailed, careful descriptions of everyday things and
begins with embodied experience to nd a path between the extremes of objectivity
and subjectivity. Phenomenology analyses bodily skills, habits and language and so
allows for the intention/s of the researcher into the research data. Whilst phenomenography has been extensively used in higher education research (Entwhistle, 1997;
Svensson, 1997), it has tended to focus on the intentionality of the student and
glossed over the intentionality of the teacher. The phenomenological experience of
the teacher tends to be removed as the focus is on the texts generated by the researched
subjects (Bowden & Green, 2005). Staying with the text generates one set of data but
does not (necessarily) allow in the rst-hand point of view of the researcher, which may
be discounted as merely personal. Yet, if we take the epistemological position of both
phenomenology and phenomenography that knowledge is relational, then the direct
access to the experience of the researcher becomes central to the account. This is to

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return phenomenography to its original phenomenological roots. Beyond this, phenomenology also allows us to interrogate the taken-for-granted in higher education, such
as the role of imagination and subjectivity.
Methodological imagination: a forgotten thing
All good stories include imagination and yet, historically, sound methodology has been
seen as based on facts that have been pruned of subjective imaginings. However, if
research into higher education stays with a general logocentric methodology, it
misses the imaginative leap that lies at the heart of epistemology. Western philosophy
has a tradition of denigrating imagination as an epistemological tool, while at the same
time using imagination as a method of convincing the reader. For example, as Casey
(2000) shows, when Descartes sits in front of the re with the candle burning and
begins his narrative in the Meditations, he soon asks us to make a leap of the imagination and consider the possibility of being deceived by an omnipotent evil genius.
Further, he asks us to believe that all our experiences, past, present and future, are
not be trusted. It seems we have wandered into a mystery thriller! At the end of the
Meditations, imagination is abandoned and discarded; it has no role, according to Descartes, in epistemology, and his initial reliance on it is forgotten (p. 223).
Whilst Cartesian doubt as a methodological tool aims to remove the researchers
subjectivity as a way to guarantee validity and avoid the tainting of data by bodily feelings and experiences, a phenomenological methodology embraces the details and
nuances of bodily, experiential knowing and allows the data generated to speak for
itself. A useful tool to do this is methodological believing (Elbow, 2000). Both
doubt and belief are equally useful and necessary as ways to test feasibility and validity
in research. Both are orientations that can be taught and neither commits the researcher
to a conclusion. Belief asks the researcher to test data by rst wholeheartedly believing
in it and then later discarding parts that do not t, as opposed to the doubting approach
of building up coherency through analysing and critiquing the parts, which are then
later tted together. Including both expands the methodological tool-box and allows
me to ask of the phenomenon of the thinking entering the room: are you a subject?
And if so what else has subjectivity in higher education? And is it possible to tell
the story of the larger narrative in which the subjectivity of the institution acts?
Institutional subjectivity
A current story told by one keen observer of higher education, Ronald Barnett (2011),
begins with the question: Just what is it to be a university? (p. 439). He answers his
own question via a neat historical typology of universities: metaphysical, research,
entrepreneurial, liquid, therapeutic and authentic. His contention is that we must
strive for the best possible idea of a university under present conditions and he calls
for the coming of the ecological university a university that acts in the interests
of both the human and physical world (p. 452) and that engages with the responsibilities embedded into the work of critique to generate hope and change This is a university that takes seriously both the worlds interconnectedness and the universitys
interconnectedness with the world (p. 451).
Taking interconnectedness seriously means we must also consider the connections
that link higher education research to higher education researchers. My contention is
that since the researchers of higher education are the researchers in higher education,

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research choices (methodology, theoretical framework and epistemological assumptions) over time help to co-create what it is to be a university.
One way to read Barnett (2011) is to inquire what narrative form is implicit in Barnetts story of developing feasible utopias (p. 440) for a university. Barnett actively
casts the university as a character in its own story and states: The university has
both being and time; and its being is in time (p. 445). He talks of the intentionality
(p. 446) of the university and of it being true to its own self (p. 450). He tells a story of
the university, which begins in innocence with the metaphysical university where
knowing and being are naively linked with each other and to the sacred beyond.
Then there is the fall from grace into the research university, where knowledge is
divided by categories and research generates power and control. Competition
between universities and the marketing of the commodities of knowledge lead to the
entrepreneurial university, which exists primarily as, and in, its performance. At this
point in the story the subjectivity of the university is open to possibilities, the time is
ripe for change.
Is Barnett casting the university in the role of the hero on a quest for self- knowledge? Could we instead tell a narrative that casts the university as the trickster
gure? The trickster is Hermes or Coyote, who assists humans to nd new ways to
understand themselves and the world by both creating and crossing boundaries and
so bringing forgotten things into view. Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox (Davis &
Weedon, 2009, p. 76). Higher education pushes boundaries, changes and transforms
culture and creates new ways of being, all of which is the work of the trickster.
A key boundary that trickster gures change and cross is inside and outside. By
giving the university institutional subjectivity and casting it as a character in its own
narrative, the usual boundaries of institution and individual are transgressed. Narratives
can assist research of higher education to extend the boundaries of sight beyond the
usual things of aligned curriculum, transition and access, effective pedagogy, improving research outputs and so on, to forgotten things, which disrupt the boundaries, not for
the drama of the disruption, but for the necessity of extending the frame so that the
observer is included, not just as acknowledgment of perspective, but as an intertwined
part of the narrative. Interrogating our hidden narratives allows us to make a lucky
nd that reveals a larger view and helps us to realize that our conceptions of things
are in our mind rather than out there (Davis & Weedon, 2009, p. 77).
The self-reexive university
Research driven by the subjectivity of an ecological university will seek different questions of itself and set out a different research program using a different methodology
than those that seek, for example, to measure the efcacy of students learning, the
capacity of the university to encompass a diversity of students and /or the research
inputs and outputs of the institution. Instead, it will actively choose methodologies
that support and develop values congruent with the institutional subjectivity and
self-reexivity is paramount to this enterprise.
Difculties for self-reexivity within higher education methodology are partly due
to the reexive position of the researcher, who, in researching the subject of higher education, must include themselves as both a teacher and researcher of higher education
and so subject themselves to the research gaze. Also, reexivity easily slips into assuming that confession of the researchers status, as per social categories: gender, race,

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ethnicity and so on, is sufcient, none of which interrupt the usual practices of assimilating data into normal discourses (Pillow, 2003). How may we move to institutional
reexivity in researching higher education? Perhaps by telling trickster stories that
disrupt usual boundaries: for example, why do students pay back their educational
debt through money rather than through service? Why do students and faculty not
care for the body of the institution by cleaning and tending buildings and gardens?
Why is food not grown where there are extensive grounds in the universities?
A self-reexive university is one that recognises itself as a socio-cultural-physicalsymbolic system that can both remember and forget. After spending 25 years at the
same university, it is surprising how quickly the university does forget as yet another
restructure puts back in place the systems that existed 10 years previously. My individual memory of this institutional forgetting is, I am sure, shared by countless academics
across the globe and yet whilst we, as individuals within the system, remember, the
system itself forgets.
When we use language such as self-reexivity, forgetting and remembering, we
assume that we are referring to the mental events of an individual. However, Hutchins
(1996) suggests that mental events are more accurately depicted as referring to the interaction between people and the world and, particularly, interaction with formal systems.
This is a model of thinking as a thing that exists beyond the physical boundaries of the
individual. If we begin with an assumption that the boundary of cognition resides
outside of the individual, then we can acknowledge that a university may allow
people within it to achieve more than that of which they are individually capable.
Why philosophy?
Philosophy asks big questions, its role is to inquire into the questions of meaning and
value that lie at the heart of our lives, thus it offers us the opportunity to place those
big questions back into the centre of higher education research. Phenomenology as a
methodology allows us to ask questions over taken-for-granted concepts. It allows us
to recognise the strangeness in the ordinary and it acknowledges that insights can be
gained from a rst-hand point of view. This allows into the data set the rich, thick description of the embodied and embedded researcher of, and in, higher education: it gives me a
place from which to claim that intuitive insights gained through years of working in a
university and reecting and interpreting on those experiences have signicance.
What phenomenology has to offer higher education research is a methodology to
study structures of experience, or consciousness from the subjective or rst-person
point of view and to inquire into how people experience their ordinary everyday
world and my everyday world is the university. Thus a rich, contextualised phenomenological account of my experience of thinking entering the room may allow us to
problematise rational thinking, which encodes two assumptions: rstly, that it excludes
imagination and, secondly, that it occurs within individual minds. Both these boundaries may be misplaced. A phenomenological analysis offers the potential to change
the stories of higher education to include new and diverse characters those of thinking
as a thing and of universities as self-reexive subjectivities.
Conclusion
Through discussing the possibilities of Bruners narrative mode for higher education
research, using the two lenses of our disciplinary backgrounds anthropology and

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philosophy we arrive at some surprising commonalities, opening up both possible


questions that can be asked and possible stories that can be told.
Anthropologys aptitude for the narrative mode in its alternative plots for
research accounts, use of rich data, ability to tell stories of individual interactions in
micro-time and capacity to ask questions about group experiences of ceremony and
ritual has much to offer higher education research. Philosophy, and in particular phenomenology, in questioning the boundaries of concepts, allows us to extend our methodological sight beyond individuals, examining the university itself as a character, a
reexive subject.
The questions our doubled orientation raises are both methodological looking at
possible types of data, how research accounts are created and structured, and what can
be measured and told and epistemological, looking at deeper questions about imagination, authorisation, and subjectivity. These disciplines allow us, as immersed researchers, to both narrate and disrupt social realities. Conducting our dialogue leads us to
suggest that ethnography tells smaller stories to disrupt larger ones, where phenomenology disrupts smaller stories to tell larger ones. These stories become surprisingly multiplicitous: oddly shaped personal narratives, group narratives, narratives with unusual
characters, and quests, reversals and trickster stories.
There is an ambivalent power to Bruners narrative mode, which means we must
be careful when invoking it for higher education research. But his logico-scientic
mode is equally open to dangerous and nave distortion, as anyone may attest who
has been told to mark to the curve or watched a complex web of correlation
reduced in policy to simple causation. Understanding that our practice of research
itself helps co-create the university, we can see the importance of bringing all the
stories we can to this moment of co-creation.
In this way we may also reclaim some of the forgotten things of the university
moments when thinking enters the room, moments of generative silence, moments of
imagination and action where students take things into their own hands surely the
central moments of university education.

Acknowledgements
Many thanks to Rebecca Bennett, Angela Jones, Steve Johnson, the Journal Article Group and
our anonymous reviewers for feedback on an earlier version of this paper.

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