99 ERC SES 03 F, Philosophy of Education
This paper explores the challenges that arise from using narrative inquiry in a project looking at the lived experience of prison education. The project involved conducting life-story interviews with male former prisoners in Ireland and Greece, in order to provide insight into their experiences of prison education, including their motivation, their participation and outcome. It also examined the identity formation that took place through this education and whether there was an enduring change in later life.
In particular, the paper seeks to present a) the rationale behind the use of the “life story interview” as a research tool in this project, b) the benefits of the choice of methodology as well as challenges faced during the fieldwork process regarding access, gatekeeping, ethics and the researcher’s reflexivity and positionality, and c) some reflections on these challenges and lessons learned, in order to deepen our understanding of narrative methods.
The research project aimed to explore the lived experience of prison education both in Ireland and in Greece in order to enhance our knowledge of the participants’ point of view of prison education. It included the following objectives: a) compare their lived experience to current educational policies and adult education theories and b) examine how the educational experience impacts on the identity formation of the participants. The comparison between the two countries constitutes a comparative study in the European area, one of the very few done so far. These countries display similarities that enable a comparative approach. As a secondary function, the project was an enquiry into the different approaches to adult education in prison in each country.
The exploration of the participants’ lived experience required a holistic approach to data generation and analysis. The appropriate theoretical framework appeared to be Axel Honneth’s Theory of Recognition combined with adult education theories. This theory was employed to examine the “relation-to-self” aspect, in order to answer the question of how the concept of recognition sheds light on the lived experience of the participants in prison education, by bringing together the personal and the socio-political elements of the process.
Narrative inquiry is a holistic approach, in which stories are explored and people are viewed as “storied” individuals. This type of inquiry stems from the idea that stories are an integral part of human thinking and meaning-making, and furthermore, critical to the construction of identity and self (Rogers, 2007). In such research, practitioners adopt a theoretical stance of studying with the participants. This is to take into account that meaning is constructed and that the participant’s right to be a part of this construction must be acknowledged and respected. There is great value in employing narrative research in projects where underrepresented groups are involved (such as former prisoners), but also when researchers reflect on how to look into experiences of individuals that belong to groups that have been through situations that are uncommon for the largest part of the population. Clandinin & Rosiek claim “[…] stories are often treated as the epiphenomenal to social inquiry – reflections of important social realities but not realities themselves” (2007, p. 41). In that sense, the social dimension of understanding and inquiry comes into sharp focus. In this project, life story interviews have been conducted in Ireland and Greece with adult male former prisoners, who engaged in educational activities while in prison. Life story interviews are primarily open-ended discussions with the participant, where data is generated in the form of narration. A first-person text is produced, maintaining the words of the narrator, which can be analysed against a theoretical framework or research question (Atkinson, 2007, p. 224). It is crucial for the project that the data is generated in a way that allows the participants space and time to share and reflect on their lived experience. Riessman (1993) underlines that an approach with narrative elements can give more space to the participants. This is particularly valuable when considering the notions of identity and change, and the meaning-making process at the core of the study. For that reason, it is important to generate data that will enable the analysis to look through the lens of the whole person. In this way, the participants are not viewed exclusively as former prisoners, and their time in prison is not made the exclusive subject of the research. Against this background, previous educational experience becomes of great value, along with experiences in their family, or community.
The proposed project aims to delve into the real experience of education in prisons and in doing so, to view adult educational programs in prisons through the voices of the participants. The project is also a comparative study of Ireland and Greece that will shed light on the similarities and differences of adult education approaches in prison in the two countries. The discussion of the paper is centred around challenges that arise in engaging in narrative research in projects like the one in question, where we seek to understand the lived experience and the process of identity formation through a qualitative paradigm. The aim is to highlight ways that those challenges can be faced by researchers, by sharing my own experience and reflections and emphasize the importance of using those methods, in spite of the difficulties that may arise.
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