Research Question, Research Methods (Early, early draft)

What is my research question?

What is the impact of policy governance on member engagement in group-equity housing co-operatives? Basically it’s a very difficult kind of question to ask because there are so many factors, cultural, economic, political, that contribute to any particular environment. My first idea was to look at two co-operatives, one which uses policy governance and one which does not – and attempt some sort of comparison. But now I see that this method is doomed because there are so many other factors that could account for the differences besides the governance model. Even if the governance model has a quite large impact, it would still be irresponsible and foolhardy to “explain” the difference in terms of this difference. Besides, the governance model is not simply a “cause” but also something “caused”. And here is the key point – can it be identified as a cause that functions independently of other causes, that takes on a life of its own.

What attracts me to institutional ethnography is primarily that it allows me to get away from the “look for hidden causes behind a phenomenon” way of thinking. Policy governance lends itself quite well to focussing on the actualization of texts because policy governance is all about creating texts (policies) for the staff to action, and the texts are all basically shells because they are explicitly left open to interpretation and their only determinate content (i.e. orders) are negative. Also, institutional ethnography is interested in the gap between embodied subjects and the “externalized consciousnesses” represented in documents. This is basically the definition of what I’m interested in. How are co-op members represented in co-op documents, and what is the impact of those representations on the membership? Reflexivity is crucial here – because in theory, the membership is determining these documents, so there should be a interpretive and reflexive relationship between the membership and its definition of itself, but in practice this often breaks down – creating a chasm of distance between the idealized co-opers in documents and the real co-opers in the houses. I’m interested in how policy governance actually exhasterbates that by instituting the disengagement of the majority of the membership as normal, and even desirable. Members are seen as consumers rather than citizens, to be pacified rather than empowered – although empowerment remains as a buzzword.

There are basically two standpoints that I am researching. The one I am most interested in is the standpoint of the non-governing member. This member may be new or have been around for a long time. They may be totally disengaged from all aspects of the co-op, or they may be engaged with their house mates and a good member, but they are not involved in any board work or committee work and they have not developed an expert knowledge in the ruling functions of texts within the co-op. The other is the standpoint of the governing member, usually a member of a board, but could also be involved in committees or just have a lot of access to people who are experts, so they learn this knowledge through personal connection and perhaps contribute to it (these members would be for instance on a list of potential board members in case someone resigned).

How will I undertake this research?

I think the way that makes the most sense is to do focus groups of people from each standpoint-group, and then follow up interviews with specific individuals. In the non-expert member focus group I would ask them questions about how their co-op works, what opportunities they have to get involved, what democracy means to them, what ownership means to them, etc. Whether they have looked at any of the policies, what their interactions with staff have been like, whether they were ever aware of a policy directly impacting them, etc. This group to me represents the fundamental co-op situation. This is the situation “about which” the policies refer – because even board members are just regular members outside of the actual board process.

I would ask the board/expert focus group about how their governance functions, focussing the discussion on examples. Because I have expert level knowledge of board functioning, I will be able to ask them questions that put them in the frame of giving an account of why they comported themselves in such and such a way. Fundamentally I’m interested in how their idea of themselves as a policy board structures their understanding of their role in terms of limiting accountability towards non-expert members. Get at the tension between their role as stewards and their role as representatives.

While I’m planning to “use” institutional ethnography, my goal is more genealogical thank ethnographic. I’m fundamentally less concerned with the practices and the embodied subjects than I am with the discourse, which is to say the fundamental agent in my analysis is the discourse itself. According to Smith, everyday discursive formations are constituted by external forces (11o), but I want to argue that in the context of the standpoint of governing members policy governance is part of the discourse of their everyday world, and it is not constituted by external forces – it’s constituted/reproduced through the ongoing process of people stating that it’s the solution to various problems.


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