Balancing Acts

Author: Sam Duncan, University of London.

Sociologist Howard Becker (1984) gave this advice for getting started when faced with a mountain of qualitative data (or even a few interview transcripts): read it all several times, put it to one side and then just write as much as possible of whatever comes into your mind. Becker’s advice has been a crucial and sanity-preserving stage in my qualitative data analysis, however code-based and orderly the ‘real’ or proper analysis that follows. This week I have been reading and rereading the English and Welsh BeLL interviews and here are some first thoughts, Becker-style.

The characters jumping up from the transcript pages all seem larger-than-life, more rounded, more complete than participants in many other interviews. Is there something about talking about one’s educational decisions as an adult which demands or provokes a fuller self-exposure?

They also seem very different – different educational and work backgrounds, different interests, families, struggles and motivations for their learning. Yet, despite these differences, they all spoke of their lifelong learning experiences in terms of how they are using their courses in understanding and directing their lives, often in explicit opposition to other aspects of their lives which they feel are directed by others. There is an overwhelming sense of joining adult education courses as part of a ‘taking control’ of their lives. Participants make links between their development of new or existing skills, confidence in these skills, confidence in themselves, feeling able to apply these skills in new ways & contexts, and a resulting sense of achievement which gives them the power to do more, to learn more, be more. A cycle – you do it, you learn, you believe you can do it, you do it, you do it more, you branch out, you learn more and do more. Crucial to this cycle (and this cannot be overestimated) is the sense that each individual adult put it in motion for themselves. Adult education was a way for them to each take the reigns.

These interviews also say something about being and places, about where we spend the minutes, hours and days of our lives. I got the sense that aside from the benefits produced by participation on the courses (the friends, the skills, the confidence, the new opportunities, the new community ties), participants enjoyed their actual class-time: sitting in a room hearing about Chinese art or standing in a lab processing images. They enjoyed these immediate experiences. This too is a type of control over our lives, but in a very direct, very ‘in the present’ sort of way. No matter the strains of my life, I can change – if slightly – how I spend my days. I can choose to spend two hours a week in a small funny-smelling room above a bank to the east of the city, in the company of all sorts of people, learning about Sanskrit poetry. I can make these two hours a real and regular part of my week and in doing so, I am changing my life.

Part of this is sitting amongst a new group of people – people who are not family members or work colleagues or people who have known you for years. These are people who don’t really know anything about you, and so you can be someone else- or perhaps you are already someone else as soon as you are sitting amongst them, ready to invent or be invented.

Further, these interviews certainly say something about balancing acts: about balancing the hours of the week between the pulls of work, family and health; about balancing the life-story narratives that are constant and unrelenting works-in-progress in our heads (not just someone who used to do that job and how does this job, but someone who painted as a child and returned to it as an adult); and about balancing one’s place in the larger context, contributing to a community or being more active in politics.

The formal analysis of the individual interviews and their relationship to the quantitative data will give us a far more detailed, complete and academically robust picture of the benefits of lifelong learning. But I will always remember these first impressions, the voices from the transcripts and what they told me about control, creation, dreams and endeavour, about how we can be the people we want to be.

Becker, H. S. (1984). Writing for Social Scientists. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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