Meyer & Fels, 2009

Karen Meyer, & Lynn Fels. (2009). Breaking Out: Learning research from 'the women in prison project'. International Review of Qualitative Research, 2(2), 269–290.


This article is about context, power located within institutions, and complexities of interpretation tightly twisted in a participatory action research project with women in prison. This narrative speaks to the encounter between us and the women, the unfamiliarity each of us had with the other's language, and the joint challenge to 'decode' transcripts of incarcerated women's voices. As action researchers we were determined, indeed even smugly pleased, to be undertaking this venture of tutelage, of introducing the women as co-researchers to methods of data analysis. However, we watched a shifting of power (empowerment), as the women became the true researchers through their proximity to and conversations with the transcripts as raw realities, narratives that acknowledged their lives, which we knew only as data. In the end, we came away unsettled, with deeper awareness for the complexity of interpreting 'data', which constitutes local knowing, the unsaid, and the unspeakable.


Prisons, Incarceration, Data analysis, Prisoners, Research skills, Handbooks, Prison art, Prison uniforms, Learning

EDCP 512A - Discussion 1a

Read by attending to the language used, the style in terms of how the story is shared, how the researchers draw upon and make use of the literature, the positionality of the researchers (that is, the relationship of the researchers and participants), the nature of the research project.

What is the position of the researcher(s) and the participants? What is the relationship of the researcher(s) and participant(s)?

Researchers - power & authority on research and in society, relatively high prestige position in society, power and authority are inherent in their position, and yet, very low power and authority w/i prison hierarchy

Participants - very low societal status, power, or authority, yet in the context of the prison system, they have higher power and authority due to familiarity with customs and hierarchies (community knowledge)

When R enter P context, they must recognize that they give up power and authority. The relationship necessarily changes.

As Grant, Nelson and Mitchell (2008) remind us, the power differential between researchers and participants and the value assigned to community knowledge are critical factors in the interpretation and co-creation of knowledge. These authors insist that relinquishing control while maintaining integrity means, “respect for the community’s knowledge that requires researcher humility” (p. 598). (p. 271)

Who is posing the problem and whose research question is it?

Problem and RQ are initially the researchers' and were related to health of women in prison.

Our intentions of good research practice were interrupted as we are challenged to reconsider what it means to ‘interpret’ transcripts. [We bring in the research gaze, imagining that we would decode the transcripts together through known methods of analysis. Instead, the women call us to listen as they respond to each transcript as if in conversation with the absent women whose words are contained within the text.] (p. 271)

However, introducing PAR into incarceration settings seems an obvious choice as Kemmis and McTaggart (2005) remind us:

“ . . . . PAR aims to help people recover and release themselves from the constraints of the irrational, unproductive, unjust, and unsatisfying social structures that limit their self development and self-determination” (p. 567-568). (p. 273)

Over time, the women begin to articulate their own questions.

The initial research question expanded as those of us on the research team outside the correctional centre began to translate our research curiosity to their institutional needs and personal desires. Their questions were: What are the barriers that stop women in prison from successful integration into society? What do we need so that we stop coming back? The “we” referred to the inmates themselves and addressed the high percentage that return to prison within a few years. (p. 274)

What is the value of this study (the author(s)’ conclusion and your critical opinion)

Studying the health of women in prison with the aim to improve conditions is good, but perhaps the greater value in the study was the transformation of the researchers as they came to realize their own institutionalized biases.

More unsettling, we began to question our own understanding of interpretation as it shifted from being something doable to becoming complex, elusive, and other-directed, slipping out of our control into an in-between space of encounter between the women participants and the transcripts, and ourselves. (p. 275)

They then jump right in to the panopticon...

The gaze is alert everywhere. (Foucault, 1977, p. 195)

Our privileged 'saviour' complex runs deep.

We were in a correctional institution that seeks to “reform” incarcerated women, but rarely engages or consults them in meaningful ways as co-agents of change. (p. 276)

However, how different are the contexts of the university and the prison, really?

Throughout this project, it was continually brought to our attention, as researchers and prisoners engaged in a participatory action research model, that we were operating in the margins of normal institutional behavior—that of the correctional centre, and that of the university. However, it was undeniable that the positionality of our mutual locations impacted our encounter. Both institutions undertake surveillance, both operate as gatekeepers, within an “economy of power,” which fabricates the norm and enforces it (Foucault, 1977, p. 303) (p. 277-278)

The power in this study is that the research project was reciprocal, not extractive. The researchers had the humility and fortitude to lay down their tools of 'interpretation' and 'coding' and to begin to listen to the women and their interpretations of their stories and experiences. The temptation to take the transcripts back to their offices for analysis must have been significant in the face of the difficulty in listening to what was not said in the transcripts.

In my own plans for my dissertation, this will be critical as I, a white settler, seek to engage with Indigenous communities in exploring how online and digital learning environments might promote Indigenous self-determination. In essence, I must become recognize that I am the 'other'.

A question this article raises WRT education action research.

On p. 275 of the article, Meyer and Fels quote Foucault

The gaze is alert everywhere. (Foucault, 1977, p. 195)

It strikes me as important that the authors choose to invoke Bentham's idea of the panopticon in what appears (to this point of my reading) to be a critique of the very idea of researchers having at their disposal, the power of the panopticon. That they can be the unobserved observer.

What does it mean to let go of the idea that university researchers can be detached? Why is this parallel between university research and the panopticon so striking?

Fine and Torre (2008) so eloquently express, . . . our work is nested within institutions, and typically launched from the perspective of those with the least power, our research collectives must continually revisit questions of the research purpose — for whom is the work and toward what ends? (p. 408) (p. 271)

One value of the study is providing push-back against supposed neutrality in qual research.

Still, today, in conventional qualitative practices, we (researchers) go in and take out. The “take-out” is in the not being present, in the not listening. In thinking that interpretation is just a matter of coding the texts with participants (what you might call an “inside job”), “Our informants are then left carrying the burden of representations as we hide behind the cloak of alleged neutrality” (Fine et al., 2003, p. 169). If we fail to acknowledge the relationship between research and participants and the politics engaged, we neglect our responsibilities. PAR requires that we open spaces for the articulation of the yet unsaid, and the unspeakable. (p. 277)

Another question...

How do we engage with 'the other'?

What happens when we come into close proximity with our co-researchers in prison, wearing our security badges, dressed in the clothing of expertise? A fear of proximity (how close?) as well as concern for the responsibility to what is left unsaid stirs our attention: How should we engage? (p. 282)

What we learned during the research experience, and particularly through our attempts at data analysis, are that issues of interpretation require a willingness to engage outside the methods set forth by methodology, and that we must be present, listen, and care, and “let the other be other while speaking, speaking to them” (Irigaray, 2002, p. 29). (p. 284)

The epiphany from observing this unexpected backward and forward conversation the women had with the transcripts, as a process of understanding, alerted us to meaning beyond the lines of text. “Nothing that is said has its truth simply in itself, but refers instead backward and forward to what is unsaid” (Gadamer, 1976, p. 67). Without the women’s dialogue with the transcripts and each other, much more of the local knowing, the unsaid, and the unspeakable, would have remained unspoken. (p. 284)

Our challenge as researchers in the academy is to listen with wide-awakeness, so that we might learn how to create a welcoming, thoughtful space for the unsaid, the unspeakable that haunt the lines between the transcriptions and conversations with the women who have offered their presence in this writing. (p. 288)