Mazzei, 2007

Mazzei, L. A. (2007). Toward a problematic of silence in action research. Educational Action Research, 15(4), 631–642.


Action researchers often generate large amounts of textual material in the form of notes and transcripts, failing to account for those thoughts that we and our research participants silently voice. As such, action research that attempts to engage practitioners in self reflexivity and textual analysis is a fertile site for a consideration of how silences are used in research settings to communicate meanings previously ignored because they were unspoken. In order to consider these silences as purposeful strategic moves on the part of research participants, I propose a problematic of silence that allows the silences to breathe and speak. This problematic of silence attempts to interrupt fixed notions of what counts as text and speech in our researching of the social and seeks to engage the limits of research in order to allow the spoken silences to be present in the textual records of educational action research. Our purpose in this chapter is to explore the first person reality, i.e. the inner condition of the researcher, and to describe reflective practices by which an action researcher, new or experienced, might consciously tend to his or her quality of presence, state of attention, and direction of intention so as to become more skillful in relationships, inquiry, and action. We are indebted to Torbert (2003; Torbert and Associates, 2004) for the practice of ‘action inquiry’ and extend his theory-in-praxis by developing a conscious review of three key subjective dynamics: being, knowing, and doing.


Silence; Text; Analysis and representation; Poststructural theory

Extracted Annotations (2019-11-09, 11:17:06 AM)

This overwriting, this writing over, is discussed by Stronach as a way in which our research and writing are disciplined, prioritized, and censored before we ever put pen to paper. In much the same way I am attempting to theorize the ways in which the speech and data that we gather in the field is censored and disciplined before we ask a single research question, write a single field note, or record a single response. (p. 633)

These transgressive silent texts that we cannot 'hear', but that speak to us nonetheless, require a different attentiveness and listening in our research settings. These silent texts are audible only within a problematic of silence that is errant, wayward, and that rebels against those practices of censoring and over-writing as it irrupts our received notions of what is granted a hearing as we analyze the conversations and verbalizations by participants in our research settings. (p. 633)

I am proposing a consideration of silence not as lack, absence, or negation, but rather as 'required for the intelligibility both of what is said in discourse and of discourse itself as discourse' (Dauenhauer, 1980, p. 119). (p. 633)

In our conversations with students, administrators, practitioners and teachers in our research settings, silences often occur, especially when researchers work at understanding culturally sensitive subjects such as race, ethnicity, and sexuality and their effect in the educational milieu. (p. 633)

How then do we take seriously this silence or recognize its effects if it is marked only by an absence of voice? As action researchers, how can we account for these silent texts in our writing, reflection and action? Informed by poststructural theory, I propose that action researchers (p. 633)

employing methods of inquiry that rely on these texts should not dismiss silence as an omission or absence of texts to be analyzed, but rather should engage the silences as meaningful and purposeful elements of these texts. (p. 634)

Jaworksi (1993) affirms that a simplistic view of silence treats silence as a lack of communication, but that if one is to examine a body of work on nonverbal communication, one is to find that 'the absence of speech does not imply the absence of communication, and very frequently the interpretation of speech itself relies very heavily on the nonverbal component of communication' (p. 46). (p. 634)

In writing of conceptual structures termed (p. 635)

problematics, Giroux (1988) explained, 'problematics refer not only to what is included in a worldview, but also to what is left out and silenced. That which is not said is as important as that which is said' (p. 4). It is this premise that leads me to the important realization that in the doing of action research with preservice teachers, specifically research that is grounded in my conversations and interactions with my own students, the absence from an analysis of conversations has often been an inclusion of silence. This lack is not because the silences have not been present, but because either they have not been recognized, or they have been 'silenced'. (p. 636)

What would a problematic of silence that exposes the current boundaries of research, and that reimagines those boundaries in an attempt to expand the circumference of what is knowable, askable, and possible, open up in terms of data and texts that we have previously missed or not counted? My assertion is that such a problematic prompts us as researchers to rethink how we consider the texts that we analyze: what counts as a text, what gets left out, and what gets left in. (p. 636)

A problematic of silence presents considerations for how to think about research texts; and if what counts as data includes silence, how this shapes or changes the structure of an interview, the process of follow-up, and ultimately analysis and representation of data. The gaps and pauses are to be considered not as the boundaries of speech, but rather, as an irruption of speech that is essential to a more 2 complete meaning of speech. (p. 636)

Frederick Buechner (1977) discusses the deafening nature of silence; deafening because of the truths revealed in the silences should we give them a hearing. 'The preacher is not brave enough to be literally silent for long, ... even if he were brave enough, he would not be silent for long because we are none of us very good at silence. It says too much' (p. 23, emphasis added). (p. 636)

For example, in the following remarks made by a teacher in response to an assignment for a multicultural education class, I provide an example of cues for 'tracking the grammar' that might lead to an attentiveness to both the silent and spoken in our research case records. These cues may then prompt us to follow up both the spoken texts and silent texts as we conduct interviews and engage in conversations with our action-research participants. I never really saw myself as prejudiced, but then I never really had to deal with any 'other people'. [Other people? Who do you mean by Other people?] So I was raised this way and now I've come to a very, very, very liberal, very open-minded understanding... [When you say liberal, you mean...?] and I'm thinking, you know what's the difference if I get along with somebody or if my friend is Hispanic, or, you know... [We don't know. What do you want us to know? Tell us what you mean.] (p. 637)

To think about text, data, and research differently, I am prompted to reconsider the question not just of when and what is a text from which we make meaning, but how these texts are enacted and presented by participants in our research sites. (p. 639)

These silences are not containable or predictable, but contribute to a layered understanding of the characters that inhabit the performative site of our research. It is important to emphasize that I am not prescribing a fixed definition of silence, nor am I suggesting that all of the silences are intelligible. I am not even stipulating those criteria for silences that count. The problematic of silence within which I work is intended to open up a space where silence is no longer considered as secondary to speech, but is considered as an integral part of speech. This problematic elicits silence as but one communicative tool, as but one element of the text-like spoken words and gestures, employed by ourselves as researchers in concert with our participants as we engage in action research within a problematic of silence. (p. 642)