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Just Research in Contentious Times: Widening the Methodological Imagination

reviewed by Sarah Lillo

coverTitle: Just Research in Contentious Times: Widening the Methodological Imagination
Author(s): Michelle Fine
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807758736, Pages: 160, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

Michelle Fine’s text, Just Research in Contentious Times: Widening the Methodological Imagination, is a compelling and poignant read that includes a balance of self-reflection, theory, and practice. With powerful metaphors and poetic prose, her writing is as enjoyable as it is thought-provoking. Fine examines critical and participatory research undertakings, addressing both the challenges and potential of this sort of work.


Fine opens her text with a critical self-reflection. In Chapter One, “Loss and Desire: Bearing Witness in White, Working-Class, Suburban New Jersey,” Fine delves into her own positionality. She acknowledges, “We have an obligation to ask, from where do our questions originate?” (p. 1). As such, she reflects on her privilege and the experiences that shaped her understandings of injustice. She acknowledges contradictions and tensions within her own story. Fine concludes the chapter with an articulation of her commitments:

To embrace the folds in my own skin and the touchpoints where my skin, desires, pain grow intimate with others’; to tell, retell, and trouble already settled stories, from a critical perspective of those who have paid the greatest price for ‘normalized’ injustice; to seek out those spaces where the light doesn’t shine; to document the long shadow of exclusion and humiliation cast by national policies designed to protect ‘us,’ and to ask who is (and is not) ‘us.’ And to engage this work as critical, public science. (pp. 9–10)

Thus, from the outset, Fine shows a willingness to wade into the messiness of power, privilege, and intersectionality. She models the sort of vulnerable, uncomfortable introspection that is needed to engage in critical participatory work.


In Chapter Two, “Exiles Within: Wild Tongues and Critical Bifocals at the Radical Margins,” Fine argues for critical bifocality (Weis & Fine, 2012) as a theoretical approach to engaging in critical youth studies. She explains that specific instances must be positioned within larger political contexts. She also problematizes the concept of neutral research, acknowledges insider-outsider tensions, and draws readers’ attention to the intersections between systems and individual lives. Fine uses two main studies, one with imprisoned women and a second with Muslim American youth, to illustrate her points. Fine acknowledges how participatory research can illuminate the systems oppressing those who are exiled within: “They narrate their own lives but, as important, they refract back on the shape and policies of a nation designed, and regularly re-fashioned, to exclude” (p. 26).


In Chapter Three, “Civic Lessons: The Color of Class and Educational Betrayal and Desire,” Fine collaborates with April Burns, Maria Elena Torre, and Yasser A. Payne. In this chapter, the authors describe a study that was a part of a class action suit filed by low-income immigrant youth and youth of color in California schools. The authors “venture in this essay to study how class consciousness comes to be inscribed on and embodied by poor and working-class youth through their schools” (p. 30). As Fine et al. describe their approach and findings, the authors capture nuanced understandings that young people shared about their experiences in schools. They then begin to unpack the systemic factors surrounding the stories they heard. This study was not participatory in the traditional sense, yet it fits into this text because it elevates the voices of young people. Fine et al. urge readers to keep young people’s experiences and desires at the forefront of educational discussions: “The struggle for public education is a continuous, fragile braid of racial, labor, and knowledge (in)justice. It defines our history, and our future, and must be fueled by the desires of the young” (p. 47).


Chapter Four takes a similar stance on the centrality and value of young people’s desires. “‘Wicked Problems,’ ‘Flying Monkeys,’ and Prec(ar)ious Lives: A Matter of Time?” is co-authored by Fine, Andrew Cory Greene, and Sonia Sanchez. The chapter is based on a study where the authors considered whether schools should legally be required to offer longer school days to account for frequent educational disruptions. Fine et al. listened to young people’s experiences and reflected on the justice, or lack thereof, in the proposed extended school day. As they documented young people’s perspectives, it became clear that there were profound systemic issues surrounding students’ schooling that demanded attention. At the same time, young people held visions for their educations that differed from the proposed solution. Ultimately, Fine et al. decided that an extended school day would not advance justice for these students. This study underscores the importance of including those whose lives are directly impacted by education policies in these types of decision-making processes.


Chapter Five, “Just Methods: Historic and Contemporary Laboratories of Democratic Knowledge Production” ventures into the historical and philosophical underpinnings of Participatory Action Research (PAR). Fine synthesizes PAR principles as follows: “At base, critical PAR recognizes that expertise is widely distributed but legitimacy is not; that those who have experienced injustice have a particularly acute understanding of the affects, capillaries, consequences, and circuits of dispossession and privilege” (p. 80). After overviewing PAR’s epistemological and methodological roots, Fine details several Public Science Project PAR endeavors. As she does so, the simultaneous difficulty and beauty of these undertakings is obvious. Fine describes moments of tension and moments of epiphany. In so doing, she repeatedly reiterates the possibilities that might stem from this work: “When we work both in and across places, the sharp blades of oppression and the coarse ties of resistance grow apparent, but so do the delicious alternatives that represent vibrant possibilities of what might be” (p. 96). In such a way, Fine laces together a hopeful, albeit slightly romanticized, case for why researchers should re-center their efforts.


The book then transitions into a more pragmatic tone. Chapter Six, “‘Speaking Words of Wisdom’: Metabolizing Oppression into Intersectional Activism, Radical Wit, and Care Work” was written with Maria Elena Torre, David Frost, and Allison Cabana. This chapter focuses on a Public Science Project effort to develop and disseminate a participatory survey by and for LGBTQ youth of color. As one of the closest examinations of methods in the text, the chapter details the project’s instrument design process. At one point, Fine et al. describe how youth disagreements around the construction of demographic items had resulted in nearly 40 distinct potential categories for gender and sexuality. Fine et al. acknowledge that

this may be a thrilling moment for queer theory and the proliferation of gender/sexuality categories and identities, but an empirically awkward moment for survey construction. The point is not always to “get it right,” but to open the conversation to hear the myriad ways in which young people describe their genders, sexualities, and racial/ethnic identities, and to hear how fiercely they resist narrow categories and boxes (p. 103).

As Fine et al. value dialogue above an instrument that “gets it right,” they implicitly posed a radical shift in the way researchers should evaluate a study’s success. This chapter offers a much-appreciated close look at PAR in action and also reminds readers of the shifts in philosophy and epistemology that this work entails.


Finally, Fine concludes her text with “Critical Participatory Action Research and Knowledge Democracies: Lighting the Slow Fuse of the Research Imagination.” In this chapter, Fine returned to critical self-reflection. As she acknowledges the limitations in her own perspectives, she recognizes the need to acknowledge and push beyond an epistemology of ignorance (Mills, 2012).  She closes her book with the following beautiful vision for a different way of knowing/approaching research:

Like the arts, independent media, and social movements, in moments of crisis, critical participatory action research can carve open delicate spaces for fragile solidarities and collective inquiries, and even more valid research, where we might join with others to collectively ignite the slow fuse of the possible. (p. 123)


Overall, Just Research in Contentious Times includes a nice balance of introspection, theory, and practice. Fine’s book offers few blueprints for moving forward, which some pragmatic readers might find frustrating. Instead, she takes a reflective and philosophical approach to her text. Fine offers snapshots that illustrate some of the benefits and challenges of critical and participatory research. She uses these to pose questions and spark dialogues. Fine teases a reader with potential, while still acknowledging limitations and challenges. As such, this is a thought-provoking read.


Mills, C. (2012). White ignorance. In S. Sullivan & N. Tuana (Eds.), Race and epistemologies of ignorance (pp. 13–38). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Weis, L., & Fine, M. (2012). Critical bifocality and circuits of privilege. Harvard Educational Review, 82(2), 173–201.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22346, Date Accessed: 10/18/2018 12:23:15 AM

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