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«Solving problems, the island way: human resourcefulness in action among the islanders of Gozo Joseph G. Azzopardi University of Malta, Malta ...»

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Island Studies Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2015, pp. 71-90

Solving problems, the island way: human resourcefulness in action among the islanders

of Gozo

Joseph G. Azzopardi

University of Malta, Malta


ABSTRACT: This paper offers glimpses into how businesspersons, entrepreneurs and small

business managers resolve their most pressing problems under conditions characterized by

smallness and islandness in order to survive. Applying a nissological approach complemented by an action-oriented grounded method, the researcher explores and inductively analyses the mind-sets of islanders to explicate the basic socio-psychological process that influences how they resourcefully overcome problems associated with mistrust and powerlessness, transforming these into opportunities of trust-building and empowerment. Two concurrent and seemingly contradictory processes emerge from the analysis, suggesting that Gozitans – the residents of the small Mediterranean island of Gozo – apply both overt formal and covert informal processes to solve their problems.

Keywords: action research, Gozo, grounded theory, human resourcefulness, island studies, learning and development, nissology © 2015 – Institute of Island Studies, University of Prince Edward Island, Canada Introduction The paper illustrates processes in researching how small island businesspersons, entrepreneurs and small business managers in Gozo engage their most pressing problems to make life viable under limiting conditions of smallness and islandness. Gozo is the second largest island (population: 31,296) in the Maltese archipelago (population: 416,841) (National Statistics Office, 2012). The Maltese islands are situated in the Mediterranean Sea, 100 km south of Sicily and 290 km north of Libya (Figure 1). Geographically, Gozo is separated from the main island of Malta by a 5 km stretch of sea and the only inter-island link today is provided via a frequent ferry service that takes 25 to 30 minutes to cross over. Politically, Gozo is the thirteenth electoral district that falls under the portfolio of the Minister for Gozo who is responsible for the strategic aspects of the socio-economic development of the island, as well as for the day-to-day administrative running of all state departments excluding health and education. Culturally, Gozitans still see themselves as a community with an identity of their own and are perceived likewise by the Maltese.

What guiding principles illuminate Gozo’s businesspersons, entrepreneurs and managers in their quest to provide for their own continuous development and business success? A strategy was needed to operationalize a research process that enabled the researcher to proactively learn more about small business managers and entrepreneurs in Gozo and about himself as practitioner-researcher. This entailed addressing the subject-object tension that dominates debate in the social sciences(Remenyi et al., 1998; Smith, 1998;

Gummesson, 2000; 2006). By adopting a nissological approach (McCall, 1997; 2002), one J. G. Azzopardi could inductively indulge in an in-depth research process guided by the belief that “continental thinking misinterprets the economies of small island states … [and] distorts the true picture of those small island states” (McCall, 1997, p. 3). Instead, islanders and their resourcefulness needed studying “on their own terms” (ibid.).

Figure 1: Map of Malta and Gozo, and their location.

Source: Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gozo_Channel#mediaviewer/File:Road-map-of-Malta.gif McCall argues that ‘continental thinking’ can misinterpret the economy and distort the true picture of small island worlds if researchers distance themselves from the object of their research and become insensitive to the real concerns of real people in real time. He exposes the limitations of pure ‘economistic’ approaches to the study of islanders, particularly the economists’ fascination with numbers rather than “the behaviour of real human beings” (McCall, 1997, p. 6). He interprets the apparent contradictory results of studies that argue that “islands can be both the site of innovation and conservatism” (ibid., p. 4). He explains the effects of islands’ “political position relative to encroaching continental powers” thus, When Islands control themselves, there is innovation and the elaboration of island high culture in monuments and, probably, other works of art and literature. When, however, Islands fall to continental control, the peripheralized Islanders become conservative, mimic their masters and become exchange-oriented, with island resources in people, materials and ideas flowing to continental cores of power and influence. An Island controlling itself is a powerful engine for creativity; an island controlled by continentals is an island to abandon (McCall, 1997, p. 4).

72 Human resourcefulness in action among the islanders of Gozo

To complement this approach, an action research strategy (Stringer, 2014) was adopted; with the researcher observing behaviour and generating data from what was going on in their action scene. To interpret and analyze emerging data, a grounded theory method proposed by Glaser (1978, 1992, 1998, 2008) was used. This blend allowed for the simultaneous tapping into quantitative and qualitative sources of information through a range of data collection methods to generate images, ideas and themes by sampling, analyzing and conceptualizing in an iterative and flexible manner. The goal was to propose a plausible explanation of a real phenomenon in a specific place and time, grounded in credible sources and methods.

Long years of formal education had introduced the researcher to the programmed texts that contained established ideas proposed by successful theorists and practitioners. Past knowns, routines, and procedures soon proved to be insufficient to explain ‘how’ Gozitans, as islanders, deal with their most pressing problems to survive and keep on developing themselves effectively. New avenues, strategies and tactics were needed to explore new terrains and their hidden attributes.

Let the research question emerge from the data

To come to terms with the research methods and the respective tools of data generation, the researcher had to iteratively revisit his research question as he moved from one source of information to another, attempting to make more sense out of the data that was being generated. Ethnographers mainly use in-depth interviews and participant observation for indepth study and to generate knowledge about a particular phenomenon or situation. They may remain as detached as possible from that situation, observing it without trying to influence it.

In the case of this research, the main objective was to learn more about the substantive field of the researcher’s practice while also trying to introduce some changes within it, deliberately trying to alter the situation under study. Unlike the task of the ethnographer, intentionally effecting the situation being researched was central to the original general approach to studying the development of entrepreneurs and managers in Gozo because, while ethnographers participate via observation, the intention here was to participate through action.

Gill and Johnson (1997; 2010) explain how ethnography differs from action research.

Action researchers enter an organization or community at the request of ‘the client’, while ethnographers do so after typically having themselves chosen the target group to be studied.

In the case of action research, ‘the client’ therefore remains the owner of the project and the initiative remains with ‘the client’. The relationship between the researcher and the client and the psychological contract between them then also become different than what unfolds in ethnography. Because they assume that “they are not in the change business but that their endeavour is to observe how the system works” (Gill & Johnson, 1997, p. 73), ethnographers enter the community with “the proviso that there will be as little disruption as possible” (ibid.). But the action researcher, assuming that one understands a human system better by trying to change it, deliberately enters the community to generate knowledge and learning through deliberately influencing a change process. Similarly, both action researcher and ethnographer exit the community on differing grounds.

Gill and Johnson (1997, p. 73) propose that, “while the ethnographer’s job continues after the fieldwork has finished and data has to be analyzed, normally the [action researcher’s] work terminates when he or she leaves the organization”. In action research, the researcher

73J. G. Azzopardi

withdraws from the organization or community when the client has become self-supporting in carrying forward with the change process; while in ethnography, the client remains dependent on the researcher’s production of the research results, which may (or may not) be of some value to the organization or the client.

According to Sayer (1992, p. 255), “one possible type of research which might fit the bill in attempting both to investigate and change its object is ‘action research’”. Referring to one particular project, Sayer explains how,... interviews and questionnaires were not organized so that workers would simply yield up information at the bidding of external researchers who had nothing to offer in return and who would go away and analyze and publish the results in academic seclusion (the usual situation), rather, the research process was kept interactive and open-ended so that workers could pose and discuss questions and hence reconsider their position (Sayer, 1992, p. 255).

This process involves the re-exploration of the original research question, transforming it from one that was pre-determined by the academic researcher to one that is intrinsically valid to the research participants themselves. What are the research participants’ main problems?

How do entrepreneurs on small islands go about solving them? How do they activate their human resourcefulness to survive and possibly thrive under the real conditions they continuously face in their day-to-day running of their businesses?

As much as the answers to these questions need to emerge and be grounded in real data, so the questions themselves also need to be articulated in the research participants’ own words and therefore emerge and be grounded in real data. This led the researcher into the action research mode and therefore into actively contributing through the launching of a management development program involving twenty managers and entrepreneurs, members of the Gozo Business Chamber, interested in doing something about their own development and the development of Gozo. The program was organized in two phases. The first phase was moderated by the researcher with the assistance of two independent external management consultants; the second would have involved all the participants in an action learning development process owned by the participants themselves with the aid of the researcher as facilitator. The first phase constituted the Action Research cycle (Stringer, 2014) through which participants were enabled to ‘look’ at, ‘think’ about and ‘act’ on their current most pressing problems, culminating in a one-day workshop that externalized the participants’ latent strengths and weaknesses as individuals and as a business community operating under conditions characterized by smallness and islandness.

The second phase – that is, the action learning management development process – however, never materialized. When the research participants were contacted individually by the researcher, they all expressed interest and commitment to the program; however, as a community, they never managed to pull strings together! What was going on? To find an answer to this question, the researcher needed to tap alternative sources of information and, in grounded theory mode, started to explore the phenomenon through a battery of inductive research tools and sources of information that included conference papers, depth-interviews, focus groups, chance conversations, popular wisdom, the researcher’s own diary and transcripts of interviews carried out by the external consultants as a follow up to the first phase of the program (see Table 1 below).

–  –  –

The conference papers were used to kick-start the coding and analysis process. These originated from three conferences that were topical to the study

• The effects of European Union membership on the island region of Gozo, an event organized by the Gozo Business Chamber on 28th January, 2000, and subsequently published in book form in July, 2000 (Briguglio, 2000);

–  –  –

• Improving the employability of the workforce in Gozo, an event organized by Bank of Valletta plc on 13th April, 2000, and subsequently published in book form in 2001(Bank of Valletta, 2000);

• Defining the socio-economic character of the island region of Gozo, an event organized by the Gozo Business Chamber in collaboration with the Ministry for Gozo, the Central Office of Statistics, the Gozo Campus of the University of Malta and Bank of Valletta plc, on 23rd March 2001. Its proceedings were not published; the researcher contacted the presenters to request a written copy of their respective presentations.

Presenters at each conference ranged from high-ranking politicians (Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Minister for Gozo, Speaker of the House of Representatives) to business persons, academics, consultants, the Bishop of Gozo, and other observers of the local political, economic and social scene.

Relevant to this methodological discussion is the linguistic factor of the process. The English language was used in the case of the conference papers, the research diary, feedback consultants’ interviews, management development workshop and the published and official statistics. But, in the case of the in-depth interviews, focus group discussions, chance conversations and popular wisdom, full benefits were drawn from the natural colloquial contribution that the vernacular Maltese language could give to generating a richer, in vivo understanding of the phenomenon being studied.

Although English is officially the participants’ second language, Maltese is still the natural language used conversationally in most informal business and everyday transactions.

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