A Crack and a Relief

It happened. The crack, when “you can no longer stand what you put up with before, even yesterday” (Deleuze & Parnet quoted in Jackson & Mazzei, 2013); when “one can no longer think things as one formerly thought them, [and] transformation becomes both very urgent, very difficult and quite possible” (Foucault, quoted in St. Pierre, 2014).

For the past several months, I’ve been trying to understand epistemology and ontology — what they mean, what they mean for me, and what they mean for my research. I read “The Foundations of Social Research” by Michael Crotty. I read “The Body Multiple” by Annemarie Mol. I read other articles, mostly from communication, science and technology studies, and cultural studies.

I continued to analyze quantitative and qualitative data and write papers, but I felt increasingly perturbed, as if this work wasn’t adequately capturing what the research team said we were studying. I kept spouting my one-line summary of my dissertation research: “I study how parents post pictures of their kids online and what that means for kids’ identity development, sense of self, and understanding of privacy,” even after realizing that I’m not actually studying parents or kids or online or identity.

Epistemologically, I sensed that I wasn’t a positivist, but I couldn’t figure out whether I was a constructionist or a subjectivist. Theoretically, I didn’t think I was an objectivist, and I sensed that I might be an interpretivist who could one day become a critical scholar. I could be doing phenomenology, or potentially hermeneutics, or maybe symbolic interactionist work. I remained unsure of aligning myself with any methodology besides “qualitative,” which I do primarily through the methods of interviews and textual analysis.

Today, all of that fell apart and also came into sharp relief, thanks to readings on “New Materialism” and a conversation at the weekly journal club of my university’s physical cultural studies program.

I realized that I’ve been using what St. Pierre (2016) calls “conventional humanist qualitative methodology” — interviewing people and coding the data as a way to capture some aspect of their lived experience. I thought I’d sidestepped positivism because I don’t offer “hypotheses,” don’t calculate “inter-rater reliability,” and don’t purport to “predict” behavior. But I do define “research questions,” collect “data,” and code it to fill a “gap the knowledge” — all trappings of logical positivism.

And this would be fine, except that I’m also discussing Foucauldian analysis and Actor-Network Theory and assemblage. And I dig it. It resonates with me and it’s informing how I approach my dissertation. So no wonder the conventional research process I’m using feels stale — it does not align with the new (to me) theory/methods that are shaping the way I understand the world and the research that occurs in it.

But doing research from a Foucauldian or ANT or assemblage (or feminist or queer or post-structuaralist or post-colonial or post-humanist or…) perspective requires more than rethinking methods. It means letting go of a belief that any research, no matter how rigorously or reflexively it is done, can capture what is “going on.” It means accepting that research, and the production of knowledge, is always partial, always incomplete. It means that no matter how precisely or evocatively we write about our research, it remains a semblance.

But nevertheless, I feel this work is urgent. I know this work is difficult. And yes, I believe that it is possible.

(And while I will continue doing research in the conventional humanist qualitative vein, because learning new things takes time, Jackson & Mazzei show how to use these theories to think with typical interview data “within and against intepretivism.”)

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