Becoming a Scholar

Since starting this PhD program, I’ve wanted to write an academic version of my personal mission statement. I assumed that if I dug deeply enough, or pondered long enough, the contours of Priya-as-scholar would sharpen into focus and reveal where in the realm of knowledge my research fits.

My fixation on “figuring it out,” belied an instrumental view of knowledge as a product or an outcome. Yet the philosophical view of knowledge, which is what I’m pursuing as a candidate for the degree of doctor of philosophy, sees knowledge as “necessarily ephemeral and incomplete,…never acquired…only reached proximally (Barnacle, 2005, p. 185-186). Being a philosopher, or lover of wisdom, is about pursuing knowledge, not capturing it.

In that spirit, I write this post not to mark an achievement (“I’ve figured it out!”), but to document a process (“This is where I am now”) and to leave breadcrumbs for future reflection (“Here’s the path I’ve taken”).

I first heard the words “epistemology” and “ontology,” while sitting in the opening lecture of an introductory government and politics class during the first week of my freshman year of college. The professor might as well have spoken gibberish, for as much as she tried to explain them, nothing stuck. I heard these terms much more after I entered the PhD program, and I’m just beginning to understand what they mean.

I found Michael Crotty’s (1998) book “The Foundations of Social Research,” a godsend to navigate the thicket of epistemology. Crotty sets aside ontology and focuses on the research process. He lays out a hierarchy to help readers understand how the abstract informs the granular (and vice versa): Epistemology –> Theoretical Perspective –> Methodology –> Methods. The easiest way for me to relate these concepts to my own scholarship is to move through them in reverse, starting with Methods.

Methods
In my research, I’ve primarily talked to people (through interviews and focus groups) and analyzed texts (including news articles, websites, company policies, blog posts, and social media posts). I’ve occasionally used design methods to work on the development of new technologies or educational resources. I also work with colleagues who use survey methods, though I have not used them in my personal research.

My dissertation focuses on pictures posted on social media, so I’m learning methods to more systematically analyze visual materials. I’m also interested in exploring methods like participant observation and diary studies that focus more on people’s practices.

Methodology
My research explores how information about people flows through digital systems and what that means for privacy. I’m curious about how this plays out in the context of family, primarily pregnancy, parenting, and early childhood. My goal is not to measure variables, to prove hypotheses, or to predict outcomes; my goal is to consider what it means to be a parent, child, or person in a datafied world. Ethnography and discourse analysis resonate with me as ways to do this work because they speak to people’s lived experience as well as broader societal framings.

Theoretical Perspective
In my personal mission statement, I said “I want to understand more about…the physical, internal, societal, and historical forces that have brought me, you, and those around us to this particular moment in time.” I entered the PhD program wanting to do research that put things into context, that traced paths and made connections between different disciplines, topics, or time periods, something I still want. While analyzing data, I’ve focused on creating categories and distilling them into themes, which I then mold into findings that are situated in existing theory or other scholarship. This puts my work squarely in the realm of interpretivism, which Crotty defines as a research approach that “looks for culturally derived and historically situated interpretations of the social life-world” (p. 67).

But after spending time with human rights activists and cultural studies scholars, I’m drawn to more critical orientations to research, particularly post-structuralism, feminism, and post-humanism. This includes Actor-Network Theory (Bruno Latour, John Law), assemblage theory (Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guittari), Foucauldian perspectives, and agential realism (Karen Barad). This is in part because I’m less interested in people and what they think or do, and more interested in how people, technologies, platforms, affordances, and networks come together to produce certain effects.

Epistemology
In my research, I’ve strived to respect the “voice” of my participants while remaining cognizant that I as the researcher am the one interpreting what they say. When I interview someone, I’m not plucking a piece of knowledge that already existed in their brain. I’m having a conversation in which both of us are producing meaning together. This interpretation and shared construction of meaning form the basis of constructionist epistemology, at least the way Crotty defines it.

Consciousness and intentionality lie at the core of constructionism: “When the mind becomes conscious of something, when it ‘knows’ something, it reaches out to, and into, that object” (Crotty, 1998, p. 44). But post-structuralist and post-humanist perspectives reject these framings of consciousness and intentionality, de-centering language (a social structure) or humans as the source of knowledge construction. Crotty describes the epistemology of subjectivism as a subject imposing meaning on an object (p. 9). But my nascent understanding of post-structural and post-human perspectives is that they reject a clear separation between subject/object in the first place. Meaning is not “imposed” on anything, but constituted by the intra-action (Barad, 2003) between various human and non-human actors.

Right now, my work and research approach falls within the constructionist epistemology. I am interested in taking my work in a more post-structural and post-human direction. But writing this has made me realize that doing so requires rethinking my understanding of agency.

Concluding Thoughts
This is the first in an occasional series of posts in which I work through the type of scholar I am and the type of research I do. I initially envisioned these posts as quite future-focused (what to I want to be/do), but I now write them with the recognition that I’m “always already” there (Barad, 2003).

 

Acknowledgements
I thank Kari Kraus and my classmates in INST888, Jason Farman and my classmates in AMST628N, Shannon Jette and my classmates in KNES789N, Annette Markham + Kat Tiidenberg + Dèbora Lanzeni and my classmates in the Digital Media Ethnography workshop, Karen Boyd, Andrew Schrock, Cynthia Wang, Shaun Edmonds, and Eric Stone for indulging me in conversations about theory/method over the past two years.

In addition, I thank the UMD Libraries, the Interlibrary Loan service, this laptop on which I read articles and wrote notes, the printer, paper, and ink that came together to give me physical copies of texts, the pens for enabling me to take notes on those texts, Twitter, Evernote, WordPress, Scriviner, Wifi connections, and finally the desks and chairs on campus, at home, at conferences, and on the Metro and Amtrak that supported my body while I read and wrote.

References

Barad, K. (2003). Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28(3), 801–831. [ADD LINK]

Barnacle, R. (2005). Research education ontologies: Exploring doctoral becoming. Higher Education Research & Development, 24(2), 179–188.

Crotty, M. (1998). The foundations of social research: Meaning and perspective in the research process. London ; Sage Publications.

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