Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: July 2008

Administered Uncertainty

We have this university online environment we are compelled to use for classes. Read more of this post

Back in the Day

Some of the folks teaching into the social science methods course were having a conversation today about how teaching ages you. Instantly. In the minds of your students, that is – students to whom you immediately achieve the status of a historical contemporary of whatever it is you are discussing in class.

My favourite instance of this was from a course I taught a few years back, where at some point I got into a joking side discussion with an older student who tended to enjoy testing me out. In this particular class, they made some joke about the French Revolution, I responded in kind – and then one of the younger students indignantly protested that they felt left out: “You guys have to understand that it goes over our heads when you do this! I mean, we weren’t even born back then!”

The (Updated) Gist

For those who have despaired of finding time to read my thesis drafts, perhaps a Wordle of the first chapter might convey the gist:

word cloud of the first thesis chapter

Hat tip Dead Voles.

I wonder if I can submit one of these in place of an abstract? Perhaps I should ask Wildly, who has a post up with the alarming words: “Yesterday, when I made the final change to my thesis”… Does this mean there is a new doctor in the ‘sphere? :-)

Updated to add that Carl from Dead Voles suggests a pedagogical application for Wordle:

I imagine requiring students a week before an early-semester paper is due to come to class with a wordle printout of their introductory paragraph. I would then put them in work groups and have them attempt to interpret each others’ wordles to see how close they could get to the author’s intended meaning. In the process I think they would be clarifying in their own minds what ‘extra’ is needed beyond mere words to communicate a meaning and frame an argument. The additional benefit is that this would move their procrastination window up a week.

(Perhaps I shouldn’t mention that there is a certain… resemblance between Carl’s suggestion, and one of my actual assessment tasks this term, which allows students to post extremely rough and schematic notes about course assessments to a blog – precisely with the intention, as Carl phrases it above, to move up the procrastination window… My version is significantly less attractive for students to distribute to their peers…)

Carl also suggests a group exercise for the readers of both blogs: comparing only the wordles of Carl’s dissertation chapters, and my own – what would readers suggest are the primary differences between our work? :-)

And Carl suggests a different sort of exercise – one that seems strangely topical for the dissertations of L Magee or G Gollings: how would one redesign Wordle to take into account relations, as well as frequencies, among the words?

Social Research

So it’s been a somewhat gruelling couple of weeks, getting everything together for the two methods courses I’m covering this term. The undergraduate course, since it’s new and we were designing it from scratch, took the lion’s share of the time – although it was nice to be able to work alongside the ultra-competent (and ubiquitously sardonic) L Magee in pulling everything together.

The course is large enough, and massive lecture halls scarce enough, that we have to deliver two different iterations of the lecture – so we had one go at the lecture Monday morning, and will get another try on Friday. Most of the first lecture, necessarily, dealt with housekeeping and course mechanics. I’m currently trying to gather my thoughts from the lecture on Monday – I always learn something about the tacit logic of my own stuff, when I present it – there were elements of the tacit logic underlying the structure of the lecture, elements of grasping why I wanted to organise my bits the way I did, that I sort of “got” only when listening to myself give the lecture… We’ll see if this improves the reiteration of the lecture to be delivered on Friday.

I thought I’d post a few notes here on the lecture and course concepts – with the caveat that I’m always a bit cringe-y when I expose pedagogical material publicly. There’s a strong exhortative dimension to teaching – things get simplified, not simply or straightforwardly to make them easier to learn, but with the goal of trying to rouse something, trying to pass along a certain contagion about why this stuff can actually be exciting (er… realising that what I’m about to write may not… er… have that effect on terribly many people – I don’t claim to be a rousing lecturer – quite the contrary (really strongly the contrary) – my skills lie much more in leading discussions – but there is still an element, in lecturing, of wanting to communicate affect, and not simply content, of wanting to share, somehow, that the very abstract sort of material that I generally teach, can be deeply meaningful in its strange way – and something about what I do, to try to communicate this, never seems to me to translate well when I write about what I did – instead, what comes through is the simplicity of the content, all the ways I would qualify it, all the ways I disagree with it… And yet… There’s a reason that stuff gets left out of the lecture in the first place… A reason that doesn’t prevent me from being fairly self-conscious about reproducing lecture concepts outside the shelter of the lecture hall…)

The course is titled “Social Research: Qualitative”, and the structure of classes here gives you twelve weeks to somehow meet whatever expectations such a title engenders. Last year, the staff member who took this course decided that twelve weeks simply wasn’t enough to give a meaningful introduction to something as broad as “social research” and so decided to drill closely down into one research method (discourse analysis), to try to give the students some in-depth experience with mastering a particular method, from which they could hopefully extrapolate when orienting themselves to other methods in the future. In earlier years, the course has been taught with a heavy NVivo focus, with all the students doing the same research project – again with the thought that students could extrapolate their experience with that project, into other sorts of research they might conduct in the future.

We’re equally dismayed, I suspect, by the jarring disjoint between the expansive course title, and what can reasonably be covered in twelve weeks in an introductory methods class for second-year undergraduates. Something – lots and lots of somethings – have to “go”, to make the course possible.

We’ve channelled our dismay, however, in a slightly different direction: while it is certainly true that any individual student is going to do some specific form of research project, and neglect others, we’ve decided not to pre-dictate either the method or the project itself. There will no doubt be plenty of project-deflection over the term, as students choose topics that are too vast – or illegal, dangerous, or inappropriate in other ways… ;-P But in principle we’ve left it to the students what they want to study, substantively, and how they intend to study it. Although we will do a bit with “method” in the “to do” list sense in this course, we’ve decided instead to focus on the most basic elements of the research design process – becoming curious about something, asking a question, looking around to see whether anyone else has ever asked something similar, trying to figure out what you need to do, to answer the question you’ve asked, and then being accountable for your question, what you’ve done to answer it, and the answer you’ve put forward, in a public sphere.

This approach means that we can’t dictate method, because we’re telling the students in a very strong way that their method has to derive in some quasi-logical way from their question. And we can’t dictate question because… well… we’re telling students that research is about straddling that strange space between personal curiosity and public accountability – and it’s a bit out of place to tell other people what they ought to be curious about… ;-P

So we bookended this first lecture with two videos, designed to mark out two possible extremes in conceptions of social research. After some brief transitional comments, we opened with the first six minutes of this video of the Milgram experiments:

http://www.archive.org/flv/FlowPlayerWhite.swf

What the students saw, was a man in a white lab coat take an authoritative role in a highly artificial experimental setting, where the stated purpose of the exercise was to test a hypothesis in carefully controlled circumstances. I did warn the students there was more to this experiment that met the eye (we’ll return to this video again later in the course) – but the parting image they were left with was of what looked to be a research subject with a heart condition, strapped to a chair, awaiting progressively nastier electric shocks if he failed in a memorisation task… (They laughed… Hmmm… I responded by telling them we would trial this method in their tutorials…)

So this is one extreme – not, in this case, for the distressing nature of the experiment, but for the highly artificial, controlled, hypothesis-testing orientation of the study. The video with which we ended the session was this one, on Sudhir Venkatesh’s anthropological work on a Chicago gang (the embedded video below is only an excerpt – the full program is here):

Venkatesh’s piece was chosen for a sort of maximal contrast to the fragment of the Milgram video that we showed: a research scenario in which the field strikes back, takes its researcher captive in the most literal possible sense, rejects the researcher’s “expert” knowledge, and tells the researcher how to conduct the (radically uncontrolled) study.

We will do other things with these and other video materials through the course but, for purposes of this introductory lecture, the point was simply to mark out two extreme points, suggest that there is a continuum of possibilities between them – and that all of this, the whole continuum, could be defended as some form of “social research”. A continuum of social research along which the students would have some opportunity to begin situating themselves in the course of the term.

In terms of other content, this blurb from the course guide gives the gist of how we are approaching the course:

Many people, when they think about research, think of something done in a special sort of place, like a laboratory, a library, or a “field site”, by a special sort of person, like an academic expert who has spent years acquiring a vast specialist knowledge of what they are studying, and on a special sort of topic, which is important enough to count as a “research question”. Thought of this way, research can seem a bit intimidating and removed from our other concerns: we can struggle to think of ourselves as being the kind of people who might do research – surely we aren’t qualified or we don’t “know enough”? We can struggle to imagine what research might look like, if carried out in the sorts of settings where we spend our personal and professional time – surely research doesn’t tackle the sorts of experiences we have in our everyday lives? We can doubt whether our questions and concerns are “important” enough to count as research questions – surely research investigates something more removed from our everyday experiences or personal passions?

While it is very common to think of research as this kind of specialised, rarefied expert activity, this image of research is highly misleading. Research, at its most basic, involves cultivating the very opposite of expertise: it entails a process of opening ourselves to what we don’t know – of taking seriously our own curiosity and desire to learn more – of asking questions. Because research crystallises around a question, the research process is driven precisely by our lack of expertise – by what we need to learn. In the research process, we all position ourselves as explorers and investigators, rather than as people who already possess some kind of mastery over our subject matter. Because research operates in this space of exploration and uncertainty – because it takes the form of quest to learn something new – it is impossible to have all the skills and knowledge you will need for the research process, before you undertake the research itself.

While some of us may have a bit more practical experience with research than others, all of us have some experience with the core skills required for the research process: we have all been curious, asked questions, set about finding answers, and debated with other people about each step in this process. On one level, then, we are all “researchers” in at least an informal sense. At the same time, no specific research project – formal or informal – begins with a special creature called a “researcher” who already possesses all the skills and knowledge required to carry out a research project, before they start asking questions and working out how to answer them. Researchers are created, not born. And what creates them is nothing more than the process of actually doing research. You become a researcher: you do this by carrying out research. All the skills that research requires, and all the things you need to know to do research successfully, are learned through the research process itself.

This doesn’t mean that formal study is not essential to the research process: it is. It means that this formal study more closely resembles the process of apprenticing in a craft, than it does the process of committing to memory some fixed body of information. Research is a practical activity – an art, albeit one undertaken with a scientific spirit. Every question, every method, every researcher brings something subtly different to the research process – meaning that research is never learned ​abstractly, as a skill that could be pursued separately from its various practical applications. Instead, your research question is what drives your formal study, providing a meaningful context within which you can work out what sorts of formal knowledge and skills you need to have, why you need to have them, and how you can learn them most efficiently. Your research question therefore grounds other sorts of study you undertake – which is why we will start this course, not with an abstract set of knowledge or skills we think you need to memorise, but with activities that will help you work out a research question that can organise the rest of your work in this course.

From this starting point, we will then guide you as you undertake a quick apprenticeship in the major stages of the research process. There are of course many different types of research. The research carried out by a journalist, an activist, a market researcher, a government, or an academic researcher will differ in significant ways, for example, due to the different end goals and audiences for the research. Nevertheless, certain elements are common to any sort of research process. Those common elements will provide the focus of our work in this course.

A Draft Life

I’m still assembling material for the undergraduate social science research methods course L Magee and I will be coordinating this term. I stumbled across this lovely story in one of the works I was reading:

As we were preparing this second edition, Booth got a call from a former student who, as had all of his students, been directed again and again by Booth to revise his work. Now a professional in his mid-forties, he called to tell Booth about a dream he had had the night before:

You were standing before Saint Peter at the Pearly Gate, hoping for admission. He looked at you, hesitant and dubious, then finally said, ‘Sorry, Booth, we need another draft.’

From: Booth, Colomb & Williams (2003) The Craft of Research, second edition, Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press, p. xiv

I find myself wondering what it might be like, having what I am now living as, you know, just a draft life… Something I might revise and resubmit after a bit more background in the literature, in-depth research – maybe some experimentation here and there…

Some Disassembly Required

Recovering from a severe cold and drowning in work at the moment, so posting is likely to be… light and airy. I did want to archive a quick note here about one of the questions asked in response to the Derrida Today presentation – no new content, but just pulling together some old content in a very very slightly different way. The questioner (I wish I knew his name – excellent formulation of the question, to which I won’t do any justice here…) picked up on perhaps the only sentence in the paper that gave some hint of where we might go in closing the circle, and completing the discussion of Derrida with an alternative interpretation of Marx: the sentence that referenced the Theses of Feuerbach and the question of transformative interpretations. The questioner wanted to know how it would be possible to return to Marx, in a form that wouldn’t just recycle modernist political ideals and organisational structures, and he pressed the issue of whether I were engaging in a sort of backward-looking, nostalgic critique that sought to revive ideals, forms of organisation, and forms of theory that were no longer adequate to the present time.

My response was that, in interpreting Capital, I try to take seriously Marx’s claim that he was not trying to write recipes for the cookshops of the future. The point of Capital, as I see it, is not to set forth a political program, but rather to unfold, and to apply to a particular social context, a method for reading and deconstructing that context, so that it becomes easier to see that it might be possible to make other sorts of institutions, practices, and selves, out of the sorts of “raw materials” we find lying around us now. The task of working out what, specifically, to do with these materials: this is a political task, not subject to theoretical predetermination abstracted from particular situations and contestations.

I noted that Capital pivots around a series of inversions, in which perspectives are introduced only to be followed, later (sometimes much later) in the text, with their opposites. One way to read this textual strategy is to hold that Marx is trying to set up a contrast between illusion and reality – such that certain perspectives are “ideology”, while others are objective, “scientific” truth. I take Marx’s notion of “science” to be too Hegelian for this: the inversions in the text, I believe, are intended to demonstrate that none of the perspectives being analysed are “essential” or intrinsic – intended to show that, in capitalism, we do think (and practice) several impossible-to-reconcile, contradictory things in the course of our everyday lives. By demonstrating this “inverted”, topsy-turvy, looking glass character of our practices, Marx is attempting – in my reading – not to tease out which of the moments of this inverted world are “really” essential, and which are merely illusory. He is attempting instead to suggest that the presence of these inversions reveals that we are not on the terrain of any sort of timeless essence at all: rather, we are on the terrain of contingent social practices – on a terrain subject to political contestation.

What Marx also does is try to work out what other sorts of things we might be able to do, with the social materials that lie ready to hand – materials that, through over-familiarity, we might tend not to view creatively, with an eye to the question of what else we might be able to make from these building blocks. Marx uses a variety of techniques to explore this question: where possible, he trundles around through history, finding historical examples of societies that share similar sorts of institutions – in order to show that, in those other contexts, those institutions didn’t possess the same qualitative characteristics that they possess now; he also points to contradictory characteristics enacted by different dimensions of the present context; and he engages in various sorts of hypothetical and speculative analyses of what might be possible, in a transformed social situation.

All of these techniques are geared toward teasing apart the distinctive characteristics of capitalism – characteristics that are reproduced, in Marx’s argument, only so long as the capital relation is – from the characteristics that might potentially be generated, if the various component institutions and practices that currently contribute to the reproduction of capital, could be extracted from that relation and appropriated for other ends. In this reading, Marx’s argument about commodity fetishism is a critique of the tendency to treat qualitative properties that arise due to the capital relation, as though those properties inhere necessarily in the various component institutions and practices that currently reproduce that relation: Marx’s speculative claim is that a change in the relations in which component institutions and practices are suspended, would free up different qualitative properties and potentials.

Capital attempts to give some glimpse of what these qualitative properties and potentials might be – but this does not take the form of a political programme, still less an organisational structure or completed vision of what a socialist society might be. Rather than an architect’s blueprint, Capital provides something much closer to an artist’s palette – splaying out for our view the much wider range of colours and textures on which we could potentially draw in producing our collective lives.

Whatever socialism might be, Marx suggests, it could be made out of nothing more than the stuff we have ready to hand. The actual process of creation, however – including the determination of what it is we want to create: I think that Marx sees this as an intrinsically and irreducibly political process – and also as a process that will necessarily react back on what political actors wish to create, as they continue to shake loose new possibilities and potentials that cannot be foreseen now. Some potentials, once grasped, may prove particularly corrosive – the demonstration, for example, that it is possible to enact a kind of human equality – the experience of such a possibility – renders non-doxic new creations that would impose hierarchy – precisely by revealing such hierarchies to be impositions – to be human creations, and therefore subject to political contestation. These gestures toward particularly corrosive possibilities recur through Capital, confronting us with radical potentials that – in this argument – we are already enacting, if only in particular slices of our collective practice. Certain sorts of creation, certain kinds of politics – those predicated on closing off such corrosive potentials – can thus become subject to criticism by holding them up against the potentials they disavow. By making our history citable in more of its moments, we can widen our sense of what we is it possible for us to do – and gain some critical traction on what is shut down, as well as what is opened up, by particular political ideals and organisational structures.

Yet Capital provides minimal – bordering on absent – programmatic political instruction. Its energies are instead directed elsewhere: toward making the case that capitalism provides the raw materials for the construction of something very different – toward arguing that greater freedom is possible through a hack of the existing system – toward making plausible the claim that socialism is “capitalism: some disassembly required”.

Battery about to go!! (I could add, the personal as well as that on the laptop…) Apologies for the scatter and lack of editing (and care!!). I will need some recovery time, I think, before I can post substantively again.

Impure Inheritances

Below the fold is something like the text delivered on Friday afternoon to the Derrida Today conference. This is a jointly-authored piece, delivered by NP, co-written with the appropriately recently-deceased, and therefore undeconstructibly spectral, Praxis Blog. Those who have been following along in the blog discussion leading up to this talk will realise that what is reproduced below the fold is half the argument: the talk covers our working interpretation of why Derrida omits the “hand” when he quotes the passage in which Marx christens the commodity fetish – and explores what this omission implies for how Derrida understands Marx and the possibility of inheriting Marx today. Along the way, we manage to talk in a somewhat rambling fashion, about a rather sweeping range of other things – but somehow in all of this, we never quite stumble across the second half of our own argument, which will attempt to outline a different sort of inheritance of Marx through a reinterpretation of the argument about commodity fetishism. The fetish, therefore, continues to haunt us – imminent, but not yet presenced, below – and yet not below – the fold… Read more of this post

Flying Furby

Blogging may be light this week, as I have travelled to the wilds of Sydney in advance of the Derrida Today conference. I have a severe cold, which will hopefully have subsided before I need to present, but which is currently enabling me to view my surroundings through a disjointed, slightly surreal, lens. So en route to Sydney I found myself distracted by the following sign posted near the Skybus boarding area:

Skybus regrets that food, drink and pets are not allowed on board.

To which someone had added the convincingly stencilled amendment:

People are permitted, reluctantly

Flying Furby ToyThen on board the plane, I noticed the following list of items “Prohibited at all times on board the aircraft”:

Cellular phones, transceivers, FM/AM radios, pocket pagers, radio controlled devices, printers, television receivers, audio equipment with wireless controls and Furby toys

Never much liked Furby toys myself…

Micro-Methods

So it’s looking as though L Magee and I (with the assistance of others who just might be lurking, and who are welcome to out themselves if they so choose ;-P) will be responsible for a second-year undergraduate social science methods course, with an emphasis on qualitative research. This is the sister course to the quantitative methods sequence we took on a couple of years ago. This time around, we have considerably more time to design and prepare for the course (a colleague laughed when I said this, but in relative terms, this is true… I tend to get… rather little notice of what I will be teaching…). My hope is that this wealth of preparatory time might help us avoid the occasional difficulties we experienced last time around, particularly in coming up with concrete examples that are… pedadgogically appropriate

Which brings me to a bleg. If anyone has favourite websites, readings, syllabi and other materials they would like to share, for an introductory social science qualitative methods course: love to see them. More specifically, I am particularly interested in developing very bounded, small-scale projects or activities that will help students obtain a hands-on feel for particular methodologies: the tentative course design concept is that, over the term, students will design and carry out one primary research project – but that, before they do this, they will first do a series of micro projects/activities that will give them at least a gestural sense of a range of research methods.

If anyone has ideas that have worked well for them in the past, materials, readings – would be much appreciated if you could share…

Moving In

I often work on my laptop in the coffee shop. Read more of this post

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