Preliminary Thoughts on Methodology: Reflexivity.

Although each of the methodology chapters has a critical account of that methodology as an introduction, I think it is useful to make a few preliminary remarks about methodology in general.

In classic academic research written records, published texts and archived materials and laboratory processes are examined methodically. An account of this examination is then written and published which contains full references to the locations of the sources of information. Ideally the account also implies a critical appraisal of both the authority of the sources of information and the methods of examination. The conceptual frames through which the data produced is evaluated are also, ideally, approached critically. The original materials and texts should be in the public realm so that future researchers can re-examine them to challenge any interpretations made.[1]

Behind this is an idea of progress through disciplined discourse, by which the accumulated results - formal Western knowledge - progresses to ever deeper and more accurate understandings of the world. This ideal is more difficult to realise the further we get from processes that are defined by laws of mathematics, including those of probability. Even with this limitation a logical and open method of inquiry, sometimes called scientific method, has been remarkably productive in transforming our world within a few centuries. However the millenarial optimism which accompanied the first waves of scientific and technological progress has been jaded by the apparent inability of this potent form of rationalism to solve fundamental issues of social justice, environmental degradation and warfare. This disillusionment has led to the underlying assumptions and practices of Enlightenment being seriously re-assessed in recent years - a critical movement which some call Postmodernism.[2]

Phd research is made within this historical and cultural context. Subjects deemed worthy of study leave their records in archives. Here they are stored in an orderly way to allow access by scholars and enthusiasts. One clear limit of Western knowledge is defined by what is, and what is not included in these public archives.

There has existed a long controversy between quantitative and qualitative social research methodology camps.[3] Quantitative measurement appeared to be objective and scientific while qualitative evaluations were contingent on the subjectivity of the researcher. In recent years this simple opposition has broken down as it has been recognised that even apparently objective data requires subjective selection, interpretation and value judgement. On the other hand qualitative methods such as oral history can access crucial information that may be unavailable in any other way and may also be subjected to rigorous checks to ensure the validity of key data.

The only quantitative method I used was content analysis. The other methods I used can all be seen as qualitative. Before discussing the specifics of methods used in the introduction to each chapter I will discuss an issue that is key to qualitative research of all kinds. The concepts of reflexivity may be a way of bringing qualitative methods to account for themselves in a way that goes some way to satisfy the demands of scientific method. This is generally a matter of questioning how the processes of research and analysis have an effect on research outcomes. This whole process of self-examination has become known as 'reflexivity'.

Tim May (1998) sees reflexivity as having two dimensions: the endogenous and the referential.[4] Endogenous reflexivity is the examination of the processes by which communities constitute their social reality. This can refer to a community under study and /or it can refer to the research community itself. For instance how the objects of academic curiosity are constructed within broader ontological patterns.[5] Referential reflexivity is the study of the relations between the person who engages in the research and the persons or groups who are the focus of that research. Tim May asks whether an expert coming into a situation for a short period with alien motivations can hope to come to a reliable understanding of the lifeworld under study. Peter Worsley (1997) points out that communities have their own ontological structures of great subtlety and sophistication and that these 'knowledges' are often not sufficiently appreciated.[6] The researcher runs the risk of imposing ontological structures arbitrarily from their own already dominant culture.

The social sciences have wished to emulate the authority of physical sciences by maintaining a separation of subject and object. This became known as the Positivist model, in which it was believed that a complete knowledge could be gained of human life worlds solely by systematic and objective methods of research. This led to a split in social researches between the Positivists who favoured quantitative methods and those others who used qualitative methods. Since the late 1980's the different values and limitations of each approach have been recognised and increasingly integrated within research programmes.[7]

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu thinks a reflexive practice will help to free intellectuals from 'their illusions - and first of all from the illusion that they do not have any, especially about themselves'.[8] One such illusion he refers to is that academics have 'misplaced beliefs in illusory freedoms'. More prosaically reflexivity might offer the possibility that, in unveiling the determinants that surround any research, we might acquire a relative freedom from such determinants.

Harold Garfinkel was the first person to bring the need for a self-reflexive research practice to the attention of social science in 1967.[9] Garfinkel argued that the actions and statements within any field could only be fully understood from within the context that they were produced. This signaled a profound shift in the goals and status of social research, from monumental universal truths to something more dynamic in which 'truth' or validity could be contingent on both time and space.

By the 1980's reflexivity was interpreted in terms of mapping research activity against a linguistic background. The researcher was still invisible and there was no analysis of the interaction between the two frames of meaning production. In 1971 Alvin Gouldner had pointed out how ethnographers could be seen to be normalising cultural fields, a critique which threatened to reveal the interests behind Western constructions of knowledge and destabilise the dominant worldview.[10] The academic myth of value neutrality was still strong. Gouldner was under no illusions about the inertia that such radical reflexivity would meet. He proposed that the only way forward was for the researcher to become a channel for social change. It was not simply a matter of reforming the research process but a question of 'how to live': "What is needed is a new praxis that transforms the person." (Gouldner, 1971 p494)

The next development in reflexive practice was the feminist critique of epistemology. Sandra Harding showed how science could carry a male agenda and exclude female concerns.[11] From this it was realised that it was not just the immediate relations between researcher and researched that must be brought into question but much deeper questions of cultural and class affiliation would need to be considered. This argument has led to a call for a democratisation of intellectual discourse. This would mean research that is more accountable, accessible, culturally specific and open to local evaluation. This can lead to a deconstruction of authorial authority on the one hand and to an enthusiasm for methodological heterogeneity on the other. A range of approaches may be less likely to railroad conclusions within simplistic or preconceived frames.[12] This strategy is known as the 'triangulation' of methodologies and is the strategy I have adopted in this research programme.[13]

Reflexivity in this thesis is addressed at various stages. The reports on each research methodology are preceded by a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the methodology. In this sense reflexivity is making the methodologies and the use I make of them more transparent and accountable. The limitations of the truth they reveal are laid bare.

The precedents of this research in my experience of artists' collectives in the last twenty years follows this introduction. This account implies that my intellectual frame of mind and indeed my commitment to do this research has been forged out of a praxis, my involvement in these sites of cultural production.

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Footnotes:



[1] See: L.B, Archer, Course on Research Methods, (RCA London 1996); and

Christopher Frayling, Research in Art and Design, (Vol 1 no 1 Royal College of Art Research Papers RCA London 1994/95)

 

[2] Many questions regarding this conception of the rational will be addressed in the discussion of Habermas' theories, which follow.

 

[3] A. Brymann, Quantity and Quality in Social Research (Routledge London 1988)

 

[4] Tim May, 'Reflexivity in the Age of Reconstructive Social Science' in International Journal of Social Research Methodology, Theory and Practice (Vol 1 No 1, January - March 1998)

 

[5] Pierre Bourdieu provides a classic study with his Homo Academicus, (Polity 1988)

 

[6] Peter Worsley, Knowledges: what different people make of the world, (Profile Books 1997)

 

[7] A. Brymann, Quantity and Quality in Social Research (Routledge 1988)

 

[8] Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: genesis and structure of the literary field, (Polity Press 1996 p195)

 

[9] Harold Garfinkel. Studies in Ethnomethodology, (Prentice-Hall 1967)

 

[10] Alvin Gouldner. The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, (Heinemann 1971)

 

[11] Sandra Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? thinking from women's lives, (O.U.P. 1991 p149-51)

 

[12] A. Fontana, 'Ethnographic Trends in the Postmodern Era' In D.R. Dickens and A. Fontana, eds. Postmodernism and Social Enquiry (U.C.L. Press 1994)

 

[13] David Deacon, Alan Brymann and Natalie Fenton, 'Collision or Collusion?: a discussion and case history of the unplanned triangulation of quantitative and qualitative research methods', The International Journal of Social Research Methodology, Theory and Practice (Vol 1 No1 January - March 1998 p47)