Here is another great example of looking back to your older writings to find out where your foundation, your very scholarly identity, emerged, and how it has transformed over time. In this reflection piece, for the same qualitative methods class as my previous one, I find myself as PhD student struggling with knowing where I fit in, to which academic community I pledge my loyalty. It’s the same now as it was then: I cannot — nay, will not — be pigeonholed into one approach.
I had always thought of myself as being in the clan of social constructivists, due to my interest in identity formation, symbolic interactionism, psychoanalysis and socio-cognitive psychology. I first became interested in communication based on the idea that meaning is not locked into a solid relationship with some objective state or object in reality. Instead, it is socially constructed, fluid, can be different to different people. What I call a chair is based upon my experiences with objects others have called chairs, and thus my conceptualization of the object “chair” may be entirely different from others’ conceptualization, and yet we all agree on the word-object link because we communicate with each Other. Semiotics makes the world go ’round.
When I first heard that almost a decade ago, it literally blew my brain, and I leapt over from Pre-Med to communication studies. I still feel a very special kinship with this idea of the social construction of meaning. But after this week’s readings, and going over all the different assumptions again as we have been, I can’t label myself as a solely a constructivist. But nor could I label myself as any of the other in particular. I see them all as interconnected, some maybe more apt than others given particular circumstances, but all very useful as one attempts to understand the nature and identity(s) of humans, their interrelationships and actions, and the systems and networks they find themselves in. This is not to be wishy-washy, or my attempt to have it all so as not to be criticized for lacking any.
Indeed, I also see the place for positivist ideas. While science facts can be largely socially constructed (again because they are communicated through a language that is itself a set of agreed upon meanings and thus not truly reflective of a solid, objective reality), it is hard to argue that there is not a truly physical presence in reality that is not just our interpretation of it. Gravity does exist, whether or not we agree upon it; only our understanding of it is socially constructed, and highly subject to change should a new way of measuring it be agreed upon. DNA is DNA, and is not subject to the problems of fluid and unfixed identities that the organism it created is. Humans have heartbeats, neural pathways, and digestive systems – all biological functions that are not in need of emancipation. But a human is more than just a sum of its chemical, biological, and physical sciences. From a human’s thoughts to a human’s interactions with Other humans, and both micro and macro levels, it becomes harder and harder to understand humans by simply measuring them with technological gadgets and fancy scales based on shaky reliability and validity testing.
But does that mean any of the non-positivist assumptions are best suited for studying humans and their idiosyncrasies, as some qualitative researchers have insisted? I don’t believe that any more than I believe qualitative and quantitative should be rivals, that if one is qualitative one must also be anti-quantitative, as we are sometimes made out to be. Every ontology, epistemology and methodology have their strengths and weaknesses, just like every method is good in some circumstances and less so in others.
At the foundation of my “system of knowing” is the importance of understanding how humans interprets themselves, their surroundings, others they engage with, or any Other phenomenon I am either interested in knowing of itself or in how the human perceives and engages with it (which in my case is basically anything to do with media texts). Logically connected to understanding this interpretation is to understand how this interpretation is constructed, how sense and meaning are made and then utilized by the human in this process of interpretation. Now, there may be occasions (which are more common than not) where the power structures in which this process of interpretation is occurring needs to be explored; both as an external observer imparting my own interpretations unto this relationship, and also as an internal investigator, in dialogue with the human to understand their construction and interpretation of this power structure, even if it is just to examine to what extent they may possibly be exhibiting false consciousness. Whenever possible, to truly understand the dynamics of power structures, a combination of this external observation and internal investigation should occur simultaneously, perhaps to the extent that one’s observations are shared and discussed with the human, for the dual purpose of understanding and emancipation.
And whither way postmodernism? Again, I would encourage engaging in dialogue with the objects studied to attempt to deconstruct together, particularly if one’s subject embodies one or more identities that can be contested in the power dynamics of a society, such as being a homosexual and a racial minority. How does such an individual construct and interpret their identity in relation to the potentially oppressive dominant society in which they reside? Is this process of identity(s) formation itself an indication of deconstructing the power structure that categorizes them, or can such a deconstruction be enhanced by communicating and openly discussing their lives, this issue, or how they see both?
Essentially then, when it comes to humans’ actions and interactions, I can definitely see how blending all the main qualitative schools together can produce a greater means for understanding humans. What I find most interesting in this particular moment is that most of my experience with these ideas stems from analyzing human texts without much concern for humans themselves (which not even auteur theory really delves into). When the unit of analysis is simply a television program or some piece of literary work, the text is often analyzed from only one epistemological perspective. But in my field of media uses and effects, it becomes very necessary to understand this text in relation to how it is constructed and interpreted both by the producer and the audience, and perhaps even to the society or culture at large in which this text is produced and consumed. Again, this would call upon all schools of qualitative analysis, and even quantitative analysis, to explore this relationship. And that is an investigation I am very keen on learning how to conduct.