On Representing Our Subjects/Participants/Informants/People

One final old reflection to share, that appears more questions than answers, but, as with the previous one, shows me wrestling with how do to research in a way that validly represents those that I study. These questions are both why I love to study people, but also why I understand the frustration of studying people. The philosophical quandaries associated this pursuit are well-founded, but nevertheless reflect the need to study humans. Because humans are at the center of how we understand anything and everything, we need to understand humans. Know thyself indeed.

How do we represent those we study, their experiences and lives we seek to understand, so that we are representing that which we seek as that which has occurred?  Do we, should we, care that we are not just a channel through which knowledge flows?  If we simply recite what we are told or observe, this is not necessarily representing truth, as those we seek to represent may not be aware of the larger structures at work in their lives.  But who are we to say what structures are at work and what are not.  If we cannot be omnipresent, aware of all the factors that may be affecting our subjects, then perhaps it is better to retreat to the detachment of neutrality, to assume nothing about the subject and simply channel back any data gained. 

            Yet even this neutrality is not possible.  Channeling back any data gained can entail the collection and distribution of a tremendous amount of information, from interview transcripts to videographic accounts.  This possibility seems highly unmanageable, for the same reason that fiction stories do not take us on a step-by-step recounting of a character’s life.  If we wanted to experience every moment of a character’s life, even if it is an exciting life, we might get too bored of the experience.  Why spend thirty minutes watching someone in the bathroom when we can do the same thing?  Such a research neutrality may provide such a wealth of information so as to provide many different researchers the ability find something to analyze.  However, therein lies the problem. 

            It would be highly unlikely for one person to analyze the wealth of information in its entirety, especially if the goal is to relay some insight to the scientific or policy community.  Instead, when faced with the wealth, the researcher commonly focuses on particularities, perhaps putting the rest into storage for some later use.  It is the selection that is analyzed, and this selection can be determined by several means.  The selection can be based upon an appreciation of the entirety, grounding one’s research aims in the themes and patterns that emerge within the wealth.  Or one can journey into the information with a clear set of research guidelines in hand.  A theory and its related hypotheses may illuminate and direct the research unto a particular path, looking at only that information illuminated.  A particular philosophical bent may point a researcher to particular segments, utterances, and occurrences of a phenomenon, and may influence the slant given in the interpretation and representation of these particularities. 

            Which is the better route to take when engaging with a wealth of information?  Grounding analysis on what the data says appears to best allow anchoring of validity on what is recorded.  But such an analysis, as any analysis, is fraught with the possibility, indeed likelihood, that it will be skewed by the scientific philosophy of the researcher.  Does the researcher believe in objectivity and neutrality?  Than perhaps s/he will not see the interpretative turn.  Does the researcher believe in the hermeneutic autonomy and agency of the subject?  Then perhaps s/he will not see the larger and oppressive power structures?  Does the researcher believe that capitalism, racism, sexism and Other “ism’s” are inherently impacting the subject?  Then perhaps they will take too much agency away from the subject, or not realize the larger interplay of culture, society and subject.  Does the researcher believe there is no there there?  Then perhaps they will fail to realize the importance of biological events as they impact a subject.  And thus the cycle returns. 

            So how does a researcher know that what is characterized in their analysis is a valid representation of what exists?  Honestly, now I just gave myself a headache.  The part of me that favors objectivity and neutrality is at war with the Other part of me that realizes such is not possible when it comes to humans.  It may not be possible with any phenomenon, as the famous quote says that just by observing an atom, one inherently changes it.  The same is true for cinéma vérité.  Even though it claims to be a recounting of life as it unfolds, the very fact that the camera has to be pointed somewhere means that everything else occurring around it is not being captured.  The camera is being selective in what is to be recorded, and any claims for objectivity are lost at this point.  But on the Other flip of the coin, acknowledging both the informant’s and researcher’s subjectivity and disavowing the concepts of objectivity and neutrality is also a slippery proposition.  How can one be certain that the interpretation of an interpretation is the valid interpretation to make?  Is it even possible to truly know another’s perspective unless one is able to find a door into the subject’s subconscious and literally interact with that person’s life as that person, a la Being John Malkovich? 

            The only way I can personally resolve this problem is with incorporating a level of triangulation into research, at all levels of the pursuit of knowledge.  And this goes for more positivistic approaches to the world as well.  The best way to understand an atom is to throw it into interactions with Other atoms, to try out a combination of scenarios and gleam bits of data from each scenario.  Bounce a neutrino off gold, what happens?  How about helium?  Pass it through an electromagnetic field?  Or in absolute zero conditions?  Each new way of measuring, of theorizing, the nature of the atom can reveal new information.  When this new information is put together, then the picture will emerge, slowly and surely, and in such a fashion that it may be possible to reliably replicate each scenario. 

            The same can go for human behavior – except for the subjecting to absolute zero conditions; I doubt that would get past even the most liberal of IRB boards.  But to truly know a human, you have to observe and interact with that human in a variety of situations, and measure this human with a variety of tools.  Perhaps in situation A, biology takes precedence, while in situation B, the human’s identity as being a bisexual African-American woman will play a bigger role in determining their attitudes, cognitions, affections, and behaviors.  But how can one know or even predict this human unless the subtleties and complexities are understood?  I agree wholeheartedly when Mills implied that quantitative science with its reliance on statistics is applicable to a collective mass only.  In those instances when a human deems it necessary to act like the collective, than those statistics are probably a valid way of understanding a human.  But in the instances when a human’s individual differences, be they biologically or psychodynamically determined, then statistics do not matter, and one must engage in more ways of theorizing and measuring a person.  Then, just to complicate and make it fun, all these quantitative and qualitative scenarios need to be combined to understand that person, to gain a more valid insight into the human as a being, doing, feeling, perceiving individual.

            Knowledge is too complex to be gathered all at once in one fell swoop and claim that one has a valid understanding of some phenomenon.  No one way of theorizing and measuring a human, or any phenomenon for that matter, will accurately represent the “truth” of that entity.  And there is truth out there, lest one wishes to engage in a sort of nihilism and claim nothing exists, that the world is merely the construction of a dreamer.  Can a critical scholar, a post-structuralist, a phenomenologist, or a statistician claim to have the only valid way of representing something?  Alone, no, I don’t believe so.  Can combining all of their epistemologies and methodologies claim such representational power?  Perhaps, but there is always the possibility that such combined power will still not account for everything.  Science, what it is and the way of conducting it, is constantly in motion, and this fluidity makes it akin to the very same entities it strives so hard to understand.  Where once there was religion and magicks, there became logic and cold hard facts, which soon begat subjectivity and invisible yet dynamic structural powers.  Perhaps soon we will shift back to more magicks, to incorporate more non-human agency into the power structures that determine perceptions and experiences, a move back towards predeterminism even if it is scientific in nature (a la DNA or technology).             

Or perhaps the dreamer will simply wake up.

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