Writing and thinking about method: writing as inquiry

Challenge from Helen Kara: Autoethnography takes us from ‘the personal is political’ to ‘the personal is theoretical’. Discuss

Ok. I have no idea what I should write. I have so many thoughts swirling around in my brain. They are crashing into each other. Bouncing off each other. Coming together in groups and chunking into new ideas about the world only to be challenged as not yet complex enough.

I’ve enrolled in a MOOC! Sociology 101 created by Open Universities as a taster for anyone that is considering sociology as an undergraduate course. I’m also listening to free Berkeley undergraduate lectures on YouTube.

[But you have a PhD!!!!]

I’m going back to basics. I’m sick and tired of trying to understand what everyone in my reading group is talking about. I have lots of thoughts, none of them original and all of them trying to be. I need to look back at the roots.

I am trained in education. The only sociology I really got was Foucault’s Discipline and Punish as an undergrad and again History of Sexuality 2 and 3 in my Masters. Honestly, I spent most of my undergraduate sociology lectures looking at the lecturer and daydreaming rather than reading the overhead transparencies [yes I’m that old] and listening.

Education degrees are bower bird degrees. We do a bit of sociology and psychology but it is all practically grounded. How would this idea play out in a classroom? Where did the classroom come from? What do I need to look for in my students?


There is not enough time in a teaching degree to ponder the history of Western thought [which is ironic because we are generally expected to expound it!!!!]. I do not remember thinking about questions like: What is knowledge? What makes us think that THAT is learning? How do we know this? Is there a difference between wisdom and knowledge?

So I’m going back to basics.

Right, so I am at Durkheim, the purported inventor of sociology. In my basic understanding he said that people have a duality inside them. The individual and the social. He claims that in humanist societies the individual has become sacred. Humans believe that they are the only ones responsible for their lives. Humanist societies no longer value the sacredness of a group (or religion).

However, the duality still exists. We still connect as groups. They can make us feel good/safe/isolated. The individual may be boss but the social still fights for attention. This, argues Durkheim, is why suicide is more prevalent in Western humanist societies.

What the hell has this got to do with anything?

Right, so Method arrived in our academic handbags because intellectual work had spent centuries trying to split our dual personalities.

Ok, back to antiquity. I seriously have to go and read Plato’s Republic…In the meantime, I’ll think through with my new favourite book.

In the olden days….

The ancient Greek philosophers still cast a shadow over Western thought. All the big guns, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle influence how scientists and philosophers work all the way up until today. Aristotle “invented” what eventually became the scientific method. Plato’s Republic still influences people about the nature of Truth.

For centuries, the thinkers were both philosophers AND scientists. Descartes, an early modern atomist, philosophised about method. He said method needs to be mechanistic and logical to reach scientific conclusions. His work has had far reaching effects on how method is interpreted today.

It feels weird to think that something that is a “natural” part of the academic process was once theorised. See, Helen, I’m getting there. Patience, please!!!!

So, Descartes, is purported to have begun the split between the social (people being influenced by society/religion/doubt/groups) and the individual. Many of the intellectuals [I’m lumping scientists and philosophers all together here because in the olden days they were] that came after Descartes continued this process. They believed that the only pure form of thought, free from the social, was mathematics. They believed that if something could be proven mathematically, then it was so.

This became the catch cry of humanism. The systematic removal of social influences (like religion) from the process of intellectualism [you can understand their point of view when remembering how brutally people like Galileo, Descartes and Darwin were attacked by the church].

The vacuum became important for validity.

And it was a good idea because most of our scientific breakthroughs were found in this thinking. It was such a good idea it decided it was Truth (even human Truth).

I think this is a long blog post….bear with me. This is my method of sorting out what I understand (doesn’t mean I know it). I have used elements of historical inquiry because it is what I know best.

Did you see at the beginning I didn’t want to start writing? I’m getting my flow on. My colleague just asked me to go to lunch but I am in the middle of sorting something out so I suggested in an hour.

[So why the history lesson?]

Basically, theory split from method. They became two separate (but connected) ideas. Cartesian (from Descartes) thinking became the accepted method, whether quantitative or qualitative, and theory went off and …well… theorised. I mentioned in my last post that the method I used for my PhD had rules for bracketing my experiences from those of my participants. Theory was allowed to be malleable but method essentially stayed the same.

But now I think this binary is flawed (my practical reasoning is another story), and a groundswell of other methodologists think this as well. Two groups of methodologists have been influential in my thinking about this. I can’t quote or reference with academese authority yet, but I think they are arguing two sides of the same coin. The first, post-humanism, I have been trying to get my head around for a while because my reading group is working through this space. The second, post-structuralism, is where I find I sit naturally (theory is deeply personal). In the interests of challenging binaries, I’m going to list their similarities.

This is basic basic basic. I’m not citing anyone. This is my first go at writing it. This is what has seeped into my understanding by reading and talking (and head desking). The fields are FAR more complex. But basics first. Get my head around them and the complexity can come later.

Post-humanist Post-structuralist
Humans are only part of method. The materials they use, the data they ignore, the genre they report through are just as much a part of finding Truth. Humans are part of the method. The choices and decisions we make are a part of the results. Our lives influence our topics, our results are formulated in comparison with our own experience, genre [and font] is important for making obvious the decision making
When method is in a material vacuum results are only a shadow of Truth. When method is in a social vacuum results are only a shadow of Truth.

So to answer Helen’s challenge….

Autoethnography, is generally positioned as post-structuralist but I also think it is a tad method-for-a-post-humanist. It is resisting the binary of theory and method. It is resisting the binary of individual and social. In its very essence it is both individual and social. Autoethnographers do not pretend to stand as authorities in their field. They acknowledge the flawed messiness of their individual interpretations. They acknowledge the materials they use and they actively choose genres which show how their knowledge was constructed or just simply show construction (like poetry).

Autoethnography can be activism as it challenges academic norms established by dead white men. But if done well, it is not just about the individual researcher’s politics. It is about where the researcher fits socially in the results.

Our choices are simultaneously political, poetic, methodological, and theoretical. 

Autoethnography also includes the audience. An autoethnographer breathes life into words. The words then go off to breathe meaning in someone else’s life. Those that inspire it, those that retweet it, and those that comment on it are all part of the creation of meaning. It is a grand collaboration.

Having worked through this…

Yes, Helen, I think you are right. Autoethnography has made the personal theoretical.



One thought on “Writing and thinking about method: writing as inquiry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s