Many of you that follow my blogging (both mini and macro) practices would have an inkling that I have a scholarly crush on Karen Barad. She is probably one of the most interesting theoretical border dwellers that I have come across (I would say since Foucault if I knew enough beyond basic education discipline and punish stuff to talk to the Foucauldians). Everyone seems to want a piece of her. She aligns herself quite strongly with the posthumanists, both openly and in the way her work is an extension of Donna Haraway’s work. She is claimed by the postqualitative and poststructural feminists because she embraces Judith Butler’s work, and she actually has a dig at the Actor Network Theory crowd (which tickles many people that can’t come at posthumanism). Check this. I admit to a touch of schadenfreude:
Social constructivists and actor network theorists..neglect crucial social variables and relations of power such as those related to notions of race, gender and sexuality (p169).
The thing is, that trying to pull Barad into a camp is to not understand Barad. She is from Haraway‘s school of thought that troubles the painful fragmentations fault-lines and borders can cause. This leads me to my first point on why I like her.
Barad places ethics (the philosophical kind) up front. She begins her theory by relating the story of a meeting between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. Nobody knows what was said in that meeting between the top nuclear physicists of World War II. Despite one working for the Nazis (Heisenberg) and the other working for the Americans (Bohr), they were still great friends. However, after the meeting, one scientist successfully developed nuclear weaponry, the other did not. All evidence suggests that Bohr had the mathematics before the meeting. The question for Barad, though, is what Bohr was thinking about in terms of divulgence? Did Bohr think about giving his friend the mathematics? Did he give him the wrong mathematics?
This story demonstrates a very real dilemma that all researchers should consider: What might the research result in? What might the dissemination of the research result in? What role do relationships play in research?
Barad theorises these questions throughout her treatise and draws very special attention to what she terms “cuts”. These cuts are the researcher’s responsibility. They are the borders that a researcher draws around his/her study. What sits inside that border? What sits outside it? What does the creation of that border do to the relationship between those elements on the inside and those on the outside? This does not just include people, this means environments, materials, animals,relations of power internal to a person as well as external.
Here’s the crunch. When a researcher makes the decision to cut something from a study; when a researcher deliberately places something like gender or an apparatus outside the border the researcher is ACCOUNTABLE for the ramifications of that decision. Not responsible. Accountable. Now that’s sobering stuff.
Imagine how that world view might play out in education research. Where have all the border wars come from? A researcher in one circle of wagons will be very quick to tell you it’s because the other group didn’t think about the children. The other will accuse their enemies of not considering the integrity of the discipline. The debates between traditionalists and progressives, primary, high school and tertiary education, leadership and the chalkface are all born out of cuts. Now consider an education researcher that is held accountable for ignoring a complexity of an issue. As I said sobering.
Anyone who claims that Barad is about messy research doesn’t understand Barad. Yes, she acknowledges that the world is messy and complex but that is all the more reason to do rigorous work; however, this time being more rigorous about the cuts.
This is where I see her work as moving in a very different direction to the postqualitative theorists. Barad is 100% about doing rigorous traditional “realist” research. As Alice Dreger recently tweeted, the obsession of humanists calling “reductionism” on scientific research is a useful warning but also denies the idea that someone might get intellectual satisfaction out of micro studies. Dreger argues we need both the grand narrative that ties all these tiny studies together but we still need the tiny stories.
This smacks of Barad to me. To do good research but tell us how you got it. I think Dreger’s book Galileo’s Middle Finger and Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl are two great examples of Barad’s ideas in action (whether the authors intended it or not).
So in education research, we need both the positivist, numbers based research and we need the thick qualitative research. But we seem to be missing the grand narrative of where they all fit together and how they relate to each other. The fault-lines need to be analyzed and bridges built. Communities brought together. We need an education grand narrative. When we have it, we look for the assumptions and work out why they are there. What was cut out of education research to make them happen? What do we do about them? Then we might find out new stuff.
This brings me to my third and final point. I love Barad (and Haraway) for her idea of diffraction. I have had a go at describing diffraction in an earlier blog post. Diffraction is presented as an alternative to reflection and reflexivity in research. While these activities are useful for rigour, they are not the focus of research that is intent on new ways of knowing. They are getting researchers stuck. In fact reflection and reflexivity are probably the ancestors (now I’m going rogue and bringing in Latour) of data scientists. You know those scientists that are constantly checking the validity of data on climate change and tobacco companies? Big data scientists are using our online clicks to describe a world (and probably reinforce the world) with no real surprises.
Diffraction on the other hand forces researchers to constantly look forwards; to ensure their research is always on track to finding new knowledge. In my opinion, the most obvious example of how education research is stuck is in the neoliberalism rhetoric. The thing is: We know it’s there. I’m actually not sure of the point of continuously looking to catch it out. Neoliberalism is like religion (Latour again). It is economically dead and seen to be ridiculous to any logical thinker but it has become pervasive in the social world – in people’s the hearts and souls. It’s there. We get it. Move on to trying to help change people’s hearts and souls to consider the ethical ramifications of their actions. Screaming “NEOLIBERALISM” at PISA is not going to change principals from pressuring teachers nor is it going to stop parents looking at school performance websites to determine where to send their children.
We need to stop using neoliberalism as some bogeyman that will scare people to turn around and run in a different direction. Hell doesn’t scare many people off atheism, why would neoliberalism scare people off performance based education? We need to start telling the grand narrative of education. We need to map the network of laneways and goat tracks which get people all turned around until they are back where they started facing the a new direction or in a completely new landscape. Nudge thinking. There is a lot yet unexplored.