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October 8, 2004

Approaches and Resistance: On Forming a Research Design

There currently exists in the social sciences, and especially in fields traditionally dedicated to the carefully articulated Othering of people of color (namely: ethnography and anthropology), deep disciplinary anxieties about the validity and the ethics of their work in the age of theory. �Theory� has, in most debates about theory, becomes a floating signifier. That is, something that everyone is willing to speculate about, critique in relation to �theory�s� relationship to empirical analysis, and even bash when considered to be insufficiently linked to empiricism through methodological practice. Let me be quite specific, then, in what I mean by the �age of theory�. In the �age of theory� I am generally referencing �poststructuralist� and �deconstructionist� ways of reading and the impact they have had on fields reaching from the humanities to the �hard� sciences including the �social sciences�, strung somewhere between these two disciplinary poles. The emergence of feminist, queer, cultural, or postcolonial studies as institutional disciplines, and their often complicated but generative relationship to theory, have placed even greater pressure upon the roles the �social sciences� have played in establishing and maintaining cultural hegemony. Disciplines functioning under the banner of, or linked in some way to, the �social sciences� have been heavily critiqued as technologies of colonialism, patriarchy, or heterosexism (for example) that have been employed to assist in the authorization of marginalizing the Other beneath the gaze of the Western (white, male, heterosexual) eye. The production of knowledge within the social sciences, then, has served to not only observe �culture� but to produce narratives of culture in which �communities� are formed as �difference� to be subordinated by the technologies of the dominant culture.

The impulse, within theory, to place pressure on the center (Western logocentrism, for example) displacing the carefully articulated hierarchies formed under the hegemonic control of this center have revealed the ways that knowledge formation is intricately linked to power and domination. Feminist, minoritarian, queer, and postcolonial work (often employing and modifying the �tools� that theory has provided and challenged us to find) have sought to disrupt the disciplinary division of labor that has split knowledge from the object, as such critiques have pointed out that the �object� of knowledge is also a subject. That is, the object of anthropological inquiry is not only being looked at by the anthropologist, but also in turn looking back at the anthropologist. With the emergence of �minority discourse� within the academy, a situation has emerged in which the former �object� of inquiry has now become the �conscious� subject of knowledge, disrupting the former (colonial) division between the two. Rey Chow, referring to Hegel, characterizes the situation as the following: �While their [�third world� scholars] cultures once existed for Western historians and anthropologists as objects of inquiry within well-defined geographical domains, the growing presence of these intellectuals in �first world� intellectual circles fundamentally disrupts the production of knowledge� that has hitherto proceeded by hiding the agenda of the inquirers and naturalizing the �objects� as givens. To paraphrase Hegel, �first world� inquirers must now cope with the fact that their �objects� no longer correspond to their �consciousness.� �Third world� intellectuals, on their part, acquire and affirm their own �consciousness� only to find, continually, that it is a �consciousness� laden with the history of their objecthood. This history confronts them all the more acutely one they live in the �first world�, where they discover that, regardless of personal circumstances, the are [still] beheld as �the other� (Chow, 116).

The process of designing research, then, becomes a hotly contested one. Robert Alford marks as a challenge to this process a widening �gap� between �theory and method in the discipline�s self-understanding of what it means to �do� sociology� (Alford, 11). For Alford, theory, method, and research (and especially the first and final category), have come to be separated from each other in a fashion that makes the formation of the middle category increasingly difficult. If a division has occurred between the filed, Alford argues, it is to all threes detriment as theory has become a lofty and idealized area lacking empirical substance to lead to practical social application whereas pure empiricism has closed research to more promising theoretical approaches. The development of a methodological approach that is sensitive to both fields, then, that can �connect theory to evidence to construct valid explanations of the workings of society� (18). Developing research questions that can look to both �theoretical context� and �empirical implications� (or what Alford later characterizes as moving �back and forth from the clouds of theory to the grounds of evidence� (29)) assists in crafting inquiry that is socially relevant and applicable. Alford�s conceptualization of �theory�, then, is greatly divergent from that which I have pointed to above in that �theory� here is not a way of reading but produced of a pre-existing theoretical context and its relationship to empirical analysis.

Haig�s interest in �theory� is, in part, an attempt to reify the authority of scientific methodology against the �constructivist excess� that has challenged and contextualized it (Haig). Providing a corrective to the �grounded theory� of Glaser and Strauss, Haig seeks to promote methodological approaches that link theory to it affirmation through empirical analysis. Theory, in this sense, maintains its contextual presence that informs the research process, but cannot be authorized without the deductive appraisal of the empirical evidence. This approach is complicated by Breuer and Wolff-Michael who provide less a methodological approach so much as a series of questions that suggest we need to imagine entirely new methodologies. Bruer and Wolff-Michael contend that knowledge is always, to an extent, socially constructed and at the very least subject to a process of interpretation that would make the deductive process of appraising theory, still, a subjective process that must directly relational to context. What can be known, in this sense, is always linked to �how� it can be known because the nature of knowledge is always subjective. In a sense, the �how� is always linked to the �who� and the �why�.

I don�t think it�s possible for me to proceed without disavowing my disdain for the first of the three texts. Although Alford purports to seek an innovative methodological approach for providing a bridge across the widening gap of theory and research, it strikes me that his writing is laced with a kind of melancholic nostalgia for a period in which this gap might be approached without the illuminating challenge of the �age of theory� present to reveal the disciplines relationship to power. Alford makes his position clear when he speaks of studying ��poverty� or �ethnic identity� or �gendered behavior�� and the �specialized training� one needs to approach these problems: �I am not challenging these divisions of intellectual labor after one makes a decision to specialize in a particular aspect of the profession and the discipline. But they should not be built into the implicit culture of the filed � in courses, textbooks, examinations-in a way that precludes exposure to the full range of theoretical and methodological traditions � that is, the different �paradigms of inquiry.�� (Alford, 20). Alford, with his language of specialization, suggests that class, ethnicity, and gender as �specialized�, as if they were not always already implicit in all social relations. By relegating these fields of inquiry to �subfields�, Alford succeeds in marginalizing these concerns to assert the �full range� of inquiry that is suspiciously void of a responsibility to addressing sociologies historical place within cultural hegemony. The dominant narrative, then, is considered to be the fundamental �range� of the field, a position hotly contested � as I have noted above.

I find myself most drawn to the project mapped in Bruer and Wolff-Michael because it is, precisely, a project of imagining. A list of possibilities without definite answers, a range of potential. The types of �events� that my project is interested in are often linked to cultural narratives, the narrative of rights within legal discourse, for example. Anyone needs but read a Supreme Court opinion to understand how the subjective research process highlighted by Bruer and Wolff-Michael surfaces: the justices pull from former cases, often radically decontextualizing them and as such reformatting their meaning. Any approach to the �event� of the law or a theater production demands a rigorous attention not only to my own blind spots as a researcher, but also to a careful attention to gathering � also � materials that might challenge and complicate my hypotheses. The formation of questions, however, are directly linked to theoretical concerns (�theory� in the sense that I generally referred to it at the top of this response). My project is concerned predominantly with narratives and the ways that these narratives are deployed into social (political, legal, etc.) fields. The ways that such narratives create hierarchies of marginalization. I am proposing, therefore, rhetorical analysis and readings informed by rigorous attention to theories intervention and critique of the way that knowledge is constructed. Such a project seeks not so much to prove its theoretical claims by scientific authority, but to place pressure on present assumptions and open up the discourse to a range of increased possibilities.

Archival research will emphasize paying attention to materials that demonstrate the ways that various narratives (within the law) have been constructed in relation to the people (the justices, clerks, etc.) who formed them. There is what the law says and does, but there are ranges of machinations (from personal relationships to affect to psychology) that inform the process behind this. Working through the traces left behind, I attempt to create a meta-narrative that will illuminate cracks in the official narrative, then with recourse to �empirical� presence of these traces (papers, correspondence, etc.). A similar process will be attached to the study of the productions proposed, with attention to the narratives that exist beneath the production from material drawn from interviews with creative collaborators to the objects (including discourse such as reviews, correspondence, etc.) that survive the performances. It is my hopes, by re-constructing the range of narratives that exist between the public narratives formulated in the legal opinions or play productions, to complicate readings of these and their relationship to the minoritarian subject. My methodology, however, is more akin to that of a humanities project with heavy emphasis on rhetorical and discursive analysis, rather than being rooted in a social science approach. This project is, avowedly, highly theoretical in the sense of �theory� that I elaborated in the beginning. It is conceivable that I can be criticized for my resistance to �social sciences� approaches because of my disdain for the racist, sexist, and homophobic assumptions that have historically constituted the fields and haunt the unconscious of the fields, rendering me blind to the potentials that they might offer to me. It�s hardly my fault, however, that the disciplines struggle to find new ways to assert their racisms, sexisms, and homophobias through the marginalization of minority discourse as I found in Alford. I have resisted science all my life. This is precisely because, as theory has shown us, the authority of science is always � to an extent � a contingent fiction. How does one draw from the empiricial when one is suspect of the very cateogry (and the deployment of this cateogry) to begin with? While I value the often self-reflexive and continually useful work done in these fields, I find myself increasingly desiring, to delimit myself from them as much as possible. This is perhaps not the correct response. It is, in no small part, an affective resistance that has manifested itself in my work. I think it better to be honest, however, and to proceed from there. So I suppose the first question in how I develop a research design is how I overcome my resistance to the architectures of design currently available to me.

Alford, Robert R. The Craft of Inquiry: Theories, Methods, Evidence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Chow, Rey. Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Haig, Brian. Grounded Theory as Scientific Method. 1995. Available: http://www.ed.uiuc.edu/EPS/PES-yearbook/95_docs/haig.html. October 8, 2004 2004.

Posted by at October 8, 2004 5:01 PM