« Research Ethics? | Main | No Sure Ground: An Anthropology of Absences »

October 10, 2004

On methodological innovation, creative inferences, and pataphysical phenomena in qualitative research

On methodological innovation, creative inferences, and pataphysical phenomena in qualitative research

What productive relationships could be drawn between theory, method, and evidence in the context of qualitative research? What epistemic frameworks could operate in these relationships? This week�s readings arpeggiate these questions from a shared position of critical revision on the potentiality of subjectivity, while individually orchestrating research praxis through a score of methodological concepts.
Subjectivity and reflexivity are axial concepts that organize Breuer & Roth�s arguments on a constructionist orientation to knowledge. The authors propose subjectivity as a �epistemic window� in academic research, and thus a generator of methodological innovation. This praise of subjectivity shifts the notion of objectivity attained by the elimination of differences and triangulation of commonalities; in this line of thought, the authors propose to understand the researcher as an embodied, individual, and socially interactive agent, self-consciously attaining �depth perception� through the juxtaposition of multiple perspectives.
This meta-perspective is the organizing idea of the methodology proposed by Breuer and Roth, inasmuch as it permeates their methodological strategy of decentering and reflexivity, in a Hegelian dialectics framed by four basic epistemological assumptions: perspectivity (perception and knowledge are always tied to some position and a particular perspective), horizontality (a dynamic observer position, where perception takes place in a spatial and temporal system that relates to other systems in an interpretive horizon), the structuring of knowledge through instruments of knowledge production (an experienced-based differentiation of our perceptual schemata that affects and conditions our subjective choices of method, selection of facts, and manners of research interaction), and the interactivity and interventionist nature of research (dialectical relationship between the research subject and her �object�, in transactions and interactions that stimulate and affects both parties).
A self-conscious process of research would take into account the researcher�s social, historical, and biographical characteristics, while allowing the final document to bear all the marks of the research methodological choices and of the researcher�s presence and intervention in the research process and its products. In doing so, reflective subjectivity would turn to be not a liability but an asset in the process of academic innovation and knowledge building.
The dynamism of academic research, with an emphasis on the procedural/methodological aspects of phenomena understood from the perspective of the human agent is echoed in Haig�s proposal of �grounded theory�. In the realm of qualitative research, Haig distances himself from hypothetico-deductivism, and defends an inductive discovery of theory grounded in a systematic analysis of phenomena (conceived as proper objects of explanation and prediction, evidenced by data �that is, perceptual observations idiosyncratic to particular investigative contexts). This systematic analysis for constructing theory is posed from a dynamic perspective: theory is emphasized as an ever-developing entity, a procedural endeavor of theory generation, development, and appraisal whose method is structured and regulated by the research problem (as dictated by his constraint-competition theory). From the methodological frameworks contained in the research problem, grounded theory is abductively generated from �robust� data patterns (that is, established in multiply-determined ways), elaborated through the construction of plausible models, and justified in terms of explanatory coherence.
Plausibility and coherence are key here: plausibility implies both the construction of models (for example, iconic paramorph models, where analogical extension generates theories) and the development of patterns of creative inferences, regulated by epistemic constraints; coherence guarantees the sustainability of the inductively developed theory when tested for empirical adequacy (with principles and criteria like symmetry, analogy, data priority, acceptability, consistency, density, scope, integration, heuristic worth, application, consilience, and simplicity, among others).
Grounded theory�s procedural perspective, as well as its articulation through the methodological relationship between phenomenon and evidence is further examined by Alford in his book The Craft of Inquiry. Alford explores the internal dynamics, the complexities and consequences of research choices, insofar as qualitative research would exponentially improve with the self-reflective, rigorous integration of theory, method, and evidence.
If problems grow out of a combination of personal (intellectual, emotional, and physical) experience, disciplinary inquiry and social issues, method would imply, for Alford, a series of strategies for associating the abstractions of theory with the collection and analysis of specific social instances, as well as the verifying, and evaluating the reliability and validity of empirical evidence. It is through the framework of method that a broad field problem turns into a research question; this question, in turn, sets and frames a �rolling� (�recursive�, �iterative�, dynamic) process of drawing on concepts and assumptions from theory to help organize an argument that is also grounded in evidence. Research questions, be them theoretical or empirical, function as entry points into the problem, not precluding one another but fluctuating between theory and the empirical, in a fruitful �track of analysis� that shape the scope of one another, while strategically dodging anxiety and intellectual inertia.
The distinction between �theory� and �evidence� is drawn from the positivist philosophical tradition, and is reformulated depending on the paradigm of inquiry in which they operate. Alford proposes three interconnected paradigms of inquiry in qualitative research, with particular philosophical groundings, but complementary in praxis: the multivariate, the interpretive, and the historical. The three of them share the imperative of a �warranting community� that develops and sustain a consensus on the validity of the procedures to interpret evidence and constitution of theory, but each function within a distinctive empirical focus and methodological map of concepts.
The multivariate paradigm, grounded in the philosophical tradition of logical positivism, doesn�t recognize as primary data any evidence that has not been converted into a �variable�. Theories are considered clusters of factors that allow the construction of empirical �measures� of independent, dependent, intervening, and control variables. A balance between theory and evidence is recommended by the author; if they do not work in tandem, the resulting product would be either abstract systems theory or structural functionalism (is theory is prioritized), or else it becomes abstract empiricism or statements of relationship between empirical indicators (if evidence is privileged).
The interpretive paradigm is grounded in the philosophical tradition of phenomenology. Argumentation is made through the reconstruction of social processes of interaction, which is understood as constituting arena for individual conceptions of reality within a community of meaning. Theoretical assumptions are frequently left implicit: the researcher assume that the �actors� have an understanding of the factors affecting their actions, whether personal conflicts, economic interests, historical contexts, epistemic frameworks, etc. Partly because of this particular view of theory, the interpretive paradigm is likely to be articulated in more personal terms, taking the researcher into account as part of the argumentation. In order to present a �balanced� paradigm, theory can�t be divorced from evidence (or else, phenomenological philosophy results), or vice versa (which would result in a descriptive statement that doesn�t include its explanations �evidence, for Alford, is always given significance by theory).
The third and last paradigm of inquiry proposed by Alford is the historical. The author doesn�t identify any underlying theory of knowledge in relation to this paradigm (???), and defines its approach as a combination of an empirical focus on �conjunctures� (events located in specific times and places) with theoretical inferences about the contextual �totality� in which they have significance. Here, theory without evidence would result in a �structuralism� that postulates laws of social development, turning the individuals in �bearers� or agents of historical forces; evidence without theory would become a description of unique events (and again, the author differentiates description from explanation or interpretation).
Alford presents a list of working terminology for each paradigm, but stresses the interconnectivity of their approaches within one same research endeavor. Using this set of concepts in the light of my own inquiry, I would situate my research question as existing in the blurred frontiers of the interpretive and the historical paradigms. Of these two, I am profoundly interested in the interactions between �meaning� and �process�, both as a participant and as spectator of the creative and pedagogical process of the two theater case studies I�m researching at the moment. In this methodological in-between I situate dramaturgy as performative, self-conscious paradigm for qualitative research.
Albeit I have always been somehow skeptical of terminological straightjackets (structuralism�s siren song: tempting, but�), I find this set of terms an interesting tool for articulating my argument within a scholarly community. I must confess that I approached the readings for this week as a possible panacea for my methodological nightmares; these paradigms for inquiry didn�t �magically solved� my questions on �how?�: how to better and more �professionally� manage my evidence in order to develop theory? How could I structure the dialogue with my �objects� and their feedback to my interpretations (in the line of Breuer & Roth)? How could I construct plausibility, coherence, and credibility in, with, and through my research project? I didn�t find concrete, operational answers to these in the readings, but, as philosophical reflection, I think they do function as ludic alibi for my exploration of alternative ways to conduct social-scientific investigation, creative strategies that don�t fall short in academic rigor, while accounting for phenomenological approaches to complex scenarios of performance and politics in Latin America. I�m still in search for an attractive and �robust� paradigm to emulate; in the meantime, I think I�ll keep exploring the science of imaginary �and imaginative-solutions, the science of the exceptional, of the particular, an embodied, performative framework, that of Jarry�s pataphysics�

Posted by at October 10, 2004 11:49 AM