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October 8, 2004

Research design and methods

Organizing a research is less about selecting methods than combining them and including various theoretical approaches. The evidence comes from the fact that social sciences are hybrid and interdisciplinary, and that researchers from this field have a constructed, subjective perspective in their analysis. This inclusive approach seems not just necessary but mandatory in Performance Studies, a field where a variety of social practices are analyzed in light of various theories. Performance Studies is ontologically interdisciplinary. It is grounded in a combination of theoretical and empirical findings, in the superposition of lenses leading to original interpretation.

In spite of the contemporary tendency to compartmentalize theory and method, to aim for the narrowest specialization and to separate qualitative and quantitative researchers, Robert Alford argues that research should be �open to different views about the relations among theory, method and evidence.�(2) He shows that �method � is a series of strategies for finding a way to associate the abstractions of theory with the actual social relations being mapped, interpreted, or explained by the theory� (12).
Alford�s working vocabulary of paradigms of inquiry fits well, because it is flexible. I tried to apply his table on page 51 to my research, and it helped me differentiate the levels of inquiry, the type of data collections, the observation points and the historical vs. interpretative paradigms. However, I felt that Alford was summarizing aspects of methodology that were almost obvious, or that would have been more useful before writing the dissertation proposal.

Breuer and Roth bring a more dynamic approach to the issue of research subjectivity: �The act of perception itself modifies the epistemic object, any claim to objective measurement is questioned in a fundamental way.� They insist that most social scientists agree on the �contingent nature of the knowledge of others�, but are still blind to accepting their own. Breuer and Roth want to convince us that there�s nothing wrong about having a subjective perspective shaped by our personal background, acquired knowledge, learned experience, influences and our own research interests. We need to take advantage of this fact to �gain depth� and agree to deal with multiple, different perspectives. Researchers need to make it clear from the start that their methods and analysis skills are influenced and constructed. This is especially critical at the time of observation and interaction with objects of research. Social sciences are about humans, not abstract equations. The human is visible in both the subject and the object, and the research also lies in the interaction and interdependence of both agents. �They constitute stimuli to each other.� Participants become authors and researchers become participants. Breuer and Roth go beyond the acknowledgement of subjectivity in research by turning it into a research principle, a system.

In choosing my dissertation topic, I have been aware of the fact that I am dealing with highly sensitive material � death, violence, survival, mourning, memory � and personal emotions - anger, sadness, pain, depression, to name a few. But both are an intrinsic part of the research, they contribute to the interesting aspect of the topic. As a researcher, I know that I will deal with sensitive material, and not really �cheerful� matters. But I also know that my decision to delve in this topic was shaped by personal experience and previous research done in remotely related fields. I consider it as an asset and not as a handicap, as enriching my understanding and analysis rather than adding limitation or bias, as long as I remain conscious of this fact. However, I also think that my previous experience and research in one specific domain (e.g. Interviews of Holocaust survivors) can be utilized in other contexts (interviews of survivors of contemporary tragedies).

I will design my research as a combination of methods, from the general to the particular, and back to the general for verification. Starting with the history of war memorials and other examples of collective remembrance of a tragedy, I will then focus on three countries (U.S., Germany, France) and explore their participation in World War II and the building of national identity thereafter. On parallel tracks, I will research theories about mourning and loss; nostalgia and memory; exile and pilgrimage; the roles of the spectator, the witness, and the next generation. Collecting data will include empirical findings at the memorial sites (filming, recording, photographing and journaling) before, during and after memorial ceremonies and other public events. While on premises, I will interview participants (survivors and their descendants) and passers-by, public officials, tourists and tour guides.

I selected three sites that relate to the same tragedy, World War II, but that are located in three different countries with very different political and ideological roles at the time of the war. This will help me draw comparisons and analogies in order to induce a pattern of reactions and attitudes.

I will then confront this empirical data with the theory and look where they intersect or, rather, how antagonistic they are. Since I would like to question the role of national memorials in their relation to the duty to remember, I will need to build solid empirical data because most existing scholarship considers memorials as serving memory in a positive way. I will then verify my conclusions (whether partially or fully convincing) against two other examples of national memorials in progress: Ground Zero in New York and the Museum of Memory in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I would like to see if the conclusions reached with the three comparable case studies could be applied to monuments responding to different tragedies, terrorism and military dictatorship.

My goal is to contribute to the field of memorial studies from a Performance Studies perspective, combining theory and empirical findings, bringing inductive and deductive approaches, and acknowledging my own interaction with epistemic objects in the process.

Posted by Brigitte Sion at October 8, 2004 2:27 PM