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02 January 2012

A New Methodology

What are methods?  What is it that they do?  What is the relationship between theory and method?  These are all concerns of mine in my anthropological practice.

As anthropologists, we pride ourselves on having a unique set of methods - participant observation and ethnography.  We cross the boundary between quantitative and qualitative.  We place ourselves in the subject position while at the same time attempting to remain objective.  We get into the dirty details of an issue, but also try to extrapolate the generalities.  Most recently we have even lead the way in opening our methods up to those we study - using participatory and collaborative methods to allow them to represent themselves.  We think about our methods perhaps more than any other discipline in order to make sure that we act ethically, and effectively with regard to the people we study.

But I believe we are caught in a trap with methodology.  We have constrained ourselves so that even our best methods when best applied have little effect on the world.  I'm being overly harsh - many people do wonderful work, but I'm emphasizing the limitations we have placed upon ourselves and calling for a rethinking of methods, a new methodology for a changing and unpredictable world.

The thing we have to confront is the fact that we have constrained ourselves to the realm of representation.  Methods, for most, are techniques for generating knowledge however you imagine that to occur.  For a positivist, methods soak up knowledge like a sponge from the world around us.  Quantity is quality, since the more we know the better we know.  For constructivists, methods are the tools of the author to compose a representation.  Knowledge is contingent, quantity is irrelevant and quality depends on the context.  There are many positions in between and many positions which mix the two, but on this spectrum the possibility of methods lie only in the range of representation whether it's representation of reality or representation of an authorial perspective.  Thus there is a separation of method and theory - theory is what tells us what methods to use, what methods ought to do, and what kinds of representations our methods can make.  But methods are merely a means to an end - that being a representation.

I want to shift the focus back to methods, to see them not as a mere means, but as a thing unto themselves.  So what are methods?  First and foremost, they are ways of acting in the world, and every action is an act of creation.  Methods create.  They create representations, for sure, and we must not forget that!  But they also create other things, and they can be used to create much more than representations.  Focusing only on the representation has kept us from seeing the full potential of methods to create change in themselves.  As a result, we have constrained our view of what methods are available to us.

Methods make a difference - they cannot help but do so.  The question is what kind of difference.  It's not how we represent the world that matters, but how we create it.  Thus theory is method, for theory is acting in the world as well.  And when methods become about creation, then a world of new methods open up to us.  There is the method of art, the method of science, the method of work.  There are methods of mediation and building relationships, and there are methods of tearing down. 

I call for this change in methodology.  To look at the effects of our methods on the world, to think of methods as creative, and constructive.  What kind of world do you want to create?  What methods can you use to create it?  It is a call to consciousness - to be aware of what we're doing in the world, what kind of world we are creating, and what kind of world we could be creating.  It's not enough to wonder if we're representing properly, we have to wonder if we're making the world more just, more sustainable, more loving, kind, happy.  We can do these things - bit by bit, method by method - we can build a better world!

2 comments:

btmc said...

Great post Jeremy!
Question:
Are Anthropologists who focus on what they're creating, rather than focusing on accurately and ethically representing what they're studying, are they still Anthropologists? I guess I'm not sure what the creation looks like... Are you asking Anthropologists to build houses? No I don't think so... But you are asking Anthropologists to build something, so I guess I'm asking you to spell out what that might be?
I imagine the first step might be to understand what we're already creating, with representations and theories, but you've just said these are not effective tools. So what more can we do?
As a journalism student, I'm conscious of the meanings I choose to create by representing this moment versus that moment, or by taking any subject and finding/forcing it into a narrative that is engaging, meaningful and entertaining. In other words, by representing I am creating, and I'm conscious of this, and I think most everyone else is too. So how is what you're proposing different from this awareness? Or is it this awareness?

Jeremy Trombley said...

Thanks Brendan. I don't want to spell out what I think anthropologists should build - to do so would be to further limit. Also, it's not about representation versus something else, it's the recognition that the representation is something! That it makes a difference. But it's also about thinking beyond just representation whether for information, meaning or entertainment. It's about building a world, whatever that entails. If that means building a house, then so be it. Why can't building a house be an anthropological method?
The difference from before is a broadened view of what constitutes a method and also a broadened view of what our methods do. It's also a consciousness of being an actor in a world and a participant in its co-creation! To be conscious not just of the meaning of what we create (books, articles, houses, roads, relationships, and so on), but of what our creations do in all forms.

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