Methodological woes

So… I want to capture the moment when someone holds, and responds to, an object. I want to know what it is in the object that they are responding to. So… how to capture that moment?

The obvious answer might be to strap them into FMRI scanner and see which bits of their brain are more active when holding an object. But this won’t work for various reasons. For a start there are the practical issues of holding an object whilst inside a narrow tube and strong magnetic field. Next, though such a scanner might have the spatial resolution, it may not have the temporal resolution. However, more profoundly, object handling occurs within a physical and social environment and these shape each person’s response; so holding an object inside a scanner is significantly different from doing it in a period room with some friends. It seems likely that, even if I could get the experiment to work, I might not be able to extrapolate to the ‘real world’.

Next up would be an EEG scan. This has the temporal resolution but not the spatial resolution. However, some people have developed mobile EEG kits and the idea of having a room full of people all wearing EEG head-nets (so that everyone looked equally silly and no-one knew who was being scanned) appeals to my sense of humour. The supervisor in me knows that ‘it made me laugh’ would not look good in a justification of methodology.

Having discounted direct scanning techniques I have to turn to more observational techniques. This is where my woes start to multiply. I’ started looking at research using sensory methods and stumbled (once again!) into someone else’s debate. (Why is it that academics always argue? Is it part of the job description?) Anyway, there is a debate between proponents of sensory ethnography and those who prefer multimodal analysis with some attempts to find some sort of third way that combines the insights of both. Put simply both involve being with people, watching them and talking with them. It sounds lovely but has some issues that I’m struggling with.

Firstly, part of the sensory ethnography approach is an emphasis on the self-reflexive researcher. I can’t argue with that but, if the participant is responding to [object + social environment + physical environment] then equally the researcher is responding to the [participant +object + social environment + physical environment] and this feels like we’ll end up trapped in an intellectual hall of mirrors. The thought horrifies me.

Secondly, the work of behavioural economists suggests that people are not always aware of the stimulus they are responding to, nor how it is shaping this response. So far, I have taken that insight to heart but this means that talking to people about their sensory experience is misleading, if not futile, because the participants may not be consciously aware of what it was about the object they responded to. Or they may unknowingly shape their narrative of their response to suit the social environment. Talking has to be treated circumspectly.

So, I’m left with observation. It’s a deeply flawed method subject to my interpretation. Although I may be able to ameliorate that subjectivity with a rigid data analysis framework and duplicate, separate data coders to check for consistency. But what am I looking for? Glances? Transient moves of fingers? Half formulated fragments of sentences? Perhaps it is inevitable that the traces of a fleeting moment are themselves ephemeral and resistant to capture but with a distant history of metal bashing behind me, I find this deeply unsatisfactory / unsettling.

About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in qualitative methods, research methodology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Methodological woes

  1. Interesting dilemma. Perhaps some level of understanding could be gleaned from the questions and discussion sparked by an object? Observing many different people holding the same object one might start to pick up patterns in the subsequent questions/discussion that give some indication of what they are responding to. Some follow-up questions to the people observed might also eventually show if there are other common factors that influence certain reactions. Alternatively one might observe the same individual reacting to a range of different objects, again looking for any patterns that might indicate what the person was responding to in the object.

    Tricky question!

    • Indeed. I do think that objects work in a similar fashion to linguistic metaphors in that they shape the direction of your associative thinking without you necessarily being aware of it. So, if I could experiment on a large enough population patterns might emerge, as you suggest. However, I think I’d also need some fine-grained observation if I have any chance of capturing which aspect of the object is the initial prompt for that chain of association.

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