Methodological epiphanies and challenges

As I noted in an earlier post, I’ve been trying to figure out a methodological approach for this research proposal. Inevitably this involves more reading, early reading suggested that techniques drawn from the field of conversation analysis, particularly when enhanced by the use of video recording. At the same time the texts also pointed to various tensions, insofar as some authors (notably ten Have) indicated that you shouldn’t try to use conversation analysis to reveal the things I am interested in. Those readings also pointed to another linked field, discursive psychology, so (armed with the naive belief that if you bang your head against a subject hard enough then eventually it will give in) I went back to the library to find more books.

The first book ‘Conversation and cognition’ has proven helpful in pinning down the problem that I had perceived and helped identify its origins…

To go back some, I have been drawing on research and other writings in the fielcds of cognitive psychology and neuroscience to see what insights they provided into the moment of object handling and, to be fair, this approach has proven to be very helpful. The challenge has been that I want to see how it plays out in practice. This is where life gets messier as ‘real life’ is a much more complex environment than the stripped down experimental environments that those pieces of research utilised. This shift from experiment to in-situ handling session is crucial for now it is not just the participant and the object but the participant and the object and the other participants and the room and the place of this moment in the participants’ life-stories.

This shift also marks a boundary between cognitive and discursive psychology. Discursive psychology gives attention to the processes seen at play in real interactions. The relationship between the two fields is, it seems, somewhat fraught because (according to Sanders) the differences in subject and method between the fields mean that insights from cognitive psychology do not necessarily translate into the work of discursive psychology.

I have, unwittingly, tried to straddle this border and find myself sitting uncomfortably on the fence. The chapter by Potter and te Molder pointed out 7 tensions between cognitive and discursive psychology, many of which are germane to this project. I have to admit that this was not what I wanted to hear: I wanted to read about the 7 ways in which discursive and cognitive psychology get along just fine. Alas…

In many ways, I don’t see that I have a choice. Or rather, the decision to look at real-life object handling sessions means that I must give attention to the fields of conversational analysis and discursive psychology. Furthermore, I don’t think that the experimental approaches of cognitive psychology are open to me. Yet… this choice takes me further from the insights that drew me into this subject in the first place. On the bright side, the richness of social interactions in museum environments is fascinating to observe.

The aim of the book is to highlight the complexities and nuances around this topic.
Sanders’ chapter highlights how discursive psychology rests on assumptions about cognition, so there is a relationship between the two domains. Meanwhile Coulter argues that much of what we say is thoughtless, i.e. not the outcome of deliberate thought but rather of conventional and routinised practices. This latter is important as it shows how the leap that I had hoped to make is fraught with difficulties. Nonetheless, there is hope (of a sort). In his chapter, Heritage discusses the use of ‘Oh!’, as in ‘Oh! I never knew that’. In such a circumstance, the word expresses a cognitive moment of epiphany, of new information being received. Here it seems like there is a correlation between an expression and an inner cognitive process. However, such expressions have become embedded in conventional practices of conversation. So ‘Oh’ is used as a mutually understood sign that new information has been received, whether ot not this is actually the case. Similarly, Wooffitt demonstrates how the recounting of ‘flashbulb’ memories are consistently embedded in culturally shared narrative forms, suggesting that the recounting/retelling of the memory is being shaped by the speaker’s expectations of what the audience is thinking. Both Heritage and Wooffitt indicate that there may well be some relationship between what is said and some inner cognitive state but that the relationship is fraught with difficulties. Lynch & Bogen would go further and argue that there is no need to posit inner cognitive states. Instead, the external social/cultural/procedural frameworks in certain circumstances are sufficient to define the meaning of terms like ‘remembering’ and ‘forgetting’. Whilst the practices of reminiscence do not have the strict legal frameworks that they were considering, they do invoke certain social scripts which, in turn, carry certain expectations about what can be said and how it might be expressed.

I’m not sure where that all leaves me… probably still on the fence: drawing insights from cognitive psychology but unable to apply it as heuristic framework. It does force me to shift the focus from the individual participant to the reminiscence session as a whole and from what is being thought to what is said and done. But I suspect that my model of the thinking individual will continue to lurk in the background of my thoughts.

It is often observed that Jewish thought is expressed through paradox, that is through maintaining the truth of 2 seemingly incompatible statements and holding those truths in tension and balance. Somehow, I hope to find a way of working through these 2 domains holding them in tension learning from and drawing from both.

References (with the exception of the reference to ten Have) all the chapters/authors referred to are found in the following…

te Molder, H. & Potter, J. (eds) (2005) Conversation and Cognition, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press


About Bruce Davenport

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

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