It’s been a while (10 months!) since I last posted on this blog. I’ve been studying, and writing a dissertation for, a MSc in Psychology. There were some fascinating potential tangents to explore along the way but it was too much (for me) to try and construct coherent pieces of writing that weren’t work or study. The dissertation has been submitted and I am trying to find the space to read, think and write in a slightly less focused way.
I did the MSc for a variety of reasons. Part of it was simply to gain a piece of paper which showed that I knew stuff. Bourdieu (1986, 2011) observed that the knowledge of the autodidact is always open to question and that qualifications work as a culturally accepted way of vouchsafing a person’s knowledge base. I read this after I started the MSc but recognised it’s pertinence to my own situation. A more positive reason for doing the MSc was that it allowed me to consolidate my knowledge of Psychology (which it definitely did) and, finally, it gave me a chance to explore a topic I’m interested in through my dissertation. Essentially, I was paying to do the research of my own choosing.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I chose to focus on people and objects for my dissertation. But dissertations are funny things: you have to focus down really quickly. Most Masters students start out with questions that are too big for a dissertation and would probably struggle to fit in a PhD. So I knew I needed to be specific.
Subject disciplines represent a way of looking at, and exploring, the world. A lot of researchers start from a particular disciplinary perspective and concomitant methodology and ask: what questions can I usefully address from this perspective? The challenge with starting from a topic is that there are multiple disciplinary perspectives that could usefully be applied to it. So, I was interested in the way that people interact with each other and with objects. In principle, this could be approached from: anthropology; (cognitive) archaeology; consumer studies; design & ergonomics; ethnography; material culture studies; sociology to name a few possibilities. But, of course, I was doing a Psychology dissertation and this sets the terms of what methods and epistemologies are acceptable and what are not. It has been observed that your methods represent your licence to speak to a particular academic community (Suri, 2013). Similarly, compliance with those methods is part of the process of learning in order to be associated with that community. Hence most of the methods associated with that list of disciplines were simply not open to me. In a similar way, certain concepts were also just not allowable. Hope’s (2016) notion of practitioner-researchers who know through working and practice towards a resolution was (sadly) out of the window. The idea that objects have agency, as in Actor-Network Theory, was also clearly out of bounds but I have real issues with this notion so that wasn’t such a problem.
Then there was the issue of whether or not to do something that fell into the category of experimental cognitive research. I did consider doing a study where I showed people images of unfamiliar and familiar objects and measured their responses using an EEG. (It turned out that someone has already done something similar using fMRI.) The (ex-)engineer in me found this deeply appealing but, actually, I was interested in work that reflected daily practices in museums and which could potentially inform ideas of good practice. Furthermore, if you accept that people’s behaviour is shaped by the social situation and by the actions of others then looking at objects in isolation in a lab just won’t be the same as looking, handling and talking about objects with others in a gallery setting.
All this filtering to get to the point where I was sure that I was going to watch people handling unfamiliar, contemporary craft objects. Sorted!! But then how was I going to interpret the data? Cue the familiar experience of wandering innocently into a topic and then discovering all the debates that I was blissfully unaware of. Slowly I began to discover the differences between Conversation Analysis and Pragmatics; the implications of considering gesture as a communicative tool; the emerging fields on the fringes of Psychology which try to hold in balance social and cognitive processes in (embodied) social interaction. Needless to say each of these fields involves academics who, if you put them in a room together would have a polite but fearsome debate about methodologies and epistemologies and (after a few drinks) probably ontologies too. I just wanted to fashion a space that worked for me!
In the end, what I did sat on the fringes of Psychology. It was thoroughly qualitative. I took the [dyad + object] as my unit of study and not the individual. I focused on observational data but followed others who saw interaction emerging out of the interplay of social and cognitive factors. I endeavoured to treat interaction as an embodied process. I tried to hold the tension between Pragmatics (language as meaningful) and Conversation Analysis (interaction as achieving social goals). There was (is) considerably more in the data than I could handle within the constraints of a dissertation. There was (is) also considerably more for me to learn. So, hopefully, I will carve out the time to unpick the data and pursue the topic some more. If I’m really lucky, I might get paid to do it.
Bourdieu, P. (2011). The forms of capital. (1986). Cultural theory: An anthology, 81-93.
Hope, S. (2016) Bursting paradigms: a colour-wheel of practice-research. Cultural Trends, 25(2), 74–86
Suri, H. (2013). Epistemological pluralism in research synthesis methods. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(7), 889–911.