Since beginning the Research Methods course, notions of objectivity and subjectivity in research have been sparring together in my imagination. They dance nimbly around in the ring, sometimes landing a glancing blow here or connecting quite well there, but neither delivering the knockout punch. At other times they aren’t fighting at all, but huddled inseparable in one corner. Sometimes the fighters are jostled for space, having been joined by other, competing subjectivities. Inexplicably, I have obtained a ringside seat, but my view is foreshortened.
Letherby states we have to be subjective in order to approach notions of objectivity and that all our practice is suffused with who we are and where we stand (Scott, Letherby & Williams, 2014).
Williams (ibid.) exemplifies scientists’ value-laden choices via their selection of units of measurement, but without quite unseating his champions. He is talking about particular subjective applications of objective methods (or misapplication/misunderstanding if we read Borenstein’s explanation of NHST and effect size (Coe et al, 2017), not refuting the possibility of approaching objectivity itself.
Both Williams and Letherby emphasise the importance of researchers giving full account of their epistemological viewpoint and their chosen methods. They stress the value of a high degree of reflexivity plus detailed explanation to give clarity to research decisions and standpoints, thus enabling fair evaluation. The two are urged to reconcile by Scott’s appeasing synthesis (Scott, Letherby & Williams, 2014).
Where are subjectivity and objectivity located in a sociomaterial perspective of research? Such an understanding of the world pulls other contestants inside the ropes; the subjectivities of the animal, the technical, the biological, the material – and the mix – all exerting mutating and contingent influences and for whom/which we cannot really speak without claiming the sort of anthropocentric and objective stance the posthuman works to dismantle. Such a dismantling shifts temporality from accounts of a monolithic past to a dynamic engaged present and vital trajectory towards an imagined and ‘better’ future.
Who stands apart to bear witness to the bouts? How to chart the ‘mess’? Are these the right questions?
Digital education practice and processes, research included, are best understood as such complex entanglements of the material and the social which resist reduction and finite explanation. Gough (2012) tells us that,
complexity invites us to understand that many of the processes and activities that shape the worlds we inhabit are open, recursive, organic, non linear and emergent. It also invites us to be skeptical of mechanistic and reductionist explanations …
Ross (2017) counsels a notion of ‘Not-yetness’ as a ‘conceptual handle for digital education approaches’ (p.214) to enable us to better research and ‘perform’ possible futures,
Speculative or ‘inventive’ research: ‘is explicitly oriented towards an investigation of the open-endedness of the social world … the happening of the social world – its ongoingness, relationality, contingency and sensuousness’.
(Ross, 2017, quoting Lury and Wakeford, 2012, p.215)
Not-yetness is offered by Ross as a willing, open, investigative and imaginative position embracing the complex. Not-yetness rejects reductive empiricism and generalisation claims with their own inherent, hidden politics. Such a stance welcomes ‘paradigm proliferation’ and a readiness to ‘engage productively as research users and creators with varied epistemological and methodological approaches’ (p.217). In these investigations, subjectivities are expanded to include the material and the technical in rhizomatic chance and irregular emergence.
One such approach may be Pedersen’s zooethnological study of vet students (2013) in which the subjectivity skirmish has shifted to an altogether more bloody and violent arena. (No sign of Haraway’s Companion Species here.) Pedersen emphasises the impossibility of accounting for animals’ subjectivities, (zooethnographic representation), because of the unbridgeable ‘ontological gap’ between the human and the creature, forcibly made manifest by the author as she follows the animals’ ultimately lonely path to slaughter,
Our safe position as privileged species in the setting creates … a physical proximity to and an infinite ontological distance from the cows moving towards the kill floor (Pederson, 2013, p.718)
We cannot speak authentically for the animals, but we can trace the human and material agency which leads inexorably to their demise and in which student affect and pedagogy themselves are ‘recruited’ as part of a ‘prosthesis of slaughter’. Pedersen shows us how the animals’ own behaviours are cynically exploited by the human who orchestrates the entire assemblage as a one-way passage to death. For the cows, there are no Deleuzian ‘lines of flight’ offering possibilities of change. She demonstrates how the ‘modulation of affect … produces subjectivities’ which work to maintain the status quo,
As animals are made to comply with the slaughter process … multiple subjectivities are worked upon simultaneously. Those subjectivities are the subjectivity of the animals, the subjectivity of the public sensitized to the idea of ‘humane’ slaughter, and the subjectivity of veterinary students who are taught the technique, its economic imperatives, as well as the ethology science necessary to assist the implementation of these strategies.
(Pedersen, 2013, p.722)
The pedagogic experience may have no lines of flight, nor the animals hope of escape, but the ethnographic account, recounted in first person vignette style, mobilises the reader’s subjectivity as intended by the author as part of the inquiry,
The zooethnographic approach in this article is located within the research area of critical animal studies.
(Note 2., p.728)
Yet, for Pedersen, to no avail,
While post-qualitative research may highlight the shifting and creative modalities of machinic oppression, … it does not show us the exit.
Where to go next? What can the post-qualitative achieve? What does it set out to do? The post-qualitative eschews representation and the Cartesian subject/object binary to depict emergent, unstable performances in the now and the nearly, where the subject is embedded, distributed and surrounded. Notwithstanding this complexity, research seems to have become more overtly political and more concerned with shaping subjectivities by a ‘responsible knowing’ which ‘explicates the boundary-making and the exclusions crafted through its own processes, and [that] traces the entanglement of the researcher in the vital swarms of the researched’ (Fenwick and Edwards, 2013, p.60)
Martin and Kamberelis (2013) offer Deleuzian mapping as means of baring ‘political teeth’ and they celebrate an ontology of becomings,
This ontology of becomings enables (even urges) us to see things differently – in terms of what they might become rather than as they currently are
(Martin and Kamberelis, 2013, p.670)
Ultimately, mapping discloses potential organizations of reality rather than reproducing some prior organization of it
(Martin and Kamberelis, 2013, p.671)
These sentiments echo Biesta’s comments quoted by Ross (2017, p.216),
He invites us to think about research of all kinds as a support for ‘the intelligent selection of possible lines of action’.
The post-qualitative finds roots in traditional research methods (ethnography, action research, critical animal studies?) and ‘borrow[s] methodologies’ (Gough, 2012) such as Actor Network and Complexity theories (Fenwick and Edwards, 2013). These come together to support Fenwick and Edwards’ ‘performative ontologies’ which challenge
assumptions that a subject is separable from an object, or a knower from the thing that is known, and in some instances, that a learner is necessarily human
The post-qualitative retains just enough shade of the subject/object dualism so that some shared understanding is possible and not just ‘anything goes’ (Ross, 2017),
Without a shared understanding of how some knowledge or insight or understanding about the world is obtained … how will such knowledge or understanding be warranted? And how will it be of any meaningful or constructive consequence in the world?
(Ross, 2017, quoting Greene, 2013).
So, here am I, the last straggler in the ringside seats, tired from the excitement and confusion of the fight; no longer waiting for a tally of points, just ready to leave. But, was I part of the audience or flung about on the ropes myself? Wasn’t I in the midst of the action, conjuring the contestants and influencing tactics, bounced by the ropes, hitting the floor, weaving my own subjectivity amongst the rest and neatly stepping over objectivity, out for the count? I’m uncertain, but that seems not to matter as I embark on a new route home.
Gough (2012, p.47), quoting Biesta,
As Biesta (2009, p.40) argues, education contributes not only to qualification … and socialization … but also to processes of subjectification – of becoming a subject – or what he previously referred to as the ‘coming into presence’ of unique individuals.
Yet, I still struggle to understand how any of our work, as educational and social inquirers, can be other than representational, at least in the forms we use to communicate what we have learned to others. I fully recognize that representational form shapes what is being communicated, and I fully embrace multiple forms of representation (Johnson, Hall, Greene, & Ahn, in press), from text to dance to interactive theatre. But is there any defensible alternative to or escape from representation? How else can we communicate our experiences and what we have learned to audiences who matter?
Coe, R., Waring, M., Hedges, L. V., & Arthur, J. (eds), 2nd Edition, (2017). Research Methods and Methodologies in Education. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Fenwick, T. & Edwards, R. (2013). Performative Ontologies. Sociomaterial approaches to researching adult education and lifelong learning. European Journal for Research on the Education and Learning of Adults. 4(1), pp.49-63.
Gough, N. (2012). Complexity, Complexity Reduction, and ‘Methodological Borrowing’ in Educational Inquiry. Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education, 9 (1).
Greene, J. C. (2013). On rhizomes, lines of flight, mangles, and other assemblages. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(6), pp.749-758.
Martin, A. D. & Kamberelis, G. (2013). Mapping not tracing: qualitative educational research with political teeth. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(6), pp.668-679
Pedersen, H. (2013). Follow the Judas sheep: materializing post-qualitative methodology in zooethnographic space. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(6), pp.717-731,
Ross, J. (2017). Speculative method in digital education research. Learning, Media and Technology, 42(2), pp.214-229,
Scott, J., Williams, M. & Letherby, G. 2014, Objectivity and subjectivity in social research, SAGE Publications Ltd., London