Monday, 21 April 2008

Emotion and Embodiment in Social Research

Keele played host today to a series of talks on the place occupied by emotion and the body in social research processes. We heard papers that looked at the ethics of lying about one's identity in ethnographic field work, the surprising intimacy of online interviews, the distance between researcher and the subjects of research, and the role of conferences in constructing academic identities. I would like to concentrate my remarks on the paper given by David Knights - Censoring Embodiment in Research: Reflections on Masculinity and Ethics.

His contention is the social sciences have conspired to keep the body out of the research process. There may well have been a turn to theorising the body within social theory over the last 20 years, but this "discovery" has not yet been reflected in sociological commentaries on the research process itself. Bringing the body, or rather embodiment (i.e. the unity of emotions, corporeality and cognition) back in requires a new way of writing sociology. To demonstrate the problem, Knights recalled his PhD experience. His was a participant observation of newspaper staff who were employed to sell advertising space. It appeared the staff spent their days finding creative ways to skive off, meaning very little got done. However, because of the workplace knowledge he had gained the staff grew concerned about the exposure of what they were, or rather, were not doing. So the union threw him out and barred access. Though this experience was a bit of a shock there was no place in his PhD to reflect on the effects it had on him. Similarly he recalled an ESRC project where one of his research team died after falling from a hotel balcony, and another ran off to Germany with all the data. Again the traumas of these experiences went unspoken in the final report.

Why is this the case? Knights suggest the fundamental assumptions of the social sciences remain organised around the mind/body split inherited from Descartes; and the domination of most fields by 'masculine' logics and discourses. In other words, this silence about the emotional production of academic work not only reflects hegemonic masculinities, but serves to reproduce them. This conveys an image of smoothness and orderliness, it affects a presentation of sociological knowledge as something produced without effort or difficulty, and suggests the social world itself is less chaotic, confusing and complex than it really is. This is an outcome of privileging one set of attributes over another. The sociological field still strives for objectivity, rationality and reason. It is much harder for one to accumulate the necessary cultural capital if the work is subjective, irrational and emotional. And of course, historically, these are gendered. The first set of three are male. The latter set female. The former are properties of mind. The latter are properties of the body.

This can be clearly seen in Sartre's existentialism. Knights argued his work could be seen as a search for order, which he eventually found when he became a communist. Sartre was anxious when it came to nature and particularly the contingencies of nature - its disorder, excess and viscosity. In common with other thinkers, he wanted to ensure a closure of meaning, where identity and theorising around identity could be grounded in some form of order, one that denies the corporeality of the body.

Another social scientific strategy of creating orderly presentations of the world is ironically the same method that has done much to undermine the claims of grand theorising. That method is ethnography. Its pretension to capture the detail of the social world reflects exhaustiveness. In other words it once again plays a discursive masculine game - to secure identity against contingency ethnography paints a detailed picture of the settings it operates in. The researcher is located in this space too, but again the emotional labour of getting into the field is often glossed over.

If sociology is to explain the totality of the social world, it needs to overcome the gendered norms embedded deep within its architecture. Social science needs to inhabit the space between subjectivity and representation, of acknowledging its gendered character and work to incorporate both sides into its output. The prize of doing so is a social science better able to theorise the social in all its complexity.

This is particularly useful where my own work is concerned. As I've noted previously, doing a project that boils down to a socialist interviewing socialists throws up all kinds of methodological issues around bias, familiarity, the conflicting "economies" of politics and academia, etc. Already I have used Bourdieu's notions of fields, capital, strategies and trajectories to map out the social space I inhabit as an activist and a researcher. Following Bourdieu, I believe sociological work cannot escape the conditions under which it was produced. Therefore this kind of reflexivity towards one's position in the academy, the field of power and the wider social field is a fundamental prerequisite of any properly scientific work of social analysis. What Knights' argument does is add another dimension to this enterprise; it allows for reflexive embodiment. It gives me an opportunity to acknowledge the emotions that have driven my research, governed how I've interacted with participants and informed my interpretation of their statements. Instead of buying into the ideology of smoothness, the frustrations that came when the original research plan began unravelling can be identified and inform the discussion of how the problem was overcome.

Perhaps there will be room to talk about panic too.


thinkingdifference said...

This is indeed interesting, but the issues may have something to learn from the debates over autoethnography, a controversial qualitative research method which tries to recover the personal voice (including embodied experiences) and re-connect them to the wider social frame. I had this discussion yesterday with a colleague of mine re doing research in virtual worlds. How to speak of embodied knowledge? The academic vocabulary (except some phenomenological work and some feminist work) is quite unfit for that.

Phil said...

Well Knights and most of the people attending this seminar were from Critical Management Studies backgrounds, which as you may or may not know originally grew from Labour Process studies. By all accounts that was noted for a deeply macho and conflictual disciplinary culture. So I suppose emotions and talking about them in academic work is quite new for them. One participant, from a social work background, made much the same point as you did.

As regards embodied language in virtual worlds (an area I'm interested in but haven't read or written anything in for years), obviously representations of race and gender become deeply problematic. Also, has there been much work done on intimacy online, on how people in internet relationships get around the lack of physical presence?