Monday, 4 October 2010

PhD thinking: faith and postmodernism?

There's something that's been bugging me slightly. Like many people, in the early stages of pulling together a bigger research project like a PhD, I'm thinking about theoretical paradigms (social constructivist, participant, pragmatic and so on) but also what Creswell (2007) calls 'interpretive communities' such as postmodernism, feminism, critical theory and so on. This is where there is a niggle for me. In short, I'm feeling that the general tenants of social constructivism may be useful in that they allow for complexity, multiple meanings and perspectives - negotiated historically and socially. When I get to thinking about a specific way of thinking about my research - and in this case, postmodernism, I've mixed feelings. It's my first time trying to put some of these into writing, so that's a little dangerous but it may help me work up some questions to push things on.

My starting point is that my research paradigm, approach and methodology need to reflect my own views, beliefs and values for me to have any sense of 'authentic voice'. I've previously mentioned that I'm a Christian, so here's where it's interesting regarding those family of theories and approaches that can be called 'postmodern'. As you will no doubt know, postmodern thought is fairly fundamental to western (rich) intellectual life with its emphasis on multiple perspectives, the need to 'deconstruct' narrative (amongst other things) and to understand 'knowledge claims' in their situated contexts. Much of this I have no problem with and in fact I work with these ideas when helping students to think critically and analytically. However, certain aspects of postmodern discourse deserve more thought for me and I specifically want to think critically about them. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking things like:

  • Identification and definition depends on contrast and separation from what it claims not to be. 
  • There is no grand 'truth' or meta narrative outside of social and historical context.
So where does this leave the person of faith (in my case, in Jesus)? In one sense, it's missing the point to say this is about postmodern thinking vs. faith - I happen to believe faith opens up perspectives, challenges us and lives with complexity and contradiction in so many ways (unlike religion, which is dogmatic and run by legalistic rules, in my opinion). However, if I look at a subject such as identity (and I plan to do this, in the case of professional identity and narratives of change) I do bump up against beliefs that do seem fairly objective and claim to some 'truth'. I want to avoid an unthinking 'radicalism' that in its own way throws out the faith perspective - that seems uncritical in its own way! Is postmodernism fundamentally secular? Am I hypocritical to say I value the perspective but also feel the need to look at the implications of my faith when it comes to ideas of identity - not to (uncritically) go with every word I read?

Do I say that theology asks different questions, and that it is possible to hold both postmodern perspectives and faith together...to a point? I certainly plan to value plenty of postmodern perspectives in my work, but am wondering about how my own positioning as a researcher of faith (let's call it) means for how I interpret. This might get even more sticky if I go on with plans to adopt a narrative approach to the research - with the focus on understanding others' stories as they tell them. As far as I can gather, both narrative and phenomenological approaches require researchers to 'bracket out' their own perspectives and experiences...unless perhaps I position myself in there too?

Don't worry, I'm not losing serious amounts of sleep about this (yet!) but can you see that taking an 'authentic' position is quite a challenge - whoever you are? Perhaps you have some ideas and perspectives - whether you have a faith or not, I'd be interested to hear. I'm sure as I refine my questions about this, and read a little more I'll move the thinking along.

Now that's enough big thoughts, Next time I'll think about something much more down to earth - like how my new PhD student i.d. image that pops up when I log in makes me look like a serial killer..