Sunday, 19 February 2012

visual sensemaking and carving out questions

After a marathon transcription month in January and lots of 'work' (marking undergraduate assignments) I needed to 'pull together' some thinking I've been doing about the interpretative framework I am working with and a few lines of enquiry for my next set of research conversations. Both were characterised by a degree of either playfulness or vulnerability, depending on how I felt on a particular day. From the start of my (part time) PhD, I have been determined to enjoy the process of playing with ideas. I love the idea of pushing my thinking in new directions, and also finding an interpretive perspective which reflects what I am about. In doing this, I have had to educate myself about social (and other kinds of) theory, building on many years of practical experience. Often, I have realised I have needed to be open to challenges of naivety or the desire to 'over reach'. I am keeping one eye on the fact that a PhD is a process and that insights I get to in a couple of years need to come from asking stupid questions or even aiming too high. In fact, with a day job as a Senior Lecturer, I think it's really healthy, as I choose to put myself in the place where my own students are in terms of the process of learning. I'd rather be a learner than to call myself an 'expert' and to fossilise my knowledge.

Back to the process. One of the things I have tried to do over the last couple of weeks is to more clearly my desire to bring together two apparently contradictory approaches to knowledge. In short, this is the world of pragmatic philosophy and symbolic interactionsim on one hand, and Paul Ricoeur's phenomenological hermeneutics on the other. I know, it even sounds mad. See below for a crass generalisation of both:

Pragmatic Philosophy (with bits of the tradition it inspired, symbolic interactionism):

  • Draws on the work of authors such as William James, GH Mead, CS Peirce and John Dewey (with modern day academics such as Hans Joas who work with pragmatism in new ways).
  • In terms of the formation of the self (which is relevant to my study), pragmatism locates the development of conciousness and identity in the social process - in other words, we need others to develop those capacities that make us 'human'.
  • This intersubjective process of communication gives rise to significant signs, which in turn become symbols. Symbol use enables shared meaning and action and amongst other things gives us the capacity to reflect, remember and imagine. 
  • Things like reflection are examples of action towards the 'self'. Pragmatists see that individuals are able to do these things because the self is pictured as an object itself. 
  • Many individuals have adapted pragmatic thought, including (famously) Herbert Blumer, who coined the term symbolic interactionism. This large body of work (which more or less claims to be tied to original pragmatic principles) present human activity as a stream of action, in which individuals define, name objects, orientate around goals and use general and specific references.

Whilst parts of Paul Ricoeur's phenomenological hermeneutics look a bit like this:

  • Narrative and 'the text' play a central role in selfhood, identity and meaning making. In many way, this 'grounds' selfhood and reflects Ricoeur's 'non idealistic' view of the self. 
  • Narrative is an 'attestation' of the self to the 'other'. In fact, conciousness and meaning seem to depend very much on the outside world. 
  • This focus and connection to the other allows Ricoeur to discuss matters of imagination, intentionality and metaphor - often matters discussed in entirley subjective terms - in ways which find points of connection to lived experience in the world. 
  • One key concept developed by Ricoeur is that of the narrative or mimetic arc, talking to the nature of narrative and the temporal experience - consisting of three phases: prefuguration (experienec that calls for a narrative  - a world with shared symbolic meaning), configuration (the act of narration, distancing itself from experience and allowing for enplotment) and finally refiguration (new readings of experience are enabled allowing for new ways of being - experience is reshaped by the narrative).
Now both the pragmatists and Ricoeur himself can turn in their graves. My apologies. However, moving quickly along, I have been purposefully playing with these two perspectives, initially because both depicted the process of formation of self as a social process. My study - about narratives of professional identity in multi professional children's services environments - was about this practical social process. I wanted Ricoeur as well, despite some apparent contradictions, this was also about issues of interpretation of narrative. Without going into the details which I'm writing up elsewhere for my supervision team I'm now looking to see if there is a basis under which I can combine pragmatism and a form of phenomenology. You may have already thought that one is very much based in a naturalistic epistemology, looking at matters of causation in the social process. Pure phenomenology, by contrast, brakets out reference to this material world. This is only the begining of issues that need unwraveling. I am unwraveling, because I am learning and thinking through. I may not be able to create a hybrid interpretetive frame but the journey is enlightening.

For me, one of the things that has really helped has been by visual methodology. Originally, I saw my use of visual images as a way of - literally - mapping out situations as participants' defined them. I also have begun to see them as a central tool in the 'co-construction' of narratives as I have summarised narratives as cartoon frames which are used in reflection and reshaping of metanarratives. What I am now seeing is that visual elements are proving central in both my methodology and the interpretative framework. In my purposeful playing with theory (see above) sketching out concepts has proved powerful and a way of breaking into new lines of thought. This for me is fitting as both Pragmatism and Ricoeur's work places the symbol in a central place. Ricoeur's work in particular and his discussion of the metaphor means that the visual is not decoration or illustration, but holds in tension the reference and meaningI am looking to achieve in my research here. 

Here's Ricoeur's mimetic arc depicted over time, with those three elements of prefiguration, configurationa nd refiguration. This presently forms a basis for an interpretative framework - but needs more to reflect the mechanisms of the social process.

Here, the mimetic arc moves through various sites of action, each with their own named objects and reference points. Still not there. 

Here, the mimetic arc is represented as a large circle, cutting through one of many 'sites of action' with dotted lines representing the tradjectories of other actors and crosses mental objects or reference points of various sorts. All of these are helpful in that they depict some aspects of the hybrid I'm looking for, but also are useful as they pose questions and frustrations because they don't prove satisfying yet!