Has feminism got something to say about autism in education?

The following post is based on recent experiences I have had working around Manchester in schools for autism and related conditions. The comments, whilst critical of certain events and incidents, are not meant to be disparaging towards individuals (non of whom are named here!) but as a contribution to knowledge in the education sector – especially in schools that provide for children and young adults with particular educational and emotional needs (SEN, EBD, PRUs etc).

Recently as an experienced supply teaching assistant, I was introduced to a new class of five upper primary age autistic spectrum children. We had a great time, laughs and fun: few dramas (there are always some!) . The class was mostly non- or only partially-verbal with the exception of one boy. They were mostly a sensorily responsive group. The relationship with the children and adults was mostly trusting, supportive, professional and appropriate.

However, upon being introduced to one young (mostly non-verbal) girl, I was told that she loved socialising with new people – especially men, and that she was a ‘flirt’.

In this blog-post I want to raise questions as to the significance, purpose and ethical consequences of non-consesual labelling of young people in educational environments: especially where they affect the treatment of those with particular needs that restrict that individual’s capacity to independently respond to, understand, reject or accept these terms of identification.

In my experience, understanding is central to the effective integration, management and personal experience of people with autism – it’s a very social concern. Autism is not something that can be ‘cured’  or ‘improved’ within the individual. (although autism can develop and change with age and a common aim is to cope more independently with autism issues – learn more here)

Autism is typically challenging to deal with and to understand for both those with the condition and those in the sphere of its influence – whether incidentally, domestically, socially or professionally. It is a complex pattern of behaviours that is also often interconnected with other clinically identifiable physical, emotional and educational (or neuro-psychological) issues.

It is for these reasons that the introduction of social values and conventions into the classroom that allow the idea of a ‘flirt’ to exist and be used in an educational context, is something that I see as particularly troublesome. These issues also relate particularly to females with autism  who, in spite of mostly anecdotal evidence and reasoning (see here for more), are undeniably represented in much smaller numbers within schools for autism-related conditions. This coupled with the over-representation of women in the educational sector (and in my current situation as the only male of five work collegues in the classroom) seems to highlight a superficial and initial concern for a feminist perspective.

Some initial questions we might begin with:

  1. Is it ethically or morally useful to label a child as a ‘flirt’ when that primary age child has a limited way to understand and communicate their feelings about such things?
  2. Who is this labelling of benefit to and if not the child concerned, why is it happening?
  3. What use is this labelling to the adults?
  4. Does it matter that these remarks are made as long as the child is safe, cared for and educated to the highest possible standard?
  5. Is it right to assume that a child doesn’t understand or that they won’t mind?
  6. Are there any concerns that are particular to females or autism compared to a comparable situation for boys in a mainstream school? Are there any parallels?

(This article will be followed up with subsequent observations)

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Facebook, online research and explicit consent: values in action

So Facebook conducted research via (according to the Wall st Journal) its internal ‘Data Science Team’ which is apparently not affiliated or endorsed by a third party research body or institution. Facebook used its existing terms of service as an ethical umbrella under which to operate, is seems, any research that any individual in the team wished to conduct:

‘”There’s no review process, per se,” said Andrew Ledvina, a Facebook data scientist from February 2012 to July 2013. “Anyone on that team could run a test,” Mr. Ledvina said. “They’re always trying to alter peoples’ behavior.”…Facebook said that since the study on emotions, it has implemented stricter guidelines on Data Science team research.’

(Reed Albergotti, Wall st Journal, July 2nd 2014).

From a researchers perspective it seems lackadaisical, irresponsible and ethically loose to have no ethical review and to rely solely on a ‘terms of service’ agreement that, although will have been ‘ticked’, may or (most probably) may not have  been explicitly read. This, to me seems particularly irresponsible when considering the direct manipulation (not just the observance or analysis of) users’ feeds to enact an emotional response.

Ethical choices in online research

I have come across the assumption by researchers that the individuals interacting online understand explicitely the consequences and ramifications of publishing personal content. This deliberate oversight is invariably for the benefit of the researcher (commercial or otherwise).

Alyssa Richman (in Representing youth: methodological issues in critical youth studies by A.L. Best, 2007, NY University press) sees the public nature of online publication as an effective mitigation of ethical issues:

‘Lurking [observing online content without active participation: therefore ‘invisible’]can be an extremely valuable research technique; I would not have been able to collect the  majority of my data without it…the participants…were unaware that their writings were being collected…this violation was mitigated by several factors: first, the public nature of the research spaces and, second, the publication aspects of bulletin-board postings.’

This researcher did not (unlike Facebook researchers) interact with the authours of the observed content, but I find it particularly interesting that by way of explanation for ethical decisions, the value and importance of the research is a foremost concern: the needs of the researcher are paramount.

An article by Nonnecke & Preece: Shedding Light on Lurkers in Online Communities(Journal article, 1999) accepts lurkers as a large (if amorphous and unidentified) part of the online ‘community’ whereas Richman (in Best, 2007, p197) states that ‘As outsiders, we [the researcher] must be even more attentive to ensure we are understanding the actual meanings’ (italics added).

Being outsiders – being separate – for Nonnecke and Preece is here an ontological impossibility: the separation of us and them in Richman’s observations is an artificial one and, I could suggest, is ultimately very helpful in justifying an ethical decision to separate, objectify and manipulate data without consent from its authours.

Another ontological point could be made from the assumed ability to ‘understand actual meanings’ which is certainly not a given in certain epistemologies.

Facebook data and scientism

Returing to our Facebook account (pun intended), reading articles of diverse opinion such as that of Duncan J. Watts: Stop complaining about the Facebook study (Guardian.com, 7th July 2014) and Why Facebook’s user manipulation research study is ethically troubling (by Ray Junco, professor at Iowa State Uni and Harvard Fellow, July 6th 2014, VentureBeat .com) are descriptive of a wider ethical argument. The search for quality data (either for the benefit of institutional wisdom or commercial profit) is enhanced by the volume of data that can be collected (increased without consent) – ethics are a hurdle to be removed or surmounted at the earliest opportunity. This argument is one that is enhanced by, and benefits from, the tenets of empiracle science, positivism and statistical analysis – approaches that are served by the volume and quality of raw, disembodied data:

‘more and better science is the best answer we have.’ (Duncan J. Watts, Guardian.com, 7th July 2014)

The argument for a more ethically cautious approach to online data collection and analysis is one that is supported by the acknowledgment of the importance and delicacy of personal and detailed data (anonymous or otherwise) that cannot so easily be separated from its origins or judged out of context. The individual is important, not necessarily in a humanistic sense but in the sense of individual experience and situation.

Duncan J. Watts (Guardian.com) suggests that this consentless analysis of increasingly large and publicly personal social data is part of inevitable technological progress and to let ethical considerations dog its progress is to prevent companies such as Facebook from fulfilling its mission statement of  making our world a better place:

‘we should insist that companies like Facebook – and governments for that matter – perform and publish research on the effects of the decisions they’re already making on our behalf’  (ibid)

Duncan’s article is entitled ‘Stop complaining about the facebook study’ but I can only think of How I stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb… It sounds like Facebook is a de-facto online governing body, magistrates of our online affairs. Vote with your ‘likes’! It’s a juggernaught you can’t stop so why not get on board and help steer it to Babylon? Duncan J. Watts is, by the way, principal researcher for Microsoft Research dept…is he looking for a job at Facebook?

But many commentators are much more concerned with the why of the research – the purpose for which the data will be used: a going concern in a world of Wikileaks and Snowden revelations on big data and how it is used. To suggest that Facebook, Google, Microsoft are a benign force for good seems proposterous from almost every rational angle. And the idea that technology is always progressing for the benefit of mankind is a contested paradigm of the past and present that will stay with us into the future. Technology will save us!!!

Ethical fabrics

Ethical issues concerning internet research are, as described here, by no means a simple process of ticking boxes on the ethics form of whichever insitution you happened to be associated with: commercial, educational or otherwise. Ethical concerns are neither simple, uncontested or fixed and the internet is a fast-developing interactive social space of active, shifting tectonic plate boundaries.

As a user, it seems useful to be wary of how your content is used. As a researcher, everything can be data but how and why is the data is being used? An ethical consent form does not provide you with the moral framework for your work: your ethical standpoint is something that is threaded throughout the fabric of research you are creating: as Facebook’s research team has learned – it will be visible from cyberspace.

More information on internet research ethics:

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Futher adventures in Feminism

Interaction, exploration and reflection in online ‘feminist’ discussion spaces. A continuation of the previous post – feminism-masculinity-and-online-discussion-forums/

I am not assuming that this one forum is representative of feminist ideals online or otherwise, but it’s very active, well established and well contributed to, and offers a broad range of contemporary forum topics.

It is very easy as a ‘white man’ to underestimate or not be exposed to the power of feeling and the extent of women’s experience of oppression in everyday lived experiences. In a broader sense it seems logical to apply this also to other issues such as those of queer and race. We are protected and shielded by the general ignorance of biased media and powerful institutions controlled by mainly white males. This expresses one fundamental tenet of feminism that I am confident in expressing – that large insitutions that control how information is distributed and made available are controlled by predominantly white males – and this matters.

Frequently expressed senitments in-forum involve ideas about culpability, responsibility, oppression, patriarchy, unfairness, ‘pushing back’, priviledge, abuse and objectification, porn culture and a general misunderstanding by men (and the global media in general) of the purpose, aims and tenets of feminism. Perhaps obvious themes to notice but some themes that interested and challenged me is the idea of personal responsibility and culpability and how the post-modern, abstract ideas of discourse might detract from the aims of front line feminism; and also the delicate nature of a positive male interaction with feminism without upsetting the tenets of – or distracting from the aims of – feminism.

The ‘Feminist Ally’

After interacting directly with issues on the forum (which I believe in the long-term to be useful) I have realised that effective engagement has required a working understanding and empathy with feminist issues before the forum is approached. It is a place for informed people to discuss realted issues, the fundaments of which are already agreed upon. Transgression of the boundaries of understood fundaments illicits a distinctly hostile and sometimes personal response. The following post was written after engagement with some of the issues in the forum and recieving, at best, advice to go away and read some more. At worst, I was to take a ‘big dose of Keopectate to help you cut the crap spewing from both ends of your obtuse food tube.’!

On swallowing my pride (and the ‘crap spewing from both ends of my obtuse food tube’) I explicitely stated my ignorance and culpability as a man: I recieved 4 ‘likes’ (most for one of my posts):

‘I have entered this forum with my ignorance of the issues that matter here: I am man and I have to take responsibility for ‘all men’ – I am ‘all men’. There is no ‘they’ when I talk about men. It’s ‘us’. This front-line feminism is challenging and important (I have so far just been looking at academic feminist theory). Yes, I, we, us, need to do more listening and less commenting, less defending. I accept that anger. The rage. And I understand how I am the problem. I understand how It’s important to maintain that and how much harder it is to keep women’s issues in the limelight due to the nature and control of that which is the reason feminism exists – it would be nice to have a world where it didn’t have to – but that‘s not the world we live in.’

I admit to being rather clumsy in my initial forays into the forum – I am not used to interacting in online forums in general. I appear to have eventually made some useful contributions at least. As a researcher – this humility and self-reflexivity I think will be a valuable tool in effectively operating within these interest groups.

It was therefore necessary to take a direct and explicit responsibility for ‘all men’ and to accept and understand why I will be viewed as an embodiment of the ‘things that are wrong with men’ (a phrase I have encountered in the forum). There is a strong theme of men taking responsibility in this way – to be directly culpable for the actions of men that are allowed in society. I believe that this is one of the challenging things to men engaging with feminism: that it requires alot of humility and acceptance of responsibility for things that the individual may be particularly repulsed by or abhor but the expectation is of responsibility – an acceptance of your position and how it has been abused by others and, potentially, you. This obviously requires a knowledge of these issues, a sensitivity to understand and a desire to acknowledge these issues as universally important. I also believe (not seen expressed in the forums) that men need to learn specifically how to take these critisisms (as aggressive and justified as it may be directed to men in general) without a defensive reaction – which I believe may produce an expected but unconstructive outcome. I am not suggesting a change in the approach of feminism (not my remit or expertise) but and idea about how to start preparing men to accept the the tenets and approaches of feminism in a way constructive and positive for them.

The idea of ‘not all men are like this’ is a sentiment particularly abhorrent to the user of this forum (and – looking on the internet, to many other feminists). The campaigns of  #NOTALLMEN and the reaction of #YESALLWOMEN are a good example of some core issues and misunderstandings in these areas. Whilst saying that ‘not all men are like xyz’ may seem self evident, it is a sentiment that seems to be seen to undermine the damaging importance of the actions of the men that are ‘like xyz’.

Most users are uncomfortable with men interacting directly with the forum, although this is certainly not restricted. There are identifiable men who frequent the forum (I was given a ‘heads up’ by one ‘stephen m’ after some particularly stinging responses from other users). Instead of me offering my interpretaion – two articles on ‘Male Allies’ in feminism are avilable here: how-to-be-a-male-feminist-ally/ , the-trouble-with-male-allies/ which express the expected conduct of men interacting with feminist issues, in internet forums paticularly.

Theory and Action

Abstract post-modern ideas of discourse seem at least partially incompatible with the humanist view of a direct relationship with our own agency to act. People as enactors of different social arguments or identities at different times – as perfomative of a mixture of archetypes available to us, seems to allow the individual to defer responsibility (‘it wasn’t ‘me’, I was just performing the only gender identity available to me at the time!’). This is interesting to me in highlighting the transition from theory to action – from ideas to how we operate logistically in the ‘real’ experienced world. So interacting effectively in this forum requires a tricky negotiation between forum users, new and established: certainly not an easy one. There seems to be views that are acceptable and views that are not. Any view expressing any kind of sympathy for an essentially male concern is certainly shot out of the sky with short shrift – this is not what the forum is understood to be for.

Is it more useful to engage with a discourse, an idea, than the individuals who express that idea? Or can we trace lines through and link the individulas, their situations and experiences to the discourses we identify? Are there casual links or useful correlations? If we look only at discourse, is there something to say about the groups of individuals we identify expressing these ideas? If we look at the individuals, the discourse may escape into the future, to gestate and grow and finally blossom in the mouths of a new generation – we see it happens in places of cultural and geographical tentions – passed down through generations, Northern Ireland for example.

These idea that pervade society – women ‘asking for it’ if they dress a certain way (or at least a lack of symphathy for a women deemed to have ‘provoked’ male attention) – have been around for centuries. So do we tackle the individuals or the discourse? Or both? Neither?

Here I have highlighted some different, humanistic, positivistic/normative and post-modern approaches that we may take in analysis of this subject and that may affect the orientation of any analysis or observations we make.

See previous: feminism-masculinity-and-online-discussion-forums/

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Feminism, masculinity and online discussion forums

So, I have been looking at a Canadian online blog on feminism (feministcurrent.com) in the course of researching angles for a future dissertation involving male interactions with feminism. In particular I want to look at the relationship that men have with feminist issues – looking at male views and experiences on feminist subjects through a feminist lense. What I definitely don’t want to do is to focus on male reactions to or opinions on feminism.

My initial idea is that feminism in theory and principle is as useful to emancipating a ‘truer’, ‘freer’, more original expression of male identity, involving a non-gender specific masculinity and femininity (if we have to use these terms for now) and gender identity as it is useful to women. I am also looking at the inherent ethical implications when ‘males’ (those identifying as) interact with feminism.

Examples of the complexities and frictions that occur when men interact with feminism and feminist ideas are frequent occurences on the site and make interesting reading. The site introduced me to the term ‘male allies’. The subject of the post was the ‘trouble with male allies’  http://feministcurrent.com/7798/the-trouble-with-male-allies/. The interesting thing for me are the points of friction highlighted by the authour (echoed and supported in and by other comments) where a ‘male feminist-ally’ is percieved to over-step the boundary between ‘support’ and being a ‘spokesperson’ for feminism or feminist views. This is interpreted (justifiably, in my opinion) as men ‘speaking for’ women, in place of a woman’s voice.

This percieved transgression is interesting in that an important element seems to be – and is mentioned explicitely – in the male identification as a ‘feminist’. This immediately calls to mind the issues in colonialisation of language, culture and ideas – that an appropriation, (whilst possibly a sincere appreciation) – ultimately leads to the dissolution of difference, of separateness (and all that’s positive about that) and homogenises and subsumes a culture within (what happens to be in this case) a ‘white, male patriarchy’. And so male appropriation of feminism whilst well-meaning can be, thinking about colonial issues, a very destructive thing.

Even with this in mind though, I can’t imagine a successful feminism without a constructive dialogue with the ‘genderised’ or ‘masculinised’ (in a popular cultural sense) male. I just can’t imagine a sympathetic male gender figure being sympathetic and supportive to the experience of women and other non-‘conventional’ gender identifications without education – without education that really gets through.

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Online Autism: a search for identity?

In a recent small-scale study for my Masters of Research, I looked at the discussions within an online discussion forum for autism related issues. I won’t reproduce the data here (ethical reasons) but I gained some interesting and unexpected insights.

Whether the users of the forum could legitimately be diagnosed as ‘autistic’ within accepted medical definitions was deliberately not a consideration of my observations. Below is an edited presentation of some of the observations in the original essay, plus references used.

Exploring the Data

The ideas focused on in this analysis were the ‘search for identity through diagnosis’ and the idea of a perception of ‘personal struggle’.

This impression of difficulty (a voice that does not feel empowered or free to choose), is something that weaved throughout the forum data but in different contexts and subjects. The themes of being misunderstood or struggling in some were observed at many points during the text.

There were specific references to being misunderstood or not understood at all by doctors, family or co-workers and ones-self. There seemd to be a very apparent need expressed for self-identification through a clear definition or discovery through medical diagnosis. A barrier to accessing this aspiration for help seems to be present in the dislike of doctors formed through personal experience of a perception or inability to effectively interact with others and a perceived lack of ‘niceness’ or ‘helpfulness’ of doctors.

There was an interesting divergence in possible themes and methods to explore here – the data seemed to present themes that might best be explored from a ‘social critical stance’ in the relationship to doctors – is there an oppressive discourse? How do doctors appear to the ‘patient’ i.e. are they a representation of the medical establishment? Do users feel powerless in the face of medical knowledge or is medical exposition emancipatory?  A mixture of both in different situations? Also – the thread of self-identification through medical diagnosis, is autism a useful ‘identity’ beyond a medicalised condition?

On interaction with ‘other’ voices through the forum, the user seems to express a more positive, pragmatic voice echoing suggestions and suggesting solutions. Two distinct voices can also be observed coming from the same user profile in the same dialogical space. So we recognise the fluctuations in meaning and intent that may occur as this dialogue continues its journey.

Far from the uncertainty, consternation and yearning desire for explanation in the original subject thread – the last post uttered from the profile of USER 1 adopts a supportive, self-reflexive and collaborative voice, even with an air of authority about autism issues.

This discourse may, in part, be a search for self-definition or an expression of a desire for self-identification through the discourse of autism. Going a bit deeper – Can we see autism as another discourse available in the identification or conduct of selfhood? Can we separate the idea of autism from the medical definition of autism? How can this belief (medically validated or not) affect self-identity?

The user voices a suspicion, of being autistic (is this the same as ‘having’ or ‘possessing’ autism?) and self-identifies similar traits to autism (as evidenced in the recorded data). The user seems to express a faith that medical diagnosis will offer the ultimate ‘solution’ in spite of a mistrust of doctors as individuals or representatives of an establishment. The experience of challenges expressed through the user’s profile seem to be with an interaction with people in general. GPs and doctors in particular are mentioned but not necessarily as representatives of the medical establishment as such. The doctor figure appears to stand in between the user and their access to enlightening knowledge of the self.

In identifying one single general discourse of a perception of ‘personal struggle’ we could approach a deeper understanding of the discourses, situations or ‘states of being’ that are existent in which this ‘voice’ finds both a home and other voices to commune with within this forum. We could look at other users’ profile output – other ‘voices’. We could look for different voices, different discourses: we could moderate our methodologies to accommodate or explore the idea of multifaceted identities online.

There may also be issues related specifically to autism as a discourse. Can autism be seen as form of medical discourse available to be appropriated by the individual in the search for an identity to express? The ability to access self-diagnosis online is clearly possible – could we relate this to a wider discourse of the medicalization and self-diagnosis? Is this an issue that can be treated with a suspicion relating to the reliance on scientific knowledge to provide even the most existential of answers?

Further Study

To look at off-line interactions either in isolation or in concert with the production of on-line data would be a possible avenue of further research but I would stress that the ontologies, assumptions and methodologies of the study as it stands are of a specific discourse of online text, generated in part by the data itself. Should it be assumed that an analysis of further modes of communication in conjunction with the current data is in some way ‘more>than’, I believe it would be detrimental to the importance of this online data-set and its ability to say or mean anything.

Throughout the original ‘raw’ data (edited for this analysis) users that self-identify do so as female, references from all users about personal experience depict the doctor or GP as male (him, or he). The National Autistic Society cites strong evidence for autism as affecting more males than females and so the search for diagnosis and identity within the world of autism becomes a particularly and differently female concern. Again, any further study would require a rethinking of methodology or ontology if it is to acknowledge and engage with ‘Social Discourse’ in a way that a study informed by social or feminist theory may do. This may include a mixed method to challenge or confirm existing data quantitatively as regards the proportion of women affected by autism as a basis for a hypothesis or approach: but would perhaps not be compatible with the tenets of feminist theory which assumes a strong patriarchal influence in the discourse of scientific-positivist knowledge.

It would also be interesting to introduce the question of communities of practice and development of the learner within online discursive space. We could question whether we can look at these interactions as an ‘indoctrination’ into a culture or a learning of a modal language and whether these are ‘online communities’ in the same sense as ‘offline communities’.

Non-annotated Bilbiography :

Best, A.L., (ed) (2007). Representing youth: methodological issues in critical youth studies. Chapter 7: The Outsider Lurking Online: Adults Researching Youth Cybercultures, pp182-202. NY: New York University Press

British Psychological Society (The) (2009). Code of Ethics and Conduct. Available at:http://www.bps.org.uk/ [Accessed 20/4/14]

Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2011). Research Methods in Education (7th ed). London:Routledge

Economic and Social Research Council (The) (2012). ESRC Framework for Research Ethics (FRE). Avilable at: http://www.esrc.ac.uk/ [Accessed 20/4/14]

Jewitt, C (2012) Multimodal methods for researching digital technologies. In: The Sage Handbook of Digital Technology Research. Sage, London. Ch17, pp250-264

Gee, James Paul., (2005). Semiotic Social Spaces and Affinity Spaces: From The Age of Mythology to Today’s Schools. In: Barton, D., Tusting, K., (2005) (ed). Beyond Communities of Practice Language, Power and Social Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gillen, J., Petersen, A. (2005). Discourse Analysis. In: Sommehk, B., Lewin, C., (2005). Research Methods in the Social Sciences. London: Sage. Ch17, pp146-152.

Lankeshear, C., Leander, Kevin. M., (2005). Social Science Research in Virtual Realities. In: Sommehk, B., Lewin, C., (2005). Research Methods in the Social Sciences. London: Sage. CH38 pp326-333.

MacLure, Maggie, (2003). Discourse in Educational and Social Research. Buckingham: Open University Press. (pp174-191)

Milne, E., (2003). ‘Email and Epistolary technologies: Presence, Intimacy, Disembodiment’. Fibreculture Journal (no2). Swinburn University of Technology. Available at: http://researchbank.swinburne.edu.au

Nonnecke, B. and Preece, J. (1999). Shedding light on Lurkers in Online Communities. Ethnographic Studies

in Real and Virtual Environments: Inhabited Information Spaces and Connected Communities. 24-26 January, Edinburgh. Ed. K. Buckner. 123-128.

National Autistic Society (The) (website), 2014. The National Autistic Society Website. Available at: http://www.autism.org.uk/ . [Accessed 20/04/14]

Robson, Colin., (2011). Real World Research. West Sussex: John Wiley.

St.Pierre, E.A., (2013). Cultural Studies ó Critical Methodologies 2013 13:223, 8th May(Online journal), ‘The Appearance of Data’ (Article). Available at: http://csc.sagepub.com

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The challenge of developing bespoke methodologies from theoretical origins

So in a recent essay I tried to ‘hand-pick’ methodological principles and processes from existing methodologies such as discourse analysis, conversation analysis, foucauldian discourse and grounded theory. The results were more a useful exploration than successful! My main concern at the moment is to be to be able to select theories, ontologies and methodologies that are theoretically congruent and internally’true’ – in my mind this is where I (and others) can give qualitative research a powerful and reliable platform on which to stand.

My methodological summary for the analysis was thus:

‘The methodologies have been considered alongside a process of immersion and intimacy with the themes of the data and have been generated with these themes in mind..using the frame of a non-critical discursive analysis of themes, having used a grounded theory approach with a post-modern backdrop to recognise content within the texts as it is presented by the forum user(s). The idea of Foucauldian constitutive discourse and some principles of Conversation Analysis are also to be accepted and utilised.’

I am aware how ‘fuzzy’ and indistinct this approach seems! The main problem being that I am a prospective researcher with no formal linguistic background (or technical knowledge in any area other than intellectual rigour).’Critical’  literary disciplines seem to require a working knowledge of linguistics and are either informed by (or a reaction to) the discipline of linguistics – or so it seems to me.

This very prescriptive view of ‘critical’ theory may have been too restrictive and in many ways I have reviewed, critical discourse analysis (CDA) can be employed as an adaptive general approach more in line with a localised ‘critical social theory’ that acknowledges the power and possibilities within discourses between people.

The ‘data’ I wished to apply these ideas to was a particular subject thread within a public online forum.

Conversation analysis (CA) is a linguistic-based analystical tool developed exclusively for language analysis that acknowledges gesture as important in the localised and constitutive nature of comunication. It was not developed for text analysis, more for the in-situ ‘live’ generation of spontaneous language. It also does not agree with the principles of discourse analysis in that the founding principles of CA disregard context (in a linguistic or social sense) as important in the generation of semiotic meaning between individuals. According to CA, my understanding is that meaning is generated ‘ad-hoc’ throughout the course of ‘conversation’ or ‘discourse’ between individuals over time (hours, days, weeks, months, years) and so is useful in the analysis of relationships between people working, operating, living, socialising and interacting within similar environments or contexts.

This is where the ‘context-less’ ideas within CA seem too positivistic/ normative – that there will alway be an extrinsic reason (habitus, vocation, lifestyle, social group) for individuals to be interacting and most likely, influence the subject of and course of conversation (even discounting the dynamics of interaction during the localised discourse). There will always be a context that dictates and influences what is happening in a local discourse – to suggest a possible separation of that discourse from context seems to suggest an ‘experimental’ or ‘scientific’ approach that requires a particularily objective ontology. This does not at all fit a post-modern approach – it is its antithesis.

In retrospect, it does seem foolish, given the contradictions of CA with a Foucauldian discourse analysis which tries to make as little assumption as possible and whose founding principle is that apriory contexts shape everything to the point of it being impossible to be involved in a discourse without being explicitely or implicitely part of the history of use of the language used.

I did however wonder whether this (in some ways) hermetic environment of the forum containing conversation within a specific subject thread could be considered for significant and relevant meanings generated within and about the thread without trying to make links to a wider social discourse i.e. looking at how the users utilise their profiles in interacting, and observing what recognisable themes occure. I thought that this was particularly relevant to CA given the ‘atavistic’ and unknowable nature of the users’ identitity and context outside of that of the text within the thread.

The CA influence is perhaps in the focus of how the existing language with its existing meanings in that moment are being used in the observed discourse – especially in respect to the Foucauldian idea of language as constantly generative, fluid and malleable in its localised meaning and use – even as it cannot be detached entirely from even the faintest whisp of its origins.

Local discourse

The idea of an acknowledgement of a local discourse (i.e. local to and generated within this forum) a Foucauldian/ post-modern approach to language (nothing to be assumed) did not seem to me entirely incongruous with a non-critical, non-contextual, generative stance influenced by CA. A non-critical ethnomethodological stance perhaps denies the exploration of discourse in a wider and socially relevant way, but my epistemological concerns centred on the unwarranted assumptions that I foresaw as multiplying when relating the discourse within the forum to wider social discourse. The forum is also much more of a ‘context-less’ and theoretical space than a CA observation within a work environment.

I again ‘cherry picked’ the idea of grounded theory to generate a methodology and research ‘question’ from the data by approaching the data with only an ontological stance suggested by CA and DA discussed earlier. I again did not embrace the principle of grounded theory wholeheartedly, partly due to a lack of expertise and partly due to the more technical coding aspects (axial/ selective ‘coding’) disagreeing with my post-modern standpoint.

Atavism

So the idea of an atavistic online interaction between users that is generative and contains themes relevant to how users self-identify and self-script seem very attractive to me. The ideas of performativity and identity online are subject that widen the remit of analysis even more. Maybe a CA influenced approach to analysis of online ‘contained’ discourse is a useful initial approach – a generative approach? I do still find myself attached to principles of non-assumption that seem to me to fit with ‘grounded theory’ also. This is an interesting example of how interacting with peers can help adjust understanding as I feel myself needing, at this stage, a readjustment and clarity that I think I can only get by comparing my ideas to those of people with some specific knowledge and experience in these areas…

Where now?!!

The resulting essay with a ‘contextless’ analysis wasn’t ‘convincing’ enough (according to assessors) with which I agree in this context but I am sure there is something to be said for forum analysis using principles that use CA as a starting point. But the complexity of generating these methodologies in a post-modern way is becoming very apparent to me!

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A short long essay on the subject of ‘aporia’ in research…

This long post is an extension of an essay (3500 words) on the subject of ‘aporia’ in research – what it has meant and the ideas it has represented. The essay was written in Feb 2014 during study for the MRes in Social Research and Education studied at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Aporia: The Well-Trodden Nopath 

Introduction

The meaning of aporia has developed and expanded over time even as most historical meanings have been retained (mainly due to the work of Plato’s Socratic dialogues). The word has however been used in subtly different ways and contexts. Do these different texts use aporia as a term to describe a phenomenological state of being? Is Aporia an objective phenomenon independent of experience? Does aporia pertain only to a particular ontological perspective and how does this phenomenon relate to the practical application of research in a real-world context (if at all)?

Etymology

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) itself describes aporia as ‘doubt’ and ‘ambiguity’, a ‘perplexing difficulty’ [1]. Some of the quotes that the OED presents include descriptions of that which can be solved (1902, OED, 2014) – an aporia appears as temporary in nature, it is flimsy and soluble. Other printed historical examples in the OED however, also show more binary, finite applications:

“…never certain in anything” (AD1656); “Essence never appears” (AD1949) (OED, 2014, both examples emphasis not in original)

This malleability in the discursive use of aporia was a common a theme in the following observations.

Plato’s Meno – a Socratic dialogue

In Meno, Socrates withholds knowledge about a task presented to a ‘slave boy’ in order to prompt the boy to solve the task using only the intuitions he already possesses about the world. Socrates provides the path to the solution only through questioning and without imparting any new knowledge. The experience of aporia exists as real only to the boy (created deliberately by Socrates) and in this case describes the inability of the boy at one point to proceed further in a task that Socrate’s has set him (Plato, 380BCE p84a as cited in Worley, n.d. p4).

It does not seem in Plato’s Meno that the idea of a ‘no-path’ or ‘impassability’ occurs but is that of a temporary, moveable or passable quandary closer to the idea of an aporia as a ‘‘perplexity’ or ‘confusion’’ (Worley, n.d.). The impression is given that with skill, time, guidance or knowledge, this aporia can be overcome by the correct application of human intellect. It is in the educator’s interest to further their student’s knowledge but is there an experience of aporia itself (not just the passing of it) that can be of benefit in the expansion of knowledge? This question is considered by Burbules (2000) and discussed here in the following chapter Aporia and The Hermeneutic Cycle.

The Power of Aporia

The power dynamic between Socrates and slave boy can be seen partially from an ethical perspective. Socrates devises the task, the method, the aporia and the solution and is never out of control of the discourse. There is a clear assumption of authority by Socrates in the text which gives an idea of Socrates’ (and Plato’s) assumed intellectual status. Thus is it ethical to devise such artificial situations that may cause temporary doubt or fear (see footnote 1) for the longer-term goal of greater knowledge – a benefit that may not ever be felt by the subject? How long would it be ethical to withhold knowledge in such a way? How far is this a relevant question – when conducting practice in a situation where the ‘subject’ is not aware of the ‘meta’ situation or context which the researcher observes?

The import and value of the state of aporia therefore has ethical implications if it maintains or asserts power over another individual in a dialogue – that dynamic created in an interview for research for example. This could apply to embedded research and ethics and issues of assuming (or attempting to assume) ‘insider’ status with an individual or group. Can you create the conditions of aporia with conscious consent? If we are aware of the aporia – if we can ‘witness’ it or ‘experience’ it – does the nature of what we mean by aporia lose its potency or even disappear/ cease to exist along with its fertile ground?

Expanding the Meaning 

Poria being the ancient Greek for ‘path’ and a-poria therefore meaning ‘without a path’ – the latter more commonly translated as ‘perplexity’ or ‘confusion’ (Worley, n.d. emphasis in original.)

Burbules (2000) expands on the qualities in aporia that are:

“…not simply psychological states,…which is why we use words like discomfort and disorientation to describe them. They affect our senses of identity, of competence and purpose;” (Burbules, 2000, p184)

The use of aporia in Meno also highlights  the problem with the translation and interpretation of historical texts[2] Much of our knowledge about the antecedent definitions of terms in common usage may not have a clear historical record. How can we be sure that the subtle nuances of an ancient spoken language are translatable into our modern lexicon? This is an interesting example of how in the attempt to understand something, we can change and distort its original meaning – but what of this new meaning? From a phenomenological perspective, can the impossibility of accurate translation through medium or time be a fertile and productive aporia?

In a world of fluid meanings, this mistranslation could produce unintended and fertile mutations of meaning that may lead to a movement in thought that removes the need to pass the aporia, removes the need for it to be removed or understood as we discover or design new destinations or directions.

Derrida’s aporetic Aporias

Aporias (1994) by Derrida is an exploration of the nature of the aporetic experience in general terms (pp12-15) as well as an analysis of the language and the contradictions inherent in the aporetic notion.

It is a challenge to isolate Derrida’s ideas on aporia from the continuum of thoughts that are connected to it in which Derrida heavily references Heidegger but there are large sections of text not directly relevant to my exploration of how the term aporia is applied as such. What can be said is that the nature of Derrida’s aporia is not immune to his meta-physical deconstructionist analysis of phenomena and language. For Derrida, aporia is a matter of the approach towards and up to the border limits of experience (and the impossibility of what lays on the other side) and in some ways the separation between self and other:

“…the experience of the nonpassage, the experience of what happens and is fascinating in this nonpassage,…that is not necessarily negative: before a door, a threshold, a border, a line or simply the edge or the approach of the other as such. It should be a matter of what, in sum, appears to block our way or to separate us in the very place where it would no longer be possible to constitute a problem,…delivered to the other, incapable even of sheltering ourselves behind what could still protect the interiority of a secret. There, in sum, in this place of aporia, there is no longer any problem.” (Derrida, Aporias, 1994, p12; emphasis in original)

Deconstructionism[4] is the tool with which Derrida conducted complex, meta-physical and radical explorations of meaning and understanding of the ontology of phenomenological experience but also as a critical literary tool. In this case, I believe the previous quote from Aporias exposes or at least suggests Derrida’s phenomenological standpoint which acknowledges an objective reality in ‘the other’ outside the ‘self’ but focuses entirely on the importance of the subjective experience.

Derrida goes on to question the possibility and therefore the impossibility of an experience of the aporia:

“Can one speak–and if so, in what sense-of an experience of the aporia? An experience of the aporia as such? Or vice versa: Is an experience possible that would not be an experience of the aporia?” (Derrida, 1993, p15; emphasis in original)

As much as I can describe a taste or flavour of the idea; Derrida seems to question our ability to even experience that which is aporetic. Derrida unravels the idea of the aporia to the point that the impossibility of a path prevents space even for an aporetic notion; the nature of the aporia itself is thus aporetic. The aporia’s conditions of existence (possibility) are also its conditions of non-existence (impossibility) and so the ‘im-possible’ (Derrida, 1994, pp13-21) within the possible is realised that is neither ‘one’ (could we say ‘self’?) nor ‘the other’.

Michel Foucault (2004) describes (and archives) the process of western culture’s formation of ideas that have marked out our enduring perception of similitudes ever since the 16th  Century. Using these ideas we can say that antipathy is linked to sympathy and each describes something the other is not but both are also reliant on each other for the definition of their existence (or the existence of their definitions…) as you notice a phenomena that requires a sympathetic definition, therein you create (or reveal) the existence of its antipathy. These paradoxes create a kind of unresolvable cycle of association that reveals to us a dynamically stable but unsettled standpoint.

The dynamic equilibrium of association within – and representation of – the world is one that is linked by the difference in the similarities which are recognisable only in how they differ in their similar nature. If things are truly are the same and not different in some subtle but actual way, they are invisible and indistinguishable from the original article in that to be same they have to be the article.Aporia is given form and form denied in the same utterance: the very contradiction/ nature of the aporetic problem that creates the impossibility of existence is also essential to its possibility.

Nayak (n.d.) describes the aporetic experience of uncertainty or doubt (of intersectionality – see footnote 3) as having ‘productive potential’ (p47). For Nayak the lack of certainty that aporia describes creates an egalitarian space for an ‘ethical engagement with others’ (p46). In this way we see the abstract, meta-physical concept become a practical methodology for the discussion of ethics whilst denying the formation of artificial, imposed borders between states of being. This more complex but useful and positive view of the aporetic state is also adopted by Nicolas Burbles (2000) in an educational context.

Aporia and the hermeneutic cycle

The hermeneutic[5] cycle of processing new information then returning to an original site of consternation in order to re-process an experience with the benefit of new knowledge is used by Nicolas Burbules as a presentational tool in an article entitled ‘Aporias, Webs, and Passages’ (Burbules, 2000).

In ‘Aporias, Webs, and Passages’, Burbules identifies different qualities and layers of involvement in the aporetic notion and identifies an experience of aporia as a complex and paradigm-affecting experience:

“…a deeper kind of aporia: a doubt that never goes entirely away.” (Burbules, 2000, p182)

I believe Burbules also presents original and useful depiction of the mutually constitutive relationship (not binary) between poros and aporia:

“…every path is a passage away from some possibilities as it is toward others; that a poros [path] is always both a way and a barrier, an opening and a closure.” (ibid, p180)

In working towards a practical educational use for an exploratory, cyclical, hermeneutic and generative process (of new ideas), Burbules necessarily refrains from adopting and observing the depths of aporia to which Derrida dives. Burbules’ conclusion is an appreciation and acceptance of uncertainty and its useful, practical applications can be explicitly read:

“The teaching dialectic here is…an ongoing engagement with difficulty—and, in this, to embark on a path with an unknown, unknowable destination.” (Burbules, 2000, p184)

“Aporia in this sense is not a brief interstitial moment, but an ongoing condition that generates the questions and problems that move us to seek new understandings.” (ibid p185)

Here the aporia is a much more substantial phenomenon intrinsic to the understanding of deeper insights. In this way, with the introduction of hermeneutics, aporia appears to pertain to a more qualitative research focus[6]. The phenomenological perspective echoes Derrida in its attention to the subjectivity of human experience and therefore the evidence presented here is beginning to show that aporia belongs to a very particular ontological perspective.

“…we recognize that the most important distinction among aporias is between those of which we are aware, and those not. (Burbules, p181, 2000)”

This is an interesting and for me contradictory statement. I see it as a particularly phenomenological contention as it brings into question the idea of and the nature of the idea of the ‘ego’ i.e: Is it possible to be unaware of an aporia if it is a subjective phenomenon? Can an aporia exist independent of the experience of it? Is it necessary therefore to appreciate a psychoanalytical view of the experience of the ego, the ‘I’, the ‘self’? In this way as mentioned early on, the aporia appears to be taking on the form of an ‘other’ – an object in itself.

This is one clear point where Burbules’ analysis can be seen to disagree with certain Derridean assumptions and – interestingly – is the point of a similar contention in another article by Alsup entitled ‘Grateful Gifts: Towards and Ethic of Donativity’ (2010) which more directly challenges the necessity of certain elements of Derrida’s perspectives and rational deconstructions.

“Derrida’s presentation of the aporia of the gift does not match up with our own experiences of how we give gifts…Derrida’s aporia will be shown to have been correct but misguided, as the gift event works differently than he originally supposed.” (Alsup, 2010: pp1-2)

“…the presence of the ego is what is most problematic for the gift in Derrida’s account.” (ibid)

The critical point with which Alsup is questioning the aporia in Derrida’s idea of the ‘gift event’ [7] is the idea of the ‘Ego’ as inseparable and unequivocally of the ‘self’ and not the ‘other’. Derrida acknowledges the Ego as a phenomena which constitutes and necessitates a consciousness that does not allow the ability to be unaware – on some level – of the state of one’s own experience. Alsup argues the possibility of removing the ‘I’ (ego) from ‘self’ – that ‘I’ is a gift received when encountering an ‘other’ and therefore possible to separate the  ‘self’ from the ‘gift event’[8].

It is apparent that the significance of ‘Ego’ is important to the phenomenological standpoint that Derrida uses (Derrida has used Freud as a frequent source[9]) about the nature of aporia itself; of the gift event and of the aporia surrounding the possibility of death.

The nature of these ontological arguments highlights the complexities of the phenomenological perspective. The researcher risks the consequence of damaging the validity of one’s own observations when not carefully considering the researcher’s own position and the counter arguments that exist that may destabilise fundamental assumptions.

Observations and Conclusions

Aporia is described as:

“[an] ongoing condition that generates the questions and problems that move us to seek new understandings.” (Burbules, 2000)

The points raised in the arguments discussed highlight the link between ideas that lay within and those which are supported by certain ontological (ways of being) and epistemological (way of knowing) standpoints.

The analysis of the experience and use of aporia as a term brings us to these methodological and ethical questions in a way that challenges us to ignore, surpass or to accept the doubt or ambiguity that is a necessary part of our experience and observation of certain phenomena. These questions pertain particularly to a phenomenological view of experience that lends itself predominantly to qualitative research (see footnote 6).

These complex ideas whilst not easy to explore in a research context nevertheless hold the potential to challenge the researcher to consider the uncertain and the abstract in order to further our un(self)restricted understanding about the nature of the world and the people (we perceive) in it: even if the stones we turn hide unsettling, unstabilising concepts.


[1]              doubt, n: Uncertainty or undecidedness. See OED, 2014 at http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/57076?rskey=jxXrs9&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid . Interestingly, doubt is also listed as a synonym for ‘fear’ linking doubt as a fear of the unknown or the undefined suggesting that qualities inherent in aporia are something that are abhorrent or antithesis to the comfortable existence of human experience.
[2] ‘…error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. Particularly when translating from a language very remote from his own he must go back to the primal elements of language itself and penetrate to the point where work, image, and tone converge…’ (Benjamin, 1968, p81 as cited in Burbules, 2000,  p178)
[3] (removed in online edit)
[4]              For more detailed information on deconstructionism, see Chapter 2: ‘Key Ideas’ in Nicolas Royle’s Jaque Derrida (Royle, 2003:Ch2, 13-20).  A concise definition of deconstructionism by Nicolas Royle: ‘…exposing unquestioned metaphysical assumptions and internal contradictions in philosophical and literary language.’ (Royle, 2003:24).
For OED definitions see ‘deconstructionism, n’ (OED, 2014) at http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/48375?redirectedFrom=deconstructionism+#eid7349700
[5]              ‘Hermenuetics might be understood simply as the process of interpretation’ (Brown, Heggs, 2005). For more detailed definitions for hermeneutics, see Chapter 35 from Research Methods in the Social Sciences (Somekh, Lewin, 2005):  ‘From Hermeneutics to Poststructuralism to psychoanalysis’ BY Tony Brown and Daniel Heggs.
[6]              ‘Broadly based mainstream qualitative approach with affinities to phenomenology and hermeneutic approaches.’ (Colin Robson, Real World Research, 2011, p24)
[7]              ‘For there to be a gift, it is necessary that the donee not give back, amortize, reimburse, acquit himself, enter into a contract, and that he never have contracted a debt…It is thus necessary, at the limit, that he not recognize the gift as gift. If he recognizes it as gift…this simple recognition suffices to annul the gift. Why? Because it gives back, in the place…of the thing itself, a symbolic equivalent…The symbolic opens and constitutes the order of exchange and of debt, the law or the order of circulation in which the gift gets annulled. It suffices therefore for the other to perceive the gift…in order for this simple recognition of the gift as gift, as such, to annul the gift as gift even before recognition becomes gratitude.’ (Jaque Derrida, Given Time I: Counterfeit Money, pp13-4)
[8]              ‘we are moved to place the significance of the experience in the other itself.’, ‘[Derrida] overlooks the fact that the notions of gift and gratitude are inseparable.’ (Alsup, p22), ‘…there is a profound sense in which I am the other (ibid, p29)
[9]              ‘…crucial importance of psychoanalysis, and especially the writings of Freud, to an understanding of Derrida’s work.’ (Royle, 2003, p73)

References

Alsup, Clayton James Monck., (2010). Grateful Gifts: Towards and Ethic of Donativity. MA Thesis. Louisiana State University. Available at: <http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-04292010-204404/> [Accessed 28/12/13]
Burbules, Nicolas C., (2000). ‘Aporias, Webs, and Passages: Doubt as an Opportunity to Learn’, Curriculum Inquiry, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer, 2000), pp. 171-187. Published by: Wiley. Available at:  http://www.henigman.com/webquest/images/Burbules_aporia.pdf [Accessed 03/01/14]
Benjamin, W., (1968) p81, The task of the translator, Illuminations, (trans by Harry Zohn), New York: Harcourt Brace and World. (cited in Burbules)
Certeau, Michel de., (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life, (trans Steven Rendall), Berkeley: University of California Press, 97, 99. (cited in Burbules)
Derrida, Jacques. (1992) Given Time I: Counterfeit Money. (Trans Peggy Kamuf). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Derrida, J., (1994). Aporias. Stanford, Ca: Standford University Press. Available at: <http://www.scribd.com/doc/29006748/Jacques-DERRIDA-Aporias#I-%2F578785877%2F1> [Accessed 02//1/14]
Foucault, M., (2004). The Order of Things (first published 1966). London: Routledge
Nayak, S., (n.d.). Border Crossings and Philosophical Mashups: The Aporetics of Intersectionality. Phd Thesis, Salford University. [Available on Request].
Oxford English Dictionary (2014) [online],. Available at: <http://www.oed.com> [Accessed 20/12/13].
Plato, (380BCE). Meno. (trans. by Benjamin Jowett). [online]. Available at: <http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/meno.html> [Accessed: 28/12/13]
Robson, C., (2011). Real World Research, p24, (3rd ed). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Royle, N. (2003) Jaques Derrida. London: Routledge.
Somekh, B., Lewin, C., (2005) (ed). Research Methods in the Social Sciences. London: Sage.
Thiongo, N.W. (1996) Borders and Bridges: Seeking Connections Between Things. Cited in Nayak (n.d.).
Worley, P., (n.d.). Does the demonstration with the slave boy in the Meno prove anything? Unpublished essay. [Available on request].
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