This is a post about power and space between researchers and the researched. This is a post about words as we understand them – and as we can grow to understand them. This post is me trying to come up with multiple understandings of what ‘culture’ can mean – and how cultures and people are seen, researched, and written down. It is a post about borders, and about breaking them – about inscribing, and erasing, and re-interpreting. It is a post about vision: how we see others and the limitations of perspective. This is a post about the power of writing in research.
Research as a Contested Space
Research is a contested space of knowledge production and meaning-making. Research is a dynamic process – or perhaps, many dynamic processes – involving interactions between multiple actors are positioned in various hierarchies of power. The knowledge produced by people located in these different hierarchies is often situated at varying levels of what ‘counts’ as truth. Different research methodologies and ways of knowing are also thus implicitly hierarchized since certain knowledge production processes are valued more; subsequently, the validity of knowledge produced through valued methodologies are also recognized as more credible. I will say it again: research, as currently constructed, is a contested space where people located in different societal positions come together with resources at their disposal to assert a particular truth – and as in any contest, some people win and others lose. In this case, winning has to do with which truths, methodologies, and ways of knowing are valued more, and which ones are scrutinized, held to be “less than”, and are valued less.
One may ask “valued by whom?” and I would tentatively say that I mean research institutions and the general public in Euro-American societies, or societies which have been strongly influenced by Euro-American societies due to processes of colonization and globalization. These institutions have strongly been informed through an epistemology drawing on colonial and paternalistic (and now, neo-colonial) ways of constructing, and then usually undermining, a culturally distinct “Other”. It should be acknowledged that colonization as an imperialistic, public process of conquest, annexation, genocide, and enslavement drew on certain ways of thinking about people and about groups considered distinct from one’s own.
These ways of thinking or knowing were written down, sometimes in sociological or anthropological accounts sometimes in evolutionary or biological terms, and sometimes in political science. These writings can be taken together and situated as the knowledge, methods, and methodologies produced by institutions affiliated with groups which conquer others. These are institutions that have also generally done most of the winning in academic circles– that is, accounts of truth produced by those affiliated with such institutions tend to be valued more by academia. In turn, such formalized constructions and understandings of any “Other” tend to permeate and leak into general society, and into the public consciousness, reflecting perhaps a recursive process of constructing “Others”. I also hope to highlight the very real spaces of resistance that have recently challenged these “traditional” ways of knowing in Euro-American based research. These epistemologies have sprung from feminist, Indigenous, and other non-Euro-American understandings of truth and power. They have critiqued the traditional ways of knowing which researchers embedded in Euro-American traditions have often drawn on. Researchers in Euro-American traditions have had to contend with, and address these challenges, which have subsequently informed methodologies in qualitative research.
I am thinking deeply about the interconnectedness between processes of understanding (or, more broadly, of knowing) and the processes of writing or conveying what we know. Meaning is ascribed, sometimes invented, and always produced through particular and situated perspectives, even if they are finally polished and presented as stand-alone truths. More complicated is the notion that so much of qualitative research, particularly those rooted in anthropological traditions, hinges on understanding, or knowing, a distinct “Other”. How this “Other” is constructed, understood, seen, and written about hinges heavily on the epistemological traditions drawn on by the person doing the constructing, the understanding, and the writing.