I’ve been thinking recently about problems.
It’s probably because I edit an action research journal* where people very often begin their paper by outlining a problem that has arisen in their practice, and then go on to report an action research project that provided some kind of solution.
Potential doctoral researchers also often arrive at a supervisor’s door with a problem that they want to address. They can usually talk about why the problem is important, even if they haven’t yet done the literatures work to see what else is out there that addresses it.
I’m not suggesting here that doctoral research has to be problem-based. Of course, people have all kinds of research beginnings besides problems – puzzles, curiosities, areas of interest, debates, just to name a few. But it’s the actual problem-based projects that worry me at the moment.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to suggest we shouldn’t look at problems. I am going to suggest that problems aren’t sufficient in themselves. Problems need to be problematised.
Yes, problematising and problematisation are hideous words. I don’t like them much. They aren’t words you want to use outside the scholarly community. I wouldn’t use the term problematisation at the hairdressers, any more than I’d talk about epistemology. These are terms used by consenting scholarly adults. However, I may very well do a bit of problematising at the hairdressers even if I don’t call it that.
Problematising simply means making something problematic, not taking it for granted, questioning assumptions, framings, inclusions, emphases, exclusions.
In reality many many arts, humanities and social science research projects start with a problematisation. Those puzzles, curiosities, areas of interest, debates – and problems – that doctoral researchers are interested in, all have to be problematized as part of the first stage of the research process. They all have to be interrogated, probed, and explored as part of the way the research is delineated, oriented and situated. This problematisation is an important step in getting to the particular question to be explored.
But let me get specific about the problem-based problematisation.
The difference between a problem and a problematisation can be seen really clearly in a recent blog post by Jem Bloomfield. Jem teaches in a School of English and his post concerned a phenomenon he’d come across while marking undergraduate essays. Well, it was more than a phenomenon, it was a problem as far as he was concerned.
Jem had noticed that a lot of students wrote about females, rather than women. In his post he problematized this practice. His first move offered the problem as he saw it.
I’ve spent quite a bit of the last few days crossing out the word “females” and writing “women” in its place. More time than seems reasonable, certainly. I’ve been marking, so this crossing out is part of my job, but it has called my attention to just how often I see “females” used when the writer means “women”. I’m not particularly criticising my students: I don’t think they do it more than another random group, when adjusted for demographic factors such as age, class and average knowledge of John Donne’s early poetry. I think it’s a much wider issue, and not just pedantry about words.
Jem’s second move was to unpack the practice and some of the assumptions on which this mis-naming was based.
It may not be intended as such, but calling women “females” is substituting an adjective for a noun. Female what? It turns a person into an attribute, their individual self replaced by a general category. If that sounds like I’m reading too much into grammar, consider how careful we are not to do to this other groups of people whose members include women. You don’t hear most people talking about “a Chinese”, or “a black”, or “a disabled”. Or if you do, you can guess the views of the person using those terms towards the people they’re talking about. They don’t see them as individuals worthy of consideration. They’re lumping them all together, as if “they’re all the same”. It’s verbal shorthand for thinking of someone as a person second, and the category you’ve put them into first.
Jem’s third move was to raise questions about the potential implications of this practice, to consider possible real effects in the world.
Does it, in fact, reflect the way we write and speak about women? Is there an assumption in a lot of the media, fiction and scholarly writing we consume that the most pertinent feature of a woman is her gender? That this will somehow explain or determine features of her personality, making assumptions that we wouldn’t make about a man?
We need to note here that Jem was writing a blog post, not a research proposal. These words were written as an opinion piece not as a research proposal. But the three moves that he has made – from the problem to asking questions about it – are the ones that need to happen to get from a problem to a defensible researchable project. And we can see that the questions that Jem raises in his third move, thinking about the potential consequences of the problem behavior, could lead to any number and variety of research projects – from a study of where, when and how the term female [not woman] is used in media, fiction or scholarly writing, to the kinds of interpretations made by readers, to the attitudes of writers. His problematisation could even be the basis for an intervention project or action research.
In a research proposal, getting from the problem to a problematisation requires careful thought, as well as literatures work. There are a number of questions we can use to help us undertake this important task:
• What is the problem?
• Why is this a problem and for whom?
• What possible assumptions/concepts/theories underpin this problem practice?
• What are the implications of this problem practice?
• In whose interests does the problem practice work?
We might also ask of phenomena that are designated as problems by policy-makers or practitioners – or ask as reflexive questions of our researching selves:
• Who has decided this practice is a problem?
• What is included and excluded in this problem formulation?
• What possible assumptions/concepts/theories underpin this problem formulation?
• What are the implications of this problem formulation?
• In whose interests does the problem formulation work?