A post where I have a small rant about one of my least favorite research expressions…
We’ve all heard of a Freudian slip. This is where we inadvertently say something that unintentionally reveals an unconscious, or repressed, feeling, idea or belief. Of course the mis-saying, the slip of the tongue, might just be because we are tired or tense. Or – as in the case of ‘collecting data’ – it’s just a saying that is in common use.
I never use the term ‘collecting data’ myself. And when I hear other people saying it, I always register it somewhere on my inner Richter scale of research-quakes.Why? Well yes, I might be being ridiculous, but on the other hand, maybe not. Let me explain. My concern is about a slip that might be both ontological and epistemological.
(If you feel a bit uncertain about those two terms, I can really recommend listening to Nick Hopwood’s recent podcast on the topic. Nick uses Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” to introduce the various ontological and epistemological choices that we have to make as researchers. It’s not a very long podcast, but does a great job of laying out the landscape of possibilities.)
The first ontological problem I have is with the word collect.
What do we most often collect? Mushrooms in the forest. Letters from the postbox. The children from school. In each of these cases, we are collecting something that actually exists as an external, material Thing in the world – mushrooms, letters, children. BUT, do those people who habitually talk about ‘collecting data’ actually think that data exists out there in the world in the same way as these hypothetical mushrooms, letters and children?
Now, I’m not saying here that nothing in the world exists. I’m not going all Bart Simpson and tree falling in the forest on you. Let me make this clear. If we are doing research on sheep or on/with children, I don’t want to suggest that these sheep and children aren’t ‘real’. What I do want to suggest is that for all researchers who aren’t looking for universal laws which govern a predetermined external reality – and some of us are and that’s OK and you can stop reading now – these things/people aren’t data until WE make them data. They don’t live out there as data. They don’t hang around like mushrooms waiting to be picked – or not. They aren’t data until we make them data.
And as we construct events, objects, people, phenomena as data, we are in the process of constructing a particular set of social/cultural meanings.
If you take a constructivist ontological/epistemological perspective then you will accept that even numbers in a survey are heavily constructed. We define our terms, we decide what to focus on, what to leave out , what to include, how many, who, where, when and so on… There’s not a bit of a survey that the researcher is not all over, including the choice of statistical approach. The same can be said for interviews. As researchers we decide most of what to talk about with interviewees and we certainly control how to record the interview, how it’s edited and how the conversation is represented in and as text. There’s not a bit of an interview that we haven’t actually constructed. The conversation/data wasn’t out there like a mushroom, a letter or a child, waiting to be ‘collected’.
So if you say that you are a constructivist, and you use the term ‘collecting data’ does this matter? Well maybe not at all… unless you have an examiner/reader who wants to focus on the congruence between the stated ontological epistemological position and the methodology/methods. An examiner like me.
But what if there is more to it than fear of patter-like examiners? What if this IS like a Freudian slip, and is actually seepage of a largely unconscious or repressed positioning? Perhaps this is not an individual but a collective repressed postpositivism in which, even though at one level we say we believe knowledge is constructed, deep down we actually believe otherwise? (Well, I accept that that’s probably not the case. I wouldn’t want to argue that because someone is bound to ask for the data which suggests that is what is happening!! I’m just being blog-provocative of course. Although I do remember some empirical research which did argue this position, the old sociology of knowledge work about repressed positivism.)
Putting the question of Freudian slips aside, I do think for those of us that adhere to a broadly constructivist position, it IS important to think about what that means and to consider how that choice is reflected in our terminology. While saying “I’m a constructivist and I collect data” might be commonplace, it does demonstrate a reflexivity blind spot.
I reckon that if we think the truth is not out there, Scully, lying around like a mushroom, or waiting impatiently like the child at the school gates, then it does mean we need think about how we represent that position in and through language – and particularly through metaphors such as ‘collecting’. It’s not good, as my mother would have said, to go about with your slip showing for all to see. But that’s my position.
Rant over – but do watch me flinch next time I hear/read the words ‘collecting data’.