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Methods in Motion Blog 14: Jane McCarthy on What We 'Don’t Know' in Cross-Cultural Research

3 March 2017
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As debates about 'truth' continue to hit the headlines, sociologist and Visiting Fellow Dr Jane McCarthy explores what we 'don’t know' in cross-cultural research.

What counts as ‘truth’ is a political hot topic. Yet a previous post has argued that knowledge is relative, a matter of social production, shaped by power dynamics. So how do we reconcile such perspectivism with a continuing search for robust knowledge, whether ‘at home’ or ‘abroad’ – knowledge that is sorely needed in the current climate?

As a sociologist researching families and relationships, my primary approach has involved qualitative methods ever since I discovered how much I didn’t know, and how much more I could learn if I listened empathetically using open-ended methods. Without such an approach, there was no chance of my knowledge becoming something that stood outside the preconceptions with which I began. This started a long fascination with how we produce ‘situated’ knowledge (Haraway, 1988) from particular perspectives (or standpoints, as feminists might say). Recognising this involves attending to the practicalities, emotions and thinking involved in the processes of empirical research, and communicating these to those interested in the outcomes.

Although my work was based in the UK for many years, more recently I have welcomed opportunities to research aspects of children’s lives in China, and family experiences of death in Senegal. In these projects, I’m driven by the need to step outside the perspectives of the minority, affluent worlds in which I live, to find out what it is ‘we’/I don’t know. Knowledge needs to be diverse and flexible – while remaining robust – if it is to become something really useful in a complex and often intolerant world in which globalisation and technology increasingly compress time and space, bringing diversities into sharp relief with major human consequences.

Yet short-term qualitative research falls painfully short of the anthropological gold standard of studying diverse peoples by learning new languages and immersing oneself in the field. Anthropologists have long been aware of the significance of researchers’ own cultural perspectives in shaping the accounts they produce, while seeking to avoid total cultural relativism or total pessimism about the possibility of understanding diverse perspectives. But it does, perhaps, require much imagination, thoughtfulness, respect and an ability to stay with uncomfortable feelings when researching ways of life that may be different from our own. So, what are some of the processes of qualitative research that helped me to know what it is ‘we’/I don’t know?

Researching ‘abroad’ has involved steep learning curves. I have relied heavily on team-working with Chinese and Senegalese academics and with UK researchers already familiar with these contexts. The careful focus on the details of constructing our research has been crucial, alongside an awareness of broader power structures and dynamics that impinge on our work. A close attention to language has led to my dawning realisation – as a non-linguist – that translation is very much more than a technical matter. I have a new respect for socio-linguistics, and how particular terms are embedded in long-standing historical cultures, even while language itself is dynamic and ever flexible. The nurturing of trust between team members has been encouraged through learning about our differing expectations of academic work and research. Both academic and fictional literature have provided insights and context, along with others’ feedback on our emerging outputs. But there has also been the personal requirement to tolerate ambiguities and confusions as we seek to hold open our analytic impulses to frame our interpretations through our own familiar assumptions. Through such efforts, and in spite of the powerful structures and inequalities shaping the production of knowledge, I hope we can contribute knowledge for new becomings that may give pause to knowledge producers like myself in minority worlds, to reconsider our own perspectives and how these may limit our understanding of the diverse ways in which people may be ‘in the world’.

Is this a recipe for total cultural relativism? I hope not. In the context of family lives shaped by power dynamics such as gender, generation, class, ethnicity and material resources, moral judgements are sometimes required about what may be considered harmful to the less powerful, and when to intervene. But perhaps there is scope also for drawing on the work of anthropologists such as Richard Schweder, who seeks to explicate the ways in which peoples around the world respond to life’s joys, suffering and dilemmas, developing moral frameworks in the process. And then, perhaps, we might be better able to listen to each other, and communicate across diverse cultural contexts, to create more open and inclusive social change across the world.

Dr Jane Ribbens McCarthy is a Visiting Fellow in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences. She would like to acknowledge funding for the projects in China and Senegal from the OU, the Sino-British Fellowship Trust and the Leverhulme Trust, together with the valued collaboration of her colleagues: Sophie Bowlby, Monica Dowling, Ruth Evans, Guo Yu, Fatou Kébé, Abigail Knight, Ann Phoenix, Joséphine Wouango, Xu Qiong and Xu Xiaoli.

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