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Methods in Motion 27: David Kaposi – Do We Really Need Methods?

16 June 2017
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Yes, but what's your method? Dr David Kaposi argues that the study of memory shouldn't fall under the aegis of either 'objectivity' or 'subjectivity'.

I remember the first time I heard the word ‘method’ and it’s because it felt like a slap on the wrist. I was presenting some ideas for an MA thesis to a would-be (though eventually not to be) supervisor, an eminent Professor of Social Psychology. I was interested in Adolf Eichmann’s memory as it appeared during the course of his 1961 trial in Jerusalem. On the one hand, asking the same questions everyone in the courtroom seemed to be asking (“Does Eichmann remember things correctly?” “Does he not?” “Is he lying?”) was both intriguing and utterly impossible to answer. On the other, I noticed that this was partly because different people at the trial understood different things by phrases such as ‘memory’ or ‘correctly remembered’. Moreover, whilst the hypothetical question of the veracity of Eichmann’s memory did not seem to me to bear any consequence for the outcome of the trial, the questions “What kind of memory did Adolf Eichmann have?” and “What kinds of things did he present as his memories?” absolutely did.

It was amidst my utter fascination with these issues that I felt my wrist slapped by the professor’s curt question: “But what is your method?” I honestly did not know how to answer. This was partly due to the enquiry being uttered in an aggressive tone that failed to engage with my substantive interest. But it also reflected my misgivings about the idea (which the professor wholeheartedly stood for) of something 'objective' (i.e. independent of interpretative efforts) being used to approach my questions.

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        Yes, but what's your method ...?

This misgiving had little to do with the difference between quantitative and qualitative methods. Indeed, both – as experimental studies identifying implicit or explicit memory and discursive studies interrogating the rhetoric of remembering attest – have a place in the study of memory. In fact, not only do numbers and words not stand in opposition, they actually work in tandem. Numbers make no sense unless we define or conceptualise what is being counted; and words may be understood with reference to certain frequencies of their occurrence. The demand of an 'objective' method, in the sense of a set of steps and procedures independent of human activity, judgement or interpretation, is not intimately tied to quantitative methods, just as ‘subjectivity’ as a concept cannot be taken to characterise qualitative inquiries. The acts of interpretation and human judgement are just as important for quantitative studies as an inter-subjectively conceived consensus or value is for qualitative studies.

Thus, the way to engage with the study of memory should not fall under the aegis of either ‘objectivity’ or ‘subjectivity’. Rather, it should be reflective of the aspect of memory or remembering in question. In the case of Eichmann’s memory, it involved the rhetoric of memory and necessitated the rhetorical analysis of utterances coming from various perspectives and leading to various constructions of Eichmann, his morality, the status of the State of Israel with regard to the Holocaust and the nature of humanity. When I collated the utterances that seemed to me most relevant, I started to ask, first, what version of a memory they promoted; second, what version of Eichmann they promoted; and, finally, what version of morality and society was implied by these constructions of Eichmann. The utterances needed to be understood and interpreted in relation to these questions.

My selection of the utterances, the dimension according to which they would be interpreted, and the interpretative acts themselves were, of course, not ‘objective’. But neither were they ‘subjective’ – I wouldn’t have arrived at them if I hadn’t thought I could convince my academic peers of their validity. My rhetorical analysis was intended to be true: it was what I deemed to be the most persuasive story that could be told about the handling of Adolf Eichmann’s memories, the uses of memory and the acts of remembering at the trial. The truth which I hoped to achieve was neither anchored in some pre-set reality – ‘objectivity’ – nor rooted merely in my feelings – ‘subjectivity’. It was, instead, truth in an argumentative and inter-subjective sense.

What had started as a feeling of having been slapped on the wrist, thereby resulted in a long-standing engagement with the know-how of an interpretative inquiry and the conditions and possibilities of contingent knowledge.


Dr David Kaposi is a Lecturer in Social Psychology. He is interested in the relationship between violence and identity, and how traumatic events can be made sense of and reintegrated in discourses they would otherwise tear apart.