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On ‘critical methods’

This blogspot was written by Jef Huysmans (CCIG Director 2010-15) as part of CCIG Forum 35 - What are the key methodological challenges for critical social science?

Methods are mainly taught and trained as tools that one needs to learn how to use properly. The emphasis is on introducing a set of functions and procedures that need following, similar to explaining how to use a washing machine, cook a meal, drive a car, engage in conversation, and so on. Plenty is deleted from ‘methods’ here, including that tools can be used in all kind of ‘inappropriate’ ways. But of particular interest for now is that the social and political life of methods is taken out of the picture. Discourse analytical techniques, statistics, forensic profiling, visual representation, and so on are not only used in the academic field but also in governmental practice, by ‘lay’ researchers, in political debate, and so on. Techniques of analysing the social also have a history of scholarly and political contestation that shapes their current use. They are not the free-floating instrument that can be applied anytime, anywhere but are invested with academic differentiations (e.g. positivist versus interpretive) and normative and political positions (e.g. ethnographic methods and its relation to the history of colonial anthropology). An instrumental teaching of methods not only brackets these elements, it often also explicitly positions methods as the part of research that should not be too concerned about the normative and political aspects of knowledge. While ontological, epistemological, conceptual and topic choices are invested by value judgements, methods are that what guarantees, when applied properly, scientific neutrality, objectivity, rigour, and credibility to knowledge. In so far critical knowledge is interested in political and normative content of knowledge, this conception of methods is not particularly attractive. As not just ‘value neutral’ but also ‘value neutralising’, methods erase precisely what critical approaches seek to retain and engage with.

This oxymoronic quality of the notion ‘critical methods’ invites various responses. One of them is to partly ignore methods and focus knowledge on epistemological and ontological choices and how they influence the way one knows worlds. Of course, mostly this does not mean no methods are being used but rather that one does not call the extraction of information and their interpretation methodological. There is something important about this route of ‘forgetting methods’. It prevents method fetishism in which methods become the kernel of analytical activity at the cost of engaging theory debates, social and political contestation of data gathering, genealogies of knowledge practice and governmental use of them. By not ‘talking’ method the ‘let’s forget methods’ route facilitates creative use of methods, often kept implicit.

A different response is to take methods serious as a practice in which knowledge, the social, and political are both actioned and created, or in other words, are enacted. This route requires revisiting the instrumentalisation of methods. Methods are indeed a ‘tool’ or a ‘technique’ — i.e. a mode of doing something. Yet, they are also tools in situated action; being used in various fields of practice. The critical move is then not one about refocusing knowledge practice from methods to ontology and epistemology freeing methods from procedural constraints, but one of foregrounding that methods are in and off worlds rather than a bridge between knowledge and worlds, argument and evidence. Critical methods teaching and training would then have to look quite different from what has been described above. The social, political and scholarly life of methods becomes an essential part of methods teaching. One way of doing this is to organise methods teaching that simultaneously problematises methods and conceptualises methods as tools of problematisation.

Problematising refers to the processes and conditions through which something is rendered into and through which it renders objects and subjects into the play of true and false or visible and invisible. Such a view does not dilute teaching the proper use of a particular statistical method, for example. However, it requires that the teaching of the technique immediately connects the statistical procedure to the political and social history of its production and demonstrates its particular modalities of investing objects, subjects and relations with objectivity and truth. It will also include an explicitly comparative teaching of the differences between methods in both these terms. In that sense methods teaching will problematise methods, i.e. place methods within their social and political life as producers of truths and visibility, and introduce methods as practices of problematising, of interrogating the conditions of producing truths and visibility. The latter works on the back of teaching the social and political life of methods. In doing the latter, it becomes clear that methods are not a neutral device. Even when a particular method is highly appropriate for making particular issues visible it is no longer simply a technique. It has a place in social and political history and fields of practice defined by contestations and struggles and therefore it takes a standpoint. Interrogating how ‘standpoints’ are taken and its limits, and examining standpoint taking as part of the production of truth and objectivity claims thus becomes a key element in methods teaching.

Among students and lecturers there is not infrequently a sense that methods are dull, unless one is particularly interested in mastering various ways of extracting data and organising them in detail. The instrumental conception of methods seems to simply come down to learning a set of procedures and some dos and don’ts. Of course, this is an oversimplified understanding of what often is quite a challenging practice to get right. Yet, it expresses something important. This conception of methods downplays creativity and experimentation with methods. The challenge in method seems to be about refining and properly applying a technique. Creativity is bound by already set rules of possibility. In so far critical knowledge is partly about interpreting worlds outside of the box, i.e. outside of institutionalised or habitual practice, creative methodological practice requires free play, experimentation and trial and error. To connect things, subjects and relations in unfamiliar ways also includes developing unusual methods and combinations of them through which knowledge and worlds are enacted. The challenge for method training here is: how to teach free play, experimentation, and trial and error, in other words, how to train methodological creativity. One way would be to revisit Feyerabend’s anarchical approach to method and look at how researchers, and other actors, use bricolage as a technique of knowing.

Such a training programme would have to be oxymoronic. Instead of separating the two contradictory terms by placing them in different training programmes — one about methods and another about critical theory — it would keep them very explicitly together as a productive tension. Methods training in this sense will teach the specific mode of extracting information and producing knowledge of different methodological techniques. The technique taught, however, would also be made alive by exploring its social and political, historical and contemporary life. It thus combines a sensibility to the technicality of methods with a sensibility that technicalities are never technical but always already connected to various worlds. In a sense it teaches technicalities as simultaneously technical and not technical. The training also incorporates a tension between practicing and mastering discrete techniques — such as regression analysis, Greimasian discourse analysis, Derridean deconstruction — and experimenting with knowledge production that assembles concepts, theories, methods in more anarchical ways. In particular, it would train critical methods as containing a productive tension between demands for coherence, sufficiency, rigour hooked into research design ‘advice’ and an imperative for bricolage and experimental interference that is often anathema to demands of research rigour and methodological criteria of credibility.

A challenge? Maybe, but maybe not. The challenge in organising an oxymoronic methods course is in the first instance institutional. It would require methods courses to combine various things that are now spread over different courses — theory, methods, sociology of knowledge. The intellectual and pedagogical challenge is to train working with and across the differences and tensions between critical theory, methods, and sociologies and histories of knowledge without losing proper training in each component. Oxymorons imply freer play and invite disposition to experimenting. It breaks set rules and procedures. In that sense, the threshold is not that high, it is moving from contemplation to simply doing, trying, experimenting.