Book of the year

I spend so much time picking apart books and articles that it is a release to look back and think about what I had enjoyed reading this year, not necessarily something published in 2019 but just something I happened to read.

In respect to big ideas I went back again to Michael Polanyi’s ‘Personal knowledge’ [1]. Above all I like to read commentators who are trying to balance the idea of social research as something personal (i.e. we need to bring our own ideas to the research and as Polanyi would have it our passion) with something ‘objective’ (i.e. you cannot make it up, you can only say what the evidence let’s you say) and for me Polanyi (at least his earlier work) occupies this middle ground.

In the field of technology research I did not find anything quite so engaging but I did appreciate one article on city life that, in the words of the authors, provided,

‘a case study of informal learning and lifewide literacies amongst Glaswegian adults using three distinct approaches to data collection: a household survey capturing rich data on learning attitudes, behaviours, and literacies; GPS trails that track mobility around the city; and the capture of naturally occurring social media’ [2].

It was the work using GPS trails that I found interesting – volunteers used trackers as well as life-logging cameras and in this way researchers could see how their volunteers moved around the city. Thus they were able not just to understand attitudes to learning but they could access and to some extent observe what individuals were actually doing. In particular researchers saw an association between deprivation with reduced learning engagement (this was not surprising), but physical movement played a part too and could arguably assist in learning engagement as well as be an outcome of such engagement.  There is much hype about the use of digital devices in social research but in this case their use worked and I expect there will be much more on the study of movement in the years ahead.

But in looking for a book that I really enjoyed reading it would have to be something more literary. One contender was Gavron’s ‘A Woman on the Edge of Time’ [3] in which the author tries to understand why his mother committed suicide, aged 29, when she had just had her first book published and had a career as a social scientist stretching out in front of her. Gavron looks for answers by tracking down the people in his mother’s life (not easy after so many years) and considers both internal make-up (e.g. his mother’s volatility) and external environment (e.g. the difficulties of forging an academic career in 1960s male-dominated academia). Gavron is not able to reach any definitive conclusions but at least he is able to make sense of his mother’s action. Thus the book is not only about a social scientist (his mother) but it is also a piece of social research (though I doubt if Gavron would accept the label) as it is asking questions about agency, gender stereotyping and how society both provides and limits opportunities.

I liked Gavron but my book of the year is Lily King’s fictional account of Margaret Mead doing fieldwork in New Guinea [4]. Mead was steely and consistent in challenging what US society took for granted and looking again at her book Coming of Age in Samoa [5] I saw more clearly that this was a comparative study of adolescence in USA and Samoa rather than a study of Samoa itself [6]. During her career Mead drew the ire of the Right for, as they saw it, undermining social conventions but she, or perhaps the tradition of anthropology she helped develop, became critiqued by the Left (and now by decolonising methodology[7] ) for doing research on people, rather than for people or with people and indeed some of her work feels very uncomfortable today (see an earlier blog on photography). We all need to find our own stance on this but I think Mead’s argument would be that she had come in good faith to describe what she saw and to talk about how her own society could learn from cultures which were much less known and so much less accessible than they are today.

Anyway to get back to the book, Lily King’s Euphoria, is about doing field work in New Guinea in 1933. Mead is working with her second husband, Reo Fortune – names have been changed (Mead becomes Nell and Fortune, Fen). Things are not going well when they meet fellow ethnographer Gregory Bateson (Bankson) at a Christmas party during a break from their work. Fen and Nell have been unable to complete their field work and Bankson, a lone researcher in another village, is lonely and out of his depth, so much so that he had already attempted suicide. Their encounter somehow spurs them, Mead and Fen find a more congenial village to research and Bankson sparks into life when he realises he is in love with Nell.

I really liked the book as it was about the doing of research. To be clear it is about privileged people, not the indigenous people, but it turns the tables by treating the researchers themselves as objects for analysis. In this way you can see Nell, Fen and Bankson’s strengths and weaknesses very clearly. For example, Mead comes over as an obsessive documenter of data and as someone who struggled with local languages so that she may have missed realising when the wool was pulled over her eyes. I particularly liked the figure of Bankson (I have presented the book as one about Mead but Bankson/ Bateson is a really important part of the story) with his buttoned up Englishness and moral seriousness.

I had some reservations not least as ethically it straddles a difficult space; it is clearly about Mead, Bateson and Fortune but names and settings have been changes and Lily King provides a very different ending for Nell (which I won’t reveal) than there was for Mead. This fictionalisation presents a particular problem in respect to Reo Fortune whose character Fen comes over as abusive in his relationship with Mead and an egoist or worse when carrying out a disastrous raid on another village in search of an artefact which would, if he could get his hands on it, make his reputation.  I don’t know what Fortune was really like but this seems to be having it both ways, i.e. you can say things like this might well have happened but hide behind the fiction if challenged.

I also had a problem with the key passage in the book when the three ethnographers were actually doing some theorising about the cultures they were studying. The original section is too long to include here but one reviewer summarises it as follows:

‘In one frenzied night the trio put it all down on paper: an exhilarating scene of creative and intellectual gestation that captures all the excitement of discovery, and the promise that we might find a way to better understand humankind. Here is the euphoria of the title; that breakthrough in understanding – a moment of sudden and exhilarating clarity in the life of the artist or scientist. Nell, with her lyrical, near-poetic field notes, is as much artist as scientist, with an infectious capacity for liberating passion in those near her’ [8].

I have asked a lot of people about theorising and yes this captures the sense of release when it all comes together but Lily King makes it look much more like the kind of brainstorming that comes in at the start of a project, not at the end. But who knows perhaps she is being faithful to Mead’s own descriptions.

However this is to quibble. The book is well written and that rare thing edited with discipline so that you end up wanting more. The sections in which the characters express their thoughts in diary format work really well as it is natural that as researchers they would do this. The problems with classical ethnography or anthropology are there to see (the danger of exploitation, the privileged standpoint, the capacity to be hoodwinked, the loneliness and destabilisation) but this is not a simple put down, there is something admirable, at least in the case of Nell and Bankson, in their commitment to understanding other cultures and the critical distance they try to put between themselves and the societies in which they have been brought up. They come over as serious and humanist in their intentions. The point is that researchers are rooted in time and place as much as the people they research.

 

[1] Polanyi, M. (1958) Personal knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Chicago, USA, University of Chicago Press.

[2] Lido, C., Reid, K. and Osborne, M. (2019) ‘Lifewide learning in the city: novel big data approaches to exploring learning with large-scale surveys, GPS, and social media’, Oxford Review of Education, 45, 2: 279-295.

[3] Gavron, J. (2015) A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for his Mother. Scribe Publications, London.

[4] King, L. (2014) Euphoria, London: Picador.

[5] Although I have cited Mead a lot during research methods course and had read ‘Growing up in Samoa’, I had not followed all the discussion around her work and the novel filled some gaps and pushed me to read further. There is quite a lot of video footage of Mead for example this BBC programme comes from 1976.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZDQSNkplTM

[6] Mead, M. (1928) Coming of Age in Samoa, New York: William Morrow. (This is accessible in the Internet Archive as well as via other web sites: https://archive.org/details/comingofageinsam00mead

[7] e.g. Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, London: Zed Books.

[8] Gibb, C. (2014) Euphoria by Lily King – the colourful love life of Margaret Mead, Guardian, 24 December, 2014 [online] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/dec/24/euphoria-lily-king-review-margaret-mead-new-guinea

 

The ethics of social research

I teach research methods courses and when it comes to sessions on ethics we normally go over the classics: Milgram’s experiments with obedience; the Stanford prison experiment; poor Alfred and the white rat [1]. All very startling but on the whole students do not get as excited as I do. I think this is first because most have heard of these stories before and second they know they could never do something as off-the-wall as these researchers. So they don’t always see the point in talking about them. Well the point, as I try to make clear, is that however extreme we find these cases today they did not seem so when they were carried out. For example, Milgram’s experiment in obedience became championed in counter cultural politics of the 1960’s and 1970 but as far as I know few people at the time said, ‘Hey wait a minute you cannot ask people to believe they are inflicting electric shock treatment just because you want to find out if they will do it!’.

So I don’t want to throw out the classics, but I would like to broaden my examples and find something a little less obvious. So it was that the other day I looked up Garfinkel’s reporting of experiments ‘in trust and stable actions’ in the early 1960’s [2]. First thing to say is that Garfinkel’s work was insightful. His career long research theme was the maintenance of order in social interactions and the role that conversation played in keeping a tight hold on the roles we could play and how we played them. To illustrate this passion we had for order in our relationships he asked (and it is not clear whether he merely suggested or told) his students to act in unexpected ways in keeping with the old adage, ‘if you want to understand something then try to change it’.

One of his examples was asking students to enter a store (or shop), to select a customer and treat the customer as a clerk (shop assistant) while giving ‘no recognition that the subject was any other person that the experimenter took him to be and without giving any indication that the experimenter’s treatment was anything other than perfectly reasonable and legitimate’. In the examples he describes the ‘subjects’ (or, let us be honest, the duped customers) becoming ‘nervous and jittery’, one was ‘flushed with anger’ and another ‘stalked out of the shop’. For good measure one volunteer student had a friend ‘a professor emeritus of mathematics at the California Institute of Technology’ (so that is alright then) who ‘begged to be allowed to accompany the student’ and joined in an experiment of his own.

Garfinkel followed these relatively mild and short term experiments with a more well-known one in which students were asked to spend from fifteen minutes to an hour in their home acting as ‘if they were boarders (lodgers)’; by this he meant they should act the role of being ‘circumspect and polite’, using ‘formal address and speaking only when spoken to’. He writes that out of 49 students, five refused to do it and 4 ‘were unsuccessful’ (i.e. they were willing but the circumstances did not seem right). But four fifths of the students did try the experiment and Garfinkel reports that family members were ‘stupefied’ and ‘vigorously sought to make the strange actions intelligible and to restore the situation to normal’. He elaborates that students’ reports were ‘filled with accounts of bewilderment, shock, anxiety, embarrassment, and anger, and with charges by various family members that the student was mean, inconsiderate, selfish, nasty, or impolite.’

There were however  no cases in which the situation was not restorable after the student had explained what they were doing, but family members were angry. As for the students, they did not for the most part did not find the experiment difficult to carry out or particularly taxing.

For Garfinkel these examples worked, i.e. they showed we were made uncomfortable when what was taken for granted was disrupted. But were they ethical? No I don’t think so. They may have been comparatively mild cases but this was reckless for the families and for the students concerned and I would say that family members had it right when they complained that the students were ‘mean, inconsiderate, selfish, nasty, or impolite’.  And this actually makes me question the conclusions to be drawn from the experiments, people may have been angry, not so much because they were over-committed to the maintenance of social order, but because the student volunteers were taking the piss; as one family member said to a student ‘we are not rats’. But my overarching complaint is why would you ever want to do social science in this way? Yes, if you want to understand something then do try to change it, but why not try to change it for the better. For example, there is all manner of research into what goes disastrously wrong in families and relationships and really worthwhile attempts to explain what helps in redressing an imbalance [3]. Ethically this seems where social research should be positioned.

[1] In Milgram’s experiment volunteers were told they were assisting in a learning experiment and told to administer an electric shock every time a learner made a mistake in a test (in fact there was no shock and the ‘learner’ was playing a part). The shock generator was marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock). The study was about how far volunteers would go. See:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOUEC5YXV8U

In the Stanford prison experiment the psychology building was turned into a mock prison and 24 paid male volunteers were assigned roles of guard or prisoner in order to explore the impact of taking on a role on otherwise well adjusted men. Some got carried away in their role. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4txhN13y6A

The third example concerned Watson and classic conditioning. Little Albert was around 9 months old and exposed to different stimuli and showed no fear of any of small animals including a white rat. However the next time Albert was exposed to the rat the researcher made a loud noise and thereafter the child associated the noise with the rat and would cry on seeing it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hBfnXACsOI

[2] Garfinkel, H. (1963) ‘A conception of, and experiments with, ‘trust’ as a condition of stable concerted actions’, in O.J. Harvey (ed.) Motivation and Social Interaction: Cognitive Approaches, New York: Ronald Press.

[3] As one example, Yoshihama, M. (2002) ‘Breaking the web of abuse and silence: Voices of battered women in Japan’, Social Work, 47, 4: 389-400.

Academic writing retreats: are they worth it?

The university in which I work puts on two-day writing retreat events – these are not residential but just an opportunity to work on something in a dedicated space, in the presence of colleagues all doing their own writing. I try to go to these when I can, I find I can concentrate better in a room in which everyone else is writing too. For that matter there is nothing else to do except write, so you write.  I notice too that people tend to come back to follow-up events so something is clearly working.

In addition to these internal events I have been three or four times to a week-long residential writing retreat. This is organised independently and it attracts some academics but probably the majority are working on fiction – poetry, novels, short stories. A lot of colleagues have asked me if going away like this is worthwhile and yes I would say it is. But before saying more, the concept of writing retreat needs some clarification. Some universities put on focused, structured events – they are called retreats but they are really organised residentials – around writing for publication. It seems from reviews carried out [1] that what academics like about these events is protected time, having other people around and getting some input from mentors. There is little negative comment  in the literature but I would guess that you need to make a residential voluntary as anyone who has to go, rather than wants to go, is likely to be very grumpy. The advice given for those organising a residential is to think of it as a process, rather than a one-off. In other words: prepare; run the event; follow up with participants afterwards. This means getting participants to work something up in advance, let them discuss work in progress with mentors at the event and, crucially, go back to participants afterwards and monitor what they have done and offer more support. Little to argue against here and the kind of thing that is organised from time to time for students as well.

But what about the unstructured writing retreat, the type where people go away somewhere quiet and simply get on with it, what do people get out of them? Like the structured ones earlier I think the main attraction is protected time to work on some writing. However, there are some fairly obvious reasons why they do not appeal to many academics, in particular:

  • if you are short of time to write it may not make sense to spend any of the time you do have in travelling to a retreat.
  • some academics have very comfortable arrangements for writing at home.
  • money – if it is not organised by the university then you will need to pay for yourself, and to be honest it feels like paying for the privilege of doing your job, no matter how pleasant the surrounding are.
  • squaring it with others –  if you are away a lot for your work your family will not react kindly if you go away for another chunk of time especially if out of term time.

Added to all this, I would say that for myself a writing retreat sounded really self-indulgent and I think a surprisingly large number of colleagues would feel the same way. This raises a larger question of academic identity; being an academic is supposed to include writing but this is very hard to prioritise given all the other demands on our time.  Writing is in any case so uncertain (you don’t know for sure if it will ever be published and who will ever read it?) but teaching and administration is not (you get it done and it is there for all to see).  Certainly, I would not have gone on a retreat if I did not have some teaching award prize money I could use. It was not the money, but the legitimation I needed.

It tuned out that I enjoyed the peace and quiet of the retreat- it was a small group with masses of room in the house where we stayed – and the routine of early morning walking, breakfast, lunch, cake, dinner broke up the writing really well; instead of thinking I had a whole day in front of a screen I could work around two hour blocks. I liked the mix of writers and the thing I was most worried about (there might not be other academics, or at least no academics in my field) turned out to be the thing I most liked. I got a lot of work done, much more than I thought I would, and much more than I had succeeded in doing anywhere else. I did feel undeservedly cossetted from everyday concerns but, hey, it is surprising what you can get used to. I have been back since, I try to do so once a year in order to reinforce some of the helpful habits for writing I picked up. However I would not want to do more than that as I want it to be a bit special.

So perhaps you might want to give writing retreat some thought. If so, first work out if it is an organised or non-organised event, or perhaps something in between that you want. Sometimes organisers will suggest you share your work in progress but I don’t think that will ever happen unless expectations are clear in advance.  Plan what you want to get done. If you could really prepare thoroughly then I expect you are so well organised there might not be much point in going away to write. So realistically for most people planning will mean finding a moment to decide beforehand if you want to use the time to [a] get your head around a topic by reading around it and note taking; [b] complete a draft of something that you have already started; or [c] focus on something that has been hanging around for some time, perhaps something that is especially taxing and the retreat is a reward for getting it done.

I would also advise to ask yourself if you are really looking for a holiday rather than a writing retreat. In fact, there are many summer writing retreats on Mediterranean islands and in idyllic Nordic forests advertised on the web, these are fine as holiday destinations but if you want to go on holiday then go on holiday and if you want to write then write, both are fine but not at the same time. Finally, don’t worry about anyone else. The point of a retreat is that other people have their own things to do, they are not really interested in you or your work; you can look vacant and lost in thought but that is OK as they are similarly distracted. They won’t mind it if you talk about your work, and they might talk about theirs, but only at the right time.   I suppose good advice is finally to research places to go as far a you can – actually I did not but it turned out fine.

[1] Rowena Murray amongst others has discussed retreats over a number of years as well as issues of academic identity e.g. Murray R. (2008) Writer’s retreat: reshaping academic writing practices. Educational Developments, 9(2):14-16.