When I was a physicist, studying the structure of atomic nuclei, I needed to listen to the language spoken by the nucleus – the emission of radiation and matter, high energy pulses of light and protons, neutrons and alpha particles – and learn to read from those signals insights into the internal structure and behaviour of nuclei. The interrogative tools I used were tools that were designed to work with these ‘expressions’ of nuclei, and to remediate them in a form I could interact with (visually and manually), allowing me to look for relationships and correlations, patterns and themes, in those original expressions. (Most nuclei are silent if left to their own devices, so we had techniques to make them talk, but that’s probably a subject for another post.) A translation into human language only came after those relationship and patterns emerged, and was intended to allow me to communicate with other researchers, not interrogate the nucleus I was studying.
After many years in physics, I decided to change fields. I’m only just starting out on my new PhD in education – well maybe at more than 6 months in I have to stop saying that – but anyway, I’m still too much of a newb to feel comfortable pontificating about anything to do with social/educational research. Nevertheless, I’m probably going to end up doing that now. In fact, I’m going to spout my (still forming) opinions about data and data analysis, when I haven’t even put together my research plan. The only excuse I can give for this outrageous attempt to teach your gran to suck eggs is that I have prior experience analysing different kinds of data, generated by both non-human and human objects of research, and that this may give me an unusual slant on the whole process.
In fact it’s the attempt to put my PhD research together in my head that is causing me to ruminate so much on the tools we have available to help us learn from the objects of our research.
I’m looking at photos shared online in professional networks, why they’ve been posted, how they shape people’s thinking about that particular profession. I want to find ways of analysing the photos themselves – not just to categorise them, but to learn about how they operate, what their power or force is, both individually and in aggregate.
So what tools do I have at my disposal? The dominant methods of data collection for social research – especially qualitative research – have tended to be interviews, surveys, focus groups, and field observations. Thinking about these tools, I could interview or survey a few social media-using professionals and ask them about their photo-sharing practices, and then look for patterns and themes in the data. I could conduct interviews or focus groups with pre-service professionals, showing them photos and asking them to describe their responses. Undoubtedly, I shall do both of these things at some point. But to do just his would be to neglect two important things: the photos themselves as data to be critically analysed, and myself as a researcher making a deliberate, critical attempt to achieve a new understanding.
Sociomaterial thinking challenges us to acknowledge, describe, understand and actively interrogate the physical and virtual, inanimate and animate, non-human actors that contribute to the formation of social and cultural structures and practices. So then I have to consider, what tools do I have to interrogate these photos? One option might be to “interview the object”. But interviewing presupposes that human language – in this case, English – is the mode through which the object can communicate. It returns the human (now, the researcher) to centre stage.
I don’t want to suggest that interviews are bad things that shouldn’t be conducted, but I do think that sociomaterial thinking also challenges us to find new ways of engaging with both non-human and human actors. The interview or survey as the default tools of social enquiry may not be adequate. We need to ask questions of our objects of research in their own terms. We need to ask ourselves, how can this thing/person/system be encouraged/made to reveal something about its internal workings, its relations, its capacities, its practices, its intentions? What are its modes of communication, or what modes can be made available to it? How does it express itself to itself? What signals does it emit? Which of these modes can we, also, communicate in – or what do we need to do to learn the object’s own languages and then translate them into a language we can understand?
I’ve not yet worked out what form such an interrogation tool might take with my photos, but I’m pretty sure it’s not an interview.