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Keeping a close ‘I’ on ‘reality’ in social science

Keeping a close ‘I’ on ‘reality’ in social science

Reading | Social Sciences

Donna Thomas, PhD | 2021-08-01

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In seeking to ameliorate social injustices by debunking the egoic self as measure of all things, the social sciences risk inadvertently abolishing the very notion of a subject of experience, argues Dr. Donna Thomas. The way forward, according to her, is to embrace metaphysics and understand the self not as a separate social agent, but as the ontic ground of all reality, common to all of us.

In La mort de l’auteur,[i] Roland Barthes proclaims the author dead, her identity dissolved in a soup of ten thousand interpretations, through the birth of the reader.[ii] What did he mean by the ‘death of the author’? Barthes (and other post-structuralists) challenged romantic notions of the artist as a producer of textual truths, a supreme creator who possessed and distributed fixed meanings. In other words, the meanings of what is written or said is never dependent on authorial intention but on active reception instead.

La mort de l’auteur (The death of the author) has re-emerged, in some ways, as the death of the ‘self,’ through a new wave of post-human thinking. Just as the atrocities of the second world war catalyzed post-structuralist challenges, our recent social crises provoke a re-examination of—not the author—but our very self(ves) and the ‘matter of matter.’[iii] The historical privileging of authors and textuality is usurped to displace mind, language and a centered-subject[iv]—that classical idea of the human as a ‘basic unit, a knowing subject that is understood as universal and the measure of all things.’[v] Deconstructing this ‘Vitruvian Man’ has been essential for challenging an image of man that has historically subjugated, oppressed and alienated groups and whole societies. But it comes with a cost. The drive towards post-human thinking obliterates the ‘self,’ troubles agency and flattens ontology with a Deluzean hammer. For do we not experience an ‘experiencer’—a sense of I-ness that is an essential aspect of experience?[vi]

Social reality is a shared consensus, held together through the dialectical relations between signs, discourses, practices and systems. The task for the linguist or critical theorist is to enter the ‘kitchen of meaning’[vii] chopping the masking of social ills and injustices. The kitchen must be entered critically, so as to identify the ‘ideological abuse in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying’[viii]—using tools that can deconstruct enduring discourses as ‘regimes of truth,’[ix] authored by corporates, institutions and governments. We consider how relations between texts, talk and signs figure in perpetuating injustice and inequality, which are detrimental to the wellbeing of many people.[x]

However, despite good intentions, ‘the trap of language’[xi] often catches social science scholars through the act of privileging language above other modes of communication (i.e. sound, color, image) and by viewing self and the world as a discursive phenomenon. For social scholars, who do the messy business of research with humans, philosophical questions are often overlooked. We forget the most important facet of the social transformation agenda: to examine more deeply unquestioned assumptions about who we are and the nature of the reality that we unpick. We overlook deeper questions that ask who the authors of stories are and the origins of their meanings. We analyze discourse as an act of knowledge production, interpreted and molded into worldly configurations.[xii] But we don’t stop to examine the ontological influences that direct our research.

There has long been a dichotomy in social science between social reality and the natural world, found in the post-modern, critical realist and relativist underpinnings of social science scholarship. The consensus views language and self as socially constituted.[xiii] In this way, language partly constitutes social reality (along with objects, institutions, belief systems etc.). The emphasis on language, knowledge and meaning means ontology may not be a primary motivation for social scholars, who aim to uncover hidden relations ‘in the kitchen’ between, for example, identity and power.

Habermas (1996) noted the indifference towards relations between social life and ‘natural laws’ as the price we pay when ‘natural laws continue to be felt within the lifeworld.’[xiv] The natural laws that Habermas appeals to (and everyday people experience) may be better understood as underlying principles, perhaps inherent to how we experience self, others and the world. This requires an ontological move from the material to the mind. Kastrup (2017, 2018, 2019) posits the social and natural world as mental and continuous with our minds. If there is “no intrinsic separation between our minds and the objects of perception, naturally these objects should comport themselves in a way consistent with mental archetypes.”[xv] Now, this ontological leap is not so wide for us to consider in social science. Where critical realists[xvi] move to a second ontological category to claim an external material world outside our individual experiences of it, analytical idealism[xvii] sees only one ontic possibility. The external world is just seemingly separate from our perceptions of it. Made up of the transpersonal mental contents of a ‘mind-at-large,’ the external world is in fact a continuation of our self and experiences. The crucial questions are: Which ontological move can better explain human experience of self, others and the world? Which ontological primitive can offer affordances for a smoother transition between dialectics, relationalities, intersections and subjectivity?

We may not need to get rid of the ‘self’ or the mind to challenge the idea of the Vitruvian Man. Instead, turning to a more parsimonious ontology, such as analytical idealism, could support better understandings about self, subjectivity, agency and how social realities figure in relation to the natural world and the ground of reality. Viewing ontology as an extension to what already is our direct experiences offers valuable potentials for critical social studies. The task then is to recognize the importance of critical theories for social emancipation and transformation, without losing our very sense of self(ves) in the explosion of post-modern-post-humanisms-new-materialisms. It’s a quest to find better explanations about the nature of self and how discourse and relations between ‘things’ figure into it. We need, now more than ever, to keep a close ‘I’ on the ‘ideological abuse’ that is hidden within the walls of the kitchen.

 

[i] Barthes, 1968.

[ii] See Spivak, 1993.

[iii] See Diaz Diaz & Semenec, 2020.

[iv] See Delueze & Guittari, 1987.

[v] See Protagoras, cited in Braidotti, 2015.

[vi] See Zahavi, 2014.

[vii] See Barthes, 2015, 158.

[viii] Barthes, cited in Badmington, 2020.

[ix] see Foucault, 1980.

[x] see Choiliraki & Fairclough, 2010

[xi] See Barthes, 2005.

[xii] See Barad, 2007.

[xiii] see Fairclough, 2003; Harvey, 1996.

[xiv] See Habermas, 1996.

[xv] See Kastrup, 2017, 55.

[xvi] See Bhaskar, 1998; Fairclough, 2003.

[xvii] See Kastrup, 2018, 2019.

 

References

Badmington, N. (2020). An Undefined Something Else: Barthes, Culture, Neutral Life. Theory, Culture & Society, 37(4):65-76.

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Meaning. London: Duke University Press.

Barthes, R. (2005). The Neutral: Lecture Course at the College de France (1977-1978). Trans. Rosalind, K. & Hollier, D. Columbia University Press: New York.

Barthes, R. (1951). Michelet, l’histoire et la Mort. Esprit (1940-), 178(4), 497-511.

Bhaskar, R. (1989). The Possibility of Naturalism. A philosophical critique of the contemporary human sciences. Routledge: London.

Braidotti R (2015) Posthuman Affirmative Politics. In (eds) Wilmer S E. Resisting Biopolitics. Routledge: New York.

Chouliaraki, L. & Fairclough, N. (2010). Critical Discourse Analysis in Organisational Studies: Towards an intergrationist methodology. Journal of Management Studies, doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6486.2009.00883.x.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum Press.

Diaz Diaz, K. & Semenec, P. (2020). Posthumanist and New Materialist Methodologies: Research after the child. Springer: Singapore.

Fairclough, N. (2003). Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research. Routledge: London.

Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972–1977 (C. Gordon, L. Marshall, J. Mepham, & K. Soper, Trans.). London: Harvester: Wheatsheaf.

Habermas, J. (1996). The Unity of reason in the Diversity of Its Voices: What is Enlightenment? In. (eds) Schmidt, J. (1996), University of California Press: Berkeley.

Harvey, D. (1998). The body as an accumulation strategy. Environment and Planning, 16, 401–421.

Kastrup, B. (2017). An Ontological Solution to the Mind-Body Problem. Philosophies, 2(2), 1–18.

Kastrup, B. (2018). The Universe in Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 25 (5), 125-155.

Kastrup, B. (2019). The Idea of the World: A multidisciplinary argument for the mental nature of reality. John Hunt Publishing: United Kingdom.

Spivak, G. (1993). Reading the Satanic Verses: In: Outside in the Teaching Machine. London: Routledge, 217-242.

Zahavi, D. (2014). Self and Other: Exploring subjectivity, empathy and shame. Oxford Uni Press, Oxford.

Re-thinking identity: Children’s experiences of self

Re-thinking identity: Children’s experiences of self

Reading | Social Sciences

Donna Thomas, PhD | 2021-02-28

Thomas RETHINKING SELF

Dr. Thomas argues that children, before a conceptual, culture-bound notion of self is inculcated in them, have a more spontaneous, broader sense of identity that defies our current worldview. She argues that their more natural, fluid self is more conducive to overcoming the despair characteristic of our present situation, and that it has much to teach us about reality itself.

For Hannah Arendt (1971), theorizing can only arise ‘out of incidents of living experience and must remain bound to them as the only guidepost by which to take its bearings.’ Some scientists may disagree, as research that relies on the personal accounts of people is often regarded as poor academic practice. In the cartesian-dominated world of science, the business of social researchers is to capture and explain human experience, while attempting to justify its empirical validity. This is a grave task when the bar is set at replicability, measurability and an empiricism that relies on conditioned consensus. How can the immeasurable be measured? Social scientists interpret human experience through incidence of themes, linguistic analysis, stories and collective agreements; all through the lens of the researcher’s position—governed by the latest theoretical ideas—with each turn constructing, deconstructing, fragmenting and obliterating the self.

Despite Arendt’s concept of experiential authority appealing exclusively to political life, the social sciences run with the idea of lived experience as a valid source of knowledge. In this way, social realities, systems and what it means to be human can be understood through the stories that people tell. Arendt herself ambiguously classifies experience as collective, not something that can be gleaned through subject-object relations. Yet social researchers tend to assume a cartesian-subject as a source of epistemic authority in relation to self, others and the world. This subject is the ‘story-I,’ an apparent self that moves through chronological and spatial dimensions, an inner subject held in relation to outer objects; as Nietzsche posits (see Spivak, 1974), a specifically linguistic, figurative habit of immemorial standing, a self that is, in the Foucauldian sense, entangled in discourses that circumscribe and constrain who we are.

I have seen this happen recently with children who frequently have ‘non-ordinary’ experiences; children who have premonitions, talk with deceased relatives, engage with disembodied beings, visit alternative realities and can lucid-dream on command. Although these experiences are considered as ‘non-ordinary,’ they appear to carry a surprising ordinariness in the life-worlds of many children; children who are consistently silenced, ignored and, at worst, diagnosed for experiences that do not fit into the dominant cultural narrative. When I research with these children, I listen to their ‘story-I’s,’ which are filled with discourses of illness, shame and difference. Self is never considered beyond the story (see Aatolla, 2017 ). Yet, as these children show, self and experience appear to extend far beyond mainstream ideologies, the limitations of language and even past their own inner narrative worlds. Postmodern preoccupation with lived experience and narrative self pays little attention to the ‘I’ of experience—in terms of its ontological existence and epistemological authority.

Children have long been absent from studies concerned with the nature of self, world and experience, but they—children—are now bringing a very real challenge to our mainstream ideologies about the nature of reality and what it means to be human. Such concerns are normally reserved for adult academics, typically acted out in bodies of philosophical and scientific scholarship. There are lots of reasons given for the exclusion of children, such as their reliability as research informants and traditional child development theories concerned with ego (see Wilber, 2000 ). Yet children and young people have much to teach us about the nature of self and reality.

In the case of a recent pilot study we conducted, ontological questions began to arise from the experiences of children. Using self-inquiry research methods,* children witnessed their story-selves from what Albhari (2020) notes as an “aperspectival unconditioned awareness,” a witness-consciousness that is “diaphanous because, rather than being just another object to be found within the conscious field, it is the field of awareness itself” (p. 10 ). Their ‘non-ordinary’ experiences began to take on a logic in keeping with their direct experiences of self. Differences on the level of the ‘story-I’ collapsed between these children as they shifted into (what we called) a ‘knowing-I.’ Language became redundant in these research moments while silence, physiology and symbol became the main source of data.

By holding the cartesian-subject to speculation, we moved beyond the ‘story -I’ in our social research practice. The idea of conceptual experience was replaced by a more direct experiencing of self and reality. Children used metaphors to try to convey their experience of self beyond their ‘story-I.’ As Semino et al (2017) recognise in their work studying the language of the dying, metaphors are valuable for expressing and reinforcing different ways of making sense of our experiences. In the case of children in the study, metaphor supported how they represented an aspect of self as ‘trapped’ in bubbles or egos. Self ‘outside’ or ‘below the cover’ was experienced by children as ‘free,’ ‘natural’ and connected to other people and the world. The idea of ‘self’ enclosed in a ‘bubble’ was repeated on several occasions by children—as well as how a deeper self was hidden or underneath it. The bubble itself can be held to speculation, exploring what it is made of (more often than not, the bubble is itself a story). When participants shifted their epistemic position from ‘inside the bubble’ to beyond it, their sense of individuality and linear time began to dissolve.

The pilot study afforded opportunities to think about the nature of self, subjectivity and a spectrum of human experience that, as Roxburgh & Coe (2014) suggest, is very ordinary. One could argue against the value of distinguishing between subject and object on the level of social life. Retaining individual agency and our personal stories offer an anchor and a means for navigating social reality. Our stories are a way of affirming oneself in a time that interrogates identities and selves. Yet, we are a society in crisis, in a liminal space held between different accounts of the world. Part of this collective despair is rooted in the illusion of self. We need to return to metaphysical questions in social research as a means for attending to a world that is falling down. Adults may not be as psychologically prepared to see through the ‘story-I,’ whereas our younger generation appear to be naturally aligned to such ontological inquiry.

In line with Arendt’s appeal to the importance of experience in theoretical speculation, qualitative research in a different guise should be contributing to wider scientific and philosophical studies of reality. This could involve carrying out ontological excavations in social research practice, using interdisciplinary research methods and building philosophical propositions from the experiences of people. It requires all assumptions about the nature of reality and what it means to be human to be dropped; to have the courage to walk into the unknown with people and see every experience as ‘ordinary.’ And as we talk about blurring the boundaries between subject and object, larger boundaries between different academic disciplines need to be dissolved to address the unanswerable questions, the hard problem of consciousness and the mystery of being human.

 


* Self-enquiry is a practice associated with Eastern philosophical traditions (see Barua, 2015). More recently, self-enquiry processes have been used in western non-dual circles and teaching (see Spira, 2017) as a means for exploring self and promoting wellbeing. The concept of the ‘selfie’ is taken from the cultural phenomenon of using digital technology to capture images of the self. While “selfies have been observed in relation to narcissism and self-promoting behaviours” (Choi & Bhem-Morowitz, 2018), using the concept to facilitate a deeper enquiry into the nature of self and non-ordinary experiences, has been useful with children and young people.

 

References

Arendt to McCarthy, May 28 1971, Between Friends. The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975, ed. Carol Brightman (New York: Hartcourt Brace, 1995).

Nietzche cited in Spivak GC (1974) Translator’s preface. In: Derrida J (ed.) and Spivak GC (trans.) Of Grammatology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. ix–xc.

Aaltola E (2019) Confronting suffering with narrative theory, constructed selfhood, and control: Critical perspectives by Simone Weil and Buddhist metaphysics. Journal of Disability & Religion 23: 227–250.

Wilber, K, (2000) Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Shambala Publications. Boston.

Albhari M (2019) Perennial Idealism: A Mystical Solution to the Mind-Body Problem. Philosophers Imprint, 19 (44).

Semino, E. Demjen, Z. Hardie, A. Payne S. and Rayson, P. (2018). Metaphor, Cancer and the End of Life: A Corpus-Based Study. Routledge. New York.

Roxburgh E. and Roe C. (2014). Reframing voices and visions using a spiritual model. An interpretative phenomenological analysis of anomalous experiences in mediumship. Mental Health, Religion and Culture. 17  ( 6 ). 641-653.

Barua A (2016) The Silences of Ramana Maharshi: Self-enquiry and Liberation in Shikhya Yoga and Advaita Vedanta. Religions of South Asia 9 ( 2 ), 186-207.

Spira R (2017) The Nature of Consciousness. Essays on the unity of mind and matter. Shambala: Oxford.

Choi G and Behm-Morawitz E (2018) Teach me about yourself(ie): Exploring selfietakers’ technology usage and digital literacy skills. Psychology of Popular Media Culture 7 ( 3 ), 345–360.