15 June 2010

How can you as X research Y?

This question has come up twice today. You might have heard this argument before:
  • How can you as an atheist research fundamentalist Christians? or
  • How can you as a Christian research Christians? or
  • How can you as a white man research African-American discourse?
Subjectivity, it seems, is a problem for everyone.

I solve this problem, in part, by arguing that my research is descriptive. I am not trying to make a value judgment about what I am researching. I want a fundamentalist Christian (indeed, the fundamentalist Christian I am analysing) reading my work to agree that I have accurately described what they have said. There is nothing about the rightness or wrongness of what they are claiming. Just the description of the event and how I see events emerging around the event.

This is not, of course, a sufficient response. Yes, as X, I observe Y from my little point of view as X. I have to interrogate my  Xness, see how it changes my perception of Y, ask how someone from the viewpoint of T might see Y. But, at the end of the day, I am X and there’s nothing that I can do about that. All I can do is identify my Xness and constantly keep my eye out for how it crops up in my work and affects my reading of the event.

The real answer is, however, everyone is an X. By asking how X can research Y, all you've done is push the question up a level. The real question is how can we know anything about anything? The answer to that is, of course, we can't.