Responsible research: combining sense and sensibility

Below is text on responsible research by guest blogger, Anette Hallin at Mälardalen University, Sweden (read more about Anette by clicking here):

What is our responsibility as researchers? To develop knowledge about the world, most people would answer. But how do we do this in a responsible way?

According to my view, performing responsible research involves issues about the relationship between the researcher and that which she studies; a question addressed in several blogs here (see Jan 29 and March 24). My conviction is that it is necessary for us, if we are claiming to develop knowledge about the world, to engage in all ways possible with that which we study. We need to combine sense and sensibility.

But how to we do this? As researchers we are trained to use our heads; to observe, document, measure, analyze and theorize. We are less skilled at feeling and expressing emotions. It is as if we have ruled out the possibility of knowledge residing also in the parts of the brain where this type experiences are processed. Even though there has been a lot of talk about “embodiment”, “situated practices” and phenomenology-informed research, we seem, also as qualitative researchers, to trust one part of our body the most when developing knowledge about the world: the part of our brain prone to analytical thinking.

Maybe we are not to blame. After all, the moving away from the human body as the source of knowledge about the outside world and the development of logical positivism was developed based on the same set of ideas that led to development of the metric system. Before this, people used their bodies to gain knowledge about things outside their bodies through anthropomorphic measurements like “a foot”. In stratified societies, exact and non-anthropomorphic measures however were symbols of justice and came with time to be seen as a criteria distinguishing civilization from non-civilization. Today, just as the knowledge about how to use the physical body to measure and weigh things has gone out of fashion, we seem to not know how to use all of that which is ourselves when it comes to doing research. We may even have lost our ability to feel with other people, as concepts such as “feelings”, “emotions” and “empathy” seem to belong to a different discourse than that of science.

This is sad because if we are to believe Aristotle and his idea of catharsis, knowledge about the human condition (which we all are interested in understanding better in some way as social scientists), can be developed through the internal process of experiencing a strong emotional experience, which is what fictional tragedy provides us with, according to him. And he is right. How many of us have not been struck with radical insights when reading a piece of fiction, or when watching a film? The notion of catharsis suggests that knowledge can only be developed when we experience strong emotions in relation to something. This is, as we all know, quite far from how we are supposed to perform research.

What would happen if we became better at using all of our selves when performing research; if we combined sense and sensibility? I think that developing a research of sensibility would help us move beyond the dichotomies that we seem to be so fond of creating in our attempts at making sense (sic!) of things. For a long time now, thinkers have argued that dichotomies like subject-object; body-mind; local-global; humans-artifacts; science-art; etc, don’t correspond to reality – in the world there are no dichotomies, only continuity and interaction. At the same time we keep using them, lacking better ways of making sense of what we experience. A research where we combine sense and sensibility would thus provide us with a different understanding of the world.

But how would such research be performed in practice? And how would scientific criteria be challenged – and met – with such a research agenda of combining sense and sensibility? There have been some suggestions as to how this could be done, often based on a phenomenological understanding of the world, for example by learning from the work of artists. And I hold good hopes there will be more. As human beings we are equipped with the ability to feel, not only to think. So in order to combine sense with sensibility we, the researchers, need to develop the ways we work with feelings and emotions in addition to our work with (visual) observations and analytics in all phases of research work. This way, the research we perform will be “thick” and will draw upon all kinds experiences we have when studying a phenomenon.

The exploration by the Organizing Rocks-team, of how to express their research in music is such an example. Music can in a special way express emotions and capture feelings, thus relating to a different sphere than the sphere of analytical logics that we so commonly use as researchers. Therefore, music has the ability, together with other forms of expression – also the traditional ones such as papers in journals and presentations at conferences – to constitute a “thick” description such as the one argued for here.

As researchers and intellectuals we organize, direct, lead and educate others, which means that we inevitably exercise cultural hegemony as Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci put it, also when aiming at making our informants active participants. I think that our position as researchers involves a responsibility to aim at a nuanced understanding – to the extent that this is possible – about the life-worlds and practices that we aim at saying something about. In order to do so we need to make research a matter not only of sense, but of sensibility.

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