Given the suggestion in the two previous Research Hub entries (30 Nov 2020; 31 Dec. 2020) that researchers ought to engage in ontopolitically-oriented research, in this entry I ask – what is the feasibility of this proposal? How “free” are researchers to determine the subject matter of their research? How “free” are they/we to select the reality they wish to create or “to care for the realities we bring into being through our sociomaterial research practices” (Dennis 2020: 82)? What constraints do they/we face? For heuristic purposes, I suggest we consider this topic from three interconnected directions – first, considering overt constraints on access to material; next, reflecting on the pressures imposed on researchers by the need for funding; and finally, examining the extent to which researcher subjectivities are influenced by external factors such as funding, affecting their research topics and methods, illustrating subjectification processes (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 49-53).
Considering the first form of constraint, some analysts address the challenges facing researchers who have to negotiate with and “service” groups with specific agendas and abundant resources. In a provocative and deeply troubling article on education policy in the Russian Federation, Aydarova (2020) describes how:
“The pursuit of truth in policy proposals for reform designs entails navigating contentious spaces of fiction-making, fakery, and duplicitous performances, sometimes involving researchers themselves.”
She draws on Bakhtin’s (1984) writing on jokers’ pursuit of truth to “reimagine the possibilities of navigating research with the powerful”. As Aydarova explains, assuming the stance of the “joker” raises unavoidable questions about researcher ethics “in the post-truth era”.
Concerning the second area of “constraint”, some researchers are particularly sensitive to the often-nepotistic relationship between researchers and “the State”, due to funding arrangements. Skilbrei (2020), for example, notes the pressure placed on researchers to be “relevant” in terms defined by government funders. Writing on her experience of researching migration policy in Norway, she notes:
“What is researched about migration at any given time, and thus what is known about migrants, is political in the sense that the research is directly or indirectly influenced by the priorities of politicians, bureaucrats, and NGOs.” (Skilbrei 2020: 3)
In response, Skilbrie calls upon researchers to develop “reflexivity … as they take part in producing the realities they seek to describe”:
“By investigating the relationship between research and the context of knowledge, I seek to perform what Loïc Wacquant (2011) calls ‘epistemic reflection’.” (Skilbrei 2020: 3)
Isabelle Stengers issues a more generalized plea not to allow one’s research to be captured by a “State agenda” or by the narrow kind of “relevance” she associates with the “Knowledge Economy” (Muecke 2018). As noted in the last Research Hub entry (31 Dec 2020), Stengers’ proposal to develop a “symbiotic” relationship between researchers and those researched necessitates that “State’s preferences” not receive “undue attention” (Fraser 2020: 4). In her view the call for researcher “reflexivity” is limited in its usefulness: “it can easily mean paying attention to defects and biases to be avoided, and for instance to the way our own discrimination patterns and habits negatively affect the knowledge we produce” (Stengers 2008: 46). According to Stengers (2008: 41-42) there is a need to go further, to “make ‘us’ hesitate about our own conditions of thought”. This proposition takes us beyond any suggestion that researchers can simply ignore or limit attention to “State’s preferences”. More complex dynamics, captured in the notion of subjectification (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 49-53), are involved in shaping exactly the kinds of research undertaken.
Tania Li, for example, investigates how researchers, of necessity, play a role in “rendering technical” their projects and proposals. She (2014) describes the compromised role of anthropologists who “have to translate our dense, situated knowledge of people, places, and processes into a technical matrix of a manageable, fundable kind.” I consider this form of “constraint” as relevant to the topic of subjectivity since our theoretical training encourages the almost automatic triggering of this perspective. We do not necessarily consciously design research to fit a technical matrix; we (simply) understand research in those terms due to the pervasiveness of “problem-solving knowledge” (Bacchi 2020). As Pienaar et al. (2018: 17) put it:
“… policy is driven by an imperative to construct problems as soluble, i.e. in terms amenable to technical solutions (Murray Li, 2007; see Li, T. 2007). This imperative shapes the perceived need to press forward with policy proposals and recommendations, even where much remains unknown about the character and extent of the ‘problem’.”
Tracing a related dynamic, I have written about how researchers become invested in “problems” set by the State, simply because of the way funding operations function (Bacchi 2008; see also Research Hub entry, 6 August 2018, on “The Investment in Problems”). Stephen Ball (2001: 266) highlights the way in which funding-driven research makes researchers “think about ourselves as individuals who calculate about ourselves”. De Shalit et al. (2020) describe how resources for anti-human trafficking initiatives can de facto encourage organisations to develop new, or re-purpose existing, programming under a trafficking rubric. It is this dynamic – the imperative to marshal “evidence” to indicate “what works” in relation to pre-set “problems” of “the State” – that most convincingly exposes the tragic limitation of so-called “evidence-based policy”, and the pressing need for WPR forms of intervention (see Lancaster 2014; Lancaster and Rhodes 2020a).
In this situation, what does it mean to say that researchers can select a reality to create? I recall here Mol’s and Messman’s (1996: 422) advice to PhD students who wish to formulate a research project, to consider not “what we want to know”, but “what we want to do”. As Mol (2002: 151) puts it, “veracity is not the point. Instead it is interference”. I would argue that the most challenging dimension of the dilemma facing researchers who wish to make such a critical intervention is devising some way to check or examine their own premises – to “make ‘us’ hesitate about our own conditions of thought” (see Stengers 2008: 41-42, above). To reflect on this issue, I turn to self-problematization.
In two earlier Research Hub entries (21 Oct. 2018; 5 Nov. 2018), titled “The Reflexivity Quagmire”, I distinguish between reflexivity and self-problematization. There I stress that self-problematization is a practice of the self, an exercise in which one subjects one’s own recommendations and proposals to a WPR analysis (see Bacchi 2018: 10). Self-problematization is a key component in a WPR analysis – now identified as Step 7 (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20) in order hopefully to ensure that it is included by researchers who adopt or adapt WPR. It involves a practice of applying the WPR questions to one’s own proposals. Its clear and obvious goal is to assist in alerting researchers to the extent to which their own worldviews shape their analyses.
In the Research Hub entry titled “WPR, Foucault and Nominalist Critique Part 2” (31 October 2020) I explain how self-problematization leads researchers to interrogate their own and other categories of analysis. For example, I note how Horsell (2020), in his critical commentary on Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), deploys WPR to contest the “fixed concepts and categories (such as fixed and homogeneous conceptualisations of disability) that shape policy formulation”. As stated in that entry, “The undertaking to apply the WPR questions to one’s own proposals (which is what Step 7 entails) is intended to alert researchers to the danger in simply accepting and deploying common analytic categories such as ‘nation-state’, ‘impairment’ and so many others, and to the benefit of becoming more nominalistic about such terms.”
I pursue the issue of the status of conceptual categories in research next time in a renewed reflection on Critical Realism.
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