Part 2: Writing the World
First of all, it is to the nature of language itself that we have to turn our attention in a discussion of the aspects to be considered when analysing qualitative research reports.
We have inherited from both pre-Christian and the Judeo-Christian traditions in the West an understanding that sees an intrinsic correlation between language and reality. Actually, for the Sumerians that was exactly the whole purpose of creating writing: three sticks on a clay tablet preceding the symbol for goat, for instance, stood for three existing, living, breathing goats to be traded on or accounted for (Manguel, 1996). This resulted in a view of language as a transparent medium capable of rendering the real world into words. Language, in this perspective, is taken as a system of symbols and sounds that has neutral value and which conveys in a straightforward way information from a sender to a recipient without any bearing on the process of transmission. Language here has a purely referential function.
This view of language persisted until the 20th century when linguists and philosophers started questioning this purely referential functional understanding of language. For Austin (1975, p.5), language does not merely describe something that exists; neither does it simply establish the truthfulness or falsehood of a given statement. On the contrary, for him, language is not purely referential, instead it performs actions, i.e., statements are, for example, designed to create effects, convey non-stated meanings and accomplish desired outcomes. For Bruner (1986, p.121), language ‘imposes a perspective in which things are viewed and a stance toward what we view.’ Language then ceases to be transparent and mere conveyor of the information supposedly intended by the speaker/writer to become an integral part of the meaning perceived by the listener/reader. Some developments in this line of thought, eventually, lead to the post-structuralist viewpoint that language, as a socio-historical phenomenon, also actively constructs meaning (Foucault, 2001).
Such discussion on the nature of language is relevant to any examination of research reports. The way we see language has implications for the way we see the object and findings of any research investigation since it is mainly through written language that we have access to them. Considering ethnographic writing, Hammersley and Atkinson (2007) point out that,
Writing ethnography is a key part of the entire research process. (…) Ethnography is inescapably a textual enterprise, even if, it is more than that. Furthermore, written language is an analytical tool, not a transparent medium of communication. We can never reduce writing to a simple set of skills or prescriptions. What is needed is an appreciation of texts as the products of reading and writing. (2007, 191)
This emphasis on textual construction and on the reading/writing process inexorably leads to a consideration of textual elements and how they contribute to the creation of meaning both from the author and the reader’s point of view. Aspects of textual construction, such chronological and thematic arrangements, textual strategies and rhetorical devices (Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007, p.193-203) all contribute to the weaving of research narratives and how they are interpreted. Such textual elements are usually the object of attention in literary studies and such association with the arts has not always been seen as something positive by social scientists. On the contrary, the view that social research is a ‘scientific’ enterprise has lead sociologists, and qualitative researchers in general, to make great efforts to create their texts based on ‘facts’, ‘objective, measurable evidence’ and even deny any association with subjectivity and aesthetics. However, the increasing attention both literary and social researchers have been giving to the constitution of their texts should lead to a greater awareness, among social scientists, of the affinities between both disciplines. According to Atkinson (1990),
Although sociologists agonize over the ‘scientific’ standing of their activities and products, they may be reluctant to acknowledge any possible affinities with the aesthetic. (..) Certainly sociologists, of all people, cannot allow themselves to be hoodwinked by uncritical everyday prejudices. ‘Science’ is itself a rhetorical activity, and the scholarly and the literary share common conventions in the production and reception of their texts. (1990, p.10)
Atkinson calls for a better understanding among social researchers of the rhetoric of their research reports, including their uses of narrative techniques and other figures of speech, such as metaphors, irony, topos and stylistic devices. The limits of this post does not allow for a full treatment of such issues but for a good starting point to such matters, one could turn to is Hammersley and Atkinson (2007, p.197-201) summary. For a more in-depth analysis of the aesthetic dimension of sociological knowledge, turn to the works of Brown (1977). For a more comprehensive analysis of the place and role of rhetoric in human and social sciences, refer to the work of Edmondson (1984).
Interest in the language of research reports is not, however, just a matter of linguist and aesthetic speculation. The understanding that language not only reflects but also constructs reality implies that language is one of the determining factors in how representation and authorial authority are constructed in text. Issues of representation and authority, in turn, raise issues of social responsibility. These are the aspects I will consider in next post.
- Atkinson, P.,1990. The Ethnographic Imagination. London: Routledge.
- Austin, J.,1975. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Brown, R.H.,1977. A Poetic for Sociology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Bruner, J. S., 1986. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Edmondson, R., 1984. Rhetoric in Sociology. London: Macmillan.
- Foucault, M., 2001. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.
- Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P., 2007. Ethnography. Principles in Practice. 3rd Edition. London: Routledge.
- Manguel, A. , 1996. A History of Reading. New York: Viking.