Recalibrating rationality: Teaching research methods through Species of Spaces


At present, I am teaching some methods classes on the MRes in Human Geography at the University of Glasgow. It is for the session that challenges the quantitative-qualitative boundary that I decided to include the work of Georges Perec. The two pieces I assigned are called ‘Space’ and ‘Approaches to What?’ Perec is a French writer who is known for being a member of the writer’s collective Oulipo that pushed the creative boundaries of literature from the 1960s onwards. As a geographer, it is hard to miss that Perec’s work is all about space: how we create and how we make sense of it. His playful approach is intriguing as well as disorienting – which is why I find useful in teaching. I will attempt to explain this further.

From my own experience, I know that it can be quite hard to first encounter Perec’s writing: you think you know what he is getting at, but the writing itself appears like a rather tedious illustration. I get that the everyday matters, I get the concern about habit, but do I really have to read through hundreds of pages of this repetitive, abstract stuff? It is not until you have really allowed yourself to take in several of his pieces that the entirety of the work begins to make sense and the texts move from annoying to thrilling. And then things really begin to make sense, or rather, sense begins to make no sense. The reason why this movement interests me for methods teaching is that, in our lectures and seminars, we mostly show how to make sense, but we rarely question very deeply how sense itself is made.

A frequent way to explain sense-making in methods teaching is via truth claims: are you realist, idealist or instrumentalist? According to this distinction, realists tend to think of themselves and their methods as uncovering underlying, pre-existing mechanisms. Under a realist paradigm, methods describe reality. Instrumentalists, on the other hand, are not invested in describing reality. They are interested in how effectively a method can predict phenomena. In instrumentalist terms, causal relationships do not pre-exist to be discovered, but rather represent relationships that behave as if they were causal. Lastly, idealists even more strongly distrust human access to knowing physical reality and regard the world as something entirely constructed by the mind. According to the idealist paradigm, methods form part of the process of shaping reality. As a consequence, causal relationships reflect the researcher’s interpretation of a problem. In short, there is a difference to saying ‘this is how things are’ (realist) and ‘this is how things appear’ (instrumentalist/ idealist). It is a question of how I relate to the world, perhaps the most important question a researcher can ask herself.

In many ways, this is also the question that Georges Perec asks in his writing. In contrast with the majority of methods teaching, however, he seems less concerned with deciding how real something is than with showing how quickly any presently agreed definition of reality and rationality can change. It is likely that his personal history greatly contributed to his view of the world. The son of Polish Jews who grew up in the 1930s and 40s, he witnessed the obliteration of the known world leading up to WW2, during which he lost his father (in battle) and his mother (in Auschwitz). It is evident that Perec’s work not only pushes creative boundaries, but asks profound questions about human relations. How is it possible that, suddenly, the death and dehumanisation of large sections of the population is legal? How is it possible that a new, monstrous rationality becomes adopted across every sphere of human interaction? The violence of this instability of reality is most obvious in Perec’s essay ‘Space’, which includes a Nazi memo regarding a border of greenery around two concentration camp crematorium ovens that matter-of-factly lists the quantities and measurements of the plants required. It also shows in his review of Robert Antelme’s ‘The Human Race’, a book that documents the author’s concentration camp survival, in which Perec discusses how the apparently opposed worlds of atrocity and idyll co-exist, but are part of the same world: one is the consequence of the other and vice versa.

At first glance, however, much of Perec’s work appears humorous and quite innocent in its playfulness. Take, for example, his recollections of the beds that he has slept in, the absurd detail of his observations, the funny classifications, measurements and exercises he proposes, or simply the sheer volume of material and enthusiasm for the subject: it gives the indication that Perec sees himself as a jester who encourages other to follow his example of breaking established parameters of writing or even knowledge-making. This boundary making actually resonates with current work on so-called ‘creative methods’, where students (and staff) are encouraged to break out of present methodological conventions and ‘experiment’. One of Perec’s exercises to determine your position in space could be taken straight out of a creative methods workshop: use various kinds of reference points, including the equator, the sea level, the Greenwich Meridian or simply your address, and see where this leads you. Such creative ways of cataloguing or creatively intervening in everyday practices have even become supported by the major funding bodies.

At the same time, there seems to be a difference in emphasis in social scientific contestations of methods that often has to do with what this kind of expansion or innovation is for. In creative methods workshops, for instance, the emphasis is frequently on participation, on gaining a different understanding of or relationship with others (including inanimate objects), and allowing for different, often affective experiences. By contrast, Perec’s methods firstly seem to be about a very cerebral form of self-knowledge. Questioning the self becomes a necessary part of questioning reality. In fact, Perec is suspicious of what he terms a ‘proliferation of the world’ that is in constant danger of avoiding the world through a refusal of sense-making:

“We are invited on all sides to have a sense of mystery, of the inexplicable. The inexpressible is a value. The unsayable is dogma. No sooner are everyday gestures described that they become lies. Words are traitors. Between the lines we are invited to read that inaccessible end towards which every genuine writer owes it to himself to tend: silence. No one seeks to disentangle reality, to advance, be it only step by step, to understand. The proliferation of the world is a trap in which we allow ourselves to be snared.”

How does this exercise in self-knowledge work? This may best be illustrated through Perec’s ‘Two hundred and forty-three postcards in real colour’ (1978). In this text, Perec seems to mock the repetitiveness of holiday greetings, not matter from where they are sent. “We’re camping near Ajaccio. Lovely weather. We eat well. I’ve got sunburnt. Fondest love.” “We’re at the Hôtel Alcazar. Getting a tan. Really nice! We’ve made loads of friends. Back on the 7th.” And so on. At the same time as highlighting a certain geographical relativity or habituated writing styles, this exercise also prompts questions about the intersection of geographical specificity and relations with ‘back home’. It reflects on the registers through which (geographical, individual) specificity emerges as seemingly standardised and as a reflection of habitual practices. Why are we processing impressions in this way? Is it the adaptation of the geographic location to tourist tastes? Is it the inability to escape our habitually engrained frame of mind or our unwillingness to engage with difference on its own terms? Is it, because the everyday is everywhere, and we cannot step outside it wherever we go? Do we need this way of communicating as a translation, reassurance or show of affection? Because of its lack of obvious explanation, the piece remains ambiguous, but also becomes endless in its depth. It is you who has to decide how far you want to go in your investigation, and the way you engage with this text will enable you to experiment with what you think about the world and your place in it.

In ‘Approaches to What?’, Perec more explicitly links self-knowledge and self-awareness to an exploration of habit:

‘To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if it carried within it neither questions nor answers, as if it weren’t the bearer of any information. This is no longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. But where is our life? Where is our body? Were is our space?’

In the remainder of the essay, Perec clarifies how this exploration of habit and the self by extension is not a solipsistic endeavour, but a sensitisation to structural issues that permeate everywhere.

‘In our haste to measure the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible. What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines. ‘Social problems’ aren’t ‘a matter of concern’ when there’s a strike, they are intolerable twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, three hundred and sixty-five days a year’.

Only with this kind of awareness of the everyday can we approach ‘the world’, as it enables us to see how our methodological tools are made as well as the system they are embedded in.

On one level, then, Perec’s work alerts us to the illusion of rationality and its claim to be neutral and value free. Our methods or even ethics policies are no external constraints that can be relied on as markers for appropriate conduct. Whenever we count, classify or analyse, we need to make decisions about what we measure, where we measure (including our own locatedness) and why we measure. If we are not aware of the consequences and connotations of our measurements, this can create significant issues for the populations or environments that we are working with. This has been shown by researchers such as Gwendolyn Warren and William Bunge in their demonstration of violent mapping and data collection practices that continue to have fatal consequences for black Americans. Other examples have been described in publications such as ‘Decolonising Methodologies’ by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, ‘Research, Red Skins and Reality’ by Vine Deloria Jr or ‘I am not your data’ by Abhay Flavian Xaxa (thanks to Lisa Tilley for this reference). This literature, too, is awash with reproductions of seemingly rational memos that we now recognise as genocidal. While many students might never end up in a situation where they can cause such harm, it is important that this sensitisation is part of their training, also because it is a skill that is applicable and useful beyond research. Habits and bureaucracy are everywhere, and often it helps to understand these systems properly to not become their victim. Such analysis can literally become a life saver. For example, in a recent blog post, an activist explained how the recognition that benefits sanctions do not make sense helped them overcome depression and campaign for a change of policies.

Even more importantly, Perec’s work is an important tool for recalibration. Through its profoundly destabilising effect, it forces readers to struggle for a new base line, a check point that sensitises to reality shifts and limits of violence. This point is something that we need to set for ourselves as a ward against co-optation along the lines of Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’. How far am I willing to go? Where is my cut off point? Here, Perec suggests a variety of exercises that can aid in setting this point. For him, it is the transformative effect that literature can have in creating a gradual awareness of the world beyond the apparent chaos and contradiction. (For others, it has been experiments with the non-textual, such as Mikhail Bakhtin’s and Georges Bataille’s experiments with ‘base’ or ‘gay’ matter, or Antonin Artaud’s utilisation of affect and bodily projection to subvert logic.) In reading Perec and perhaps undertaking his proposed exercises, we are given the opportunity to reflect upon these things, be disturbed, be amused, be encouraged to look beyond our methods books into ourselves. Even if not understood immediately – and here I have noticed a significant difference between young and more mature students – Perec’s work has a tendency to stick and to remain around as an invitation: to be willing to engage in methodological experimentation as self-experimentation in order to always remain suspicious of ‘what makes sense’ at any given point.


Event: Cities Methodologies @ UCL

UCL’s Cities Methodologies exhibition was launched tonight, showcasing ‘diverse methods of urban research in juxtaposition’. The exhibition is accompanied by a number of events (performances, film screenings, lectures, discussions), which are not to be missed, if you can make the time. The full programme can be viewed here.
Am still grinning about subREAL’s excellent ‘Interviewing the Cities’ photographs…

Opening times for the exhibition are Thursday 5 May and Friday 6 May, 10am-8pm. Venue: UCL Slade Research Centre, Woburn Square, London, WC1H 0AB. Free entry & all events are open to the public. Make sure you take the eccentric old lift… it not only contains one further exhibit, but it is also quite an experience by itself…

Creative Methods Workshop

This week I attended a workshop on creative methods run by David Gauntlett (for the ESRC as I found out on site who coincidentally happens to be sponsoring Mutable Matter!).
Day 1 consisted of trying out the Lego Serious Play method and discussing the pros and cons. Below is an example of a group exercise.

On Day 2 we discussed our own project and experiences with ‘creative methods’ and tried out an exercise with Plasticine.

First of all, it was interesting to hear about other people’s experiences with different kinds of hands-on methods (collage, video-booths, drawing, cardboard models and contact theatre were some of the examples) and the different ways of thinking about them. Some participants had devised a particular method for a particular problem, others saw hands-on methods as a more generally applicable device. Another observation was that hands-on methods give participants the opportunity to participate in the documentation and recording of the ‘data’. David Gauntlett noted that it is a less direct way of interviewing someone when you question a model, so materials might create a more comfortable situation for both participant and researcher. Another participant, however, suggested that some unexpected revelations might happen through the questioning at the model that re-introduces the discomfort.

As for the ‘Lego vs. Plasticine’ I think the workshop was full of surprises in that direction. Because I am so familiar with plasticine and other modelling clays, I can work with it very quickly and usually know what I want to do with it and how I want to express something. But because I have used it so much recently and am thus very immersed in it, it was helpful to observe how other people use and reflect on the material other than my participants, especially because there was the opportunity for a comparison with Lego.

During the Lego activities, I noticed how much more restricting it was for me than plasticine. While I can make up pretty much anything I want in plasticine, I have to negotiate premanufactured pieces in Lego. Often, I felt myself not wanting to attach metaphors to cliched shapes such as elephants, and often, I felt that the material was giving direction to what I could or could not express. This was sometimes frustrating, sometimes an interesting challenge: ‘let’s see what I can make under these restrictions, let’s see how far I can push it’. Did I come out of the workshop knowing which of the two processes was better than the other? Is a struggle with the ‘angular material’ better than an ‘easy birth’ with the more fluid material? I have no idea – but a lot of thoughts at the same time. One is that there may also be a relationship between your chosen material and the topic you aim to discuss (and how you aim to discuss it) with your participants.

What the participants at my table immediately noticed on Day 2 is that you have to concentrate less during the plasticine activity and were automatically talking more. Lego kept you more focused on the construction. At another table, the values and connotations attached to Lego and plasticine were discussed. Is Lego more gendered? Is plasticine more arty? What roles do these associations play in the research process? Do aesthetics play a role? And how do you analyse your data in the end? And how can we theoretically support using hands-on methods?

I guess with as many questions as this there is a lot of potential for interesting revelations, but also for frustration and for doing inappropriate theoretical and methodological shortcuts, particularly by drawing on stereotypical notions of art, play or simplistic applications of neuroscientific and psychoanalytic discoveries. And why do you have to justify it at all? After all, you tend to end up with a respectable set of data that does not differ in quality from ‘ordinary’ interviews!

As somebody who thinks and writes about matter and the material and likes to mess around with Bakhtinian/Serresian conceptions of dialogue, I find it particularly interesting to think about the agency of the material in this particular method. While Serres has a stronger integration of the material in his vision of dialogue, when I engage in hands-on methods I always have to think of a quote about Bakthin (by Deborah J. Haynes which shows how much he imbues sensory experience with potentiality (unless I understand it the wrong way!): ‘theories encounter walls that practice helps us move through’. What I find normally more helpful is his image of dialoge, that bascially everything is constantly authoring one another. This potentially includes the ‘non-human’, too! Also, dialogue is not just a spoken phenomenon. If then we add Serres ideas to the mix…

Maria Assad writes that ‘for Serres, the sense of touch is the fractal boundary that opens up a creative process, where objective reality and subjective intellect invent together’. Compared to that, he describes dialogue amongst other colourful descriptions as a ‘realised hell of illusions and trivialities’. In other works, Serres is a bit kinder to dialogue, but nevertheless seeks to problematise our reliance on (and elevation of) it. I still have to find out what he would make of a combination of the two and whether he would classify the drafting of hands-on activities into academic service as an impossibility, violation or actually something hopeful… hmh…

So much for my latest late night musings on hands-on methods…