• working/reading

    I am reading through 'both ways' literature of Yolngu and non-Yolngu working their knowledge systems together. Alongside I am reading Lorraine Code's 2006 book Ecological Thinking. I am also browsing through blogs and discussions on knowledge work and community development.
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    Here I post some of my work and thinking. It is a much harder task than I thought! It is an extension of my research on knowledge and difference connecting my experiences, reflections, formal written pieces, and hopefully friends and colleagues. As work and self cannot be separate this blog is both personal and intellectual. Comments are moderated because, while it is a site for collective work, it is not anonymous.
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  • October 2009
    M T W T F S S
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Researching objects or making products: method, intervention and governmentality

What do we have of visual materials in cross-cultural health education? What are these new Indigenous Protected Areas (IPA) and how do they work? What are the effects of Income Management? How is knowledge constructed in maths education research? these were questions raised at a postgrad forum at Charles Darwin University at which Helen Verran, Geoff Bowker, Leigh Star and Paul Dourish kindly lined up to take questions about what is becoming of the academy (amongst other things).

The questions were what were constituting the attending postgrads’ research, articulated as we went around introducing ourselves. It was a social science group, broadly speaking, and what struck me (being predominantly in philosophy flavored departments) was that attached to each research project was a very contemporary and topical (perhaps also tropical at least for Australia) product: health delivery, land management, social service delivery, numeracy education. The problems of these research projects were not the disinterested objects of social scientific research of the 20th century (what is the average length of time spent on social security payments? What is the proportion of people who complete maths in their final high school year?). Indeed many of them were treading of the toes of what would usually be considered the domain of the natural sciences; land management, education. And this seemed to me to be part of what is changing in university education – the things we study, our problems, now have to help constitute a good or service, a deliverable. I think there are two concerns with going in this direction.

1) While such projects appear to be directing efforts toward worthy courses, they are doing so by aligning themselves with the same instrumental concerns of government and in turn are accepting the a government compartmentalization of work and knowledge. This has results such as restricting research involving Indigenous Australians to being only about solving ‘Indigenous problems’, as if they are by nature Indigenous and not colonial and not valuable to addressing other concerns. It also severely limits the possibility of novel solutions to some of the most intractable problems for which governments seem to have no workable solutions (public housing, environmental protection, water use, treaty and reconciliation). It is clear that solutions to many of these problems only come from collaborative work and work that borrows and shares ideas and processes across disciplines and knowledge traditions. While I don’t think universities are any less shackled by their disciplines as governments by their departments, the academy is potentially better at working across them through experimentation and collaboration as, at least for the moment, they are less influenced by immediate political concerns.

As the ‘politics’ of such product-oriented research aligns itself more with the project of governing and the provision of goods and services, it becomes unable to address broader issues of social justice. As Wendy Brady and John von Sturmer pointed out here and here, academic careers are often made from the resources, time and knowledge given by or simply taken from Indigenous Australians. This has created a ‘toxic debt’ in the white knowledge economy. In the increasingly market oriented atmosphere and increasing interventionist policies toward Indigenous livelihoods, this is may also play itself to the benefit of many university educated non-Indigenous people like myself finding a niche career in consultancy and cultural induction training which will only serve to further marginalize Indigenous people and their knowledges. If you think I an unwittingly wondering down this path let me know!

2) My second point is about our research methods in this new context and is mainly a summary of John Law and Vicky Singleton’s paper, ‘Object Lessons’, in which they reflect on research they were commissioned to do into alcoholic liver disease. They ask, ‘what do we make of it when our research is not going well and seems to remain messy and unproductive?’ Such feelings must become more acute when research is supposed to be ‘productive’. Law and Singleton offer three explanations: technical, managerial and ontological. Perhaps their research is remaining messy because technically their methods and processes are not as tight as they could be. They confess maybe this is so, but they are both highly competent researchers and any difficulties they face any other social scientists would. Perhaps it is managerial, meaning that the situation they were researching was too messy, to unwieldly and needed some managerial intervention to straighten things out. In relation to the comments above, treating complexity as a managerial problem combines methodological concerns and government concerns by trying to make the world fit into what can be known and managed. Refusing both technical and managerial explanations they suggest it maybe an ontological difficulty: that out methods are most often suited to research objects which are singular, discrete and bounded. So what if what is of concern to research is relational and multiple. What methods might be appropriate? Some answers in relation to this constitute the rest of the paper, and I won’t say anymore here.


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