Coalescing thoughts while waiting for a phone call

As I waited for a phone interview with a professor at California Institute for Integral Studies, the only PhD program I’m interested in applying for, I was attempting to gather my thoughts about the Masters program I’m presently finishing, a program that changed dramatically after I entered it.

Change came when the communication department at CSU East Bay hired Isaac Catt as its chair; he plunged the department in a hard turn towards post-modernism and a strong theoretical emphasis. He described these theories as paradigms, suggesting that they are all encompassing views of communication that must explain all facets of communication. In so doing, he stoked the very embers that he had been hired to cool; the department is now under direct control from the dean’s office.

The department hired a chair from outside in what would prove to be another failed attempt to resolve a clash between mass communication faculty and speech communication faculty. The latter believe that a post-modernist denial of objective reality is sufficient to address the issues of mass communication, but mass communication is largely about pragmatic applications, e.g. organizational communication (known in the corporate world as “human relations”), public relations, and journalism. And the speech communication faculty insisted on theory, even though the theories they offer are not persuasive.

I do not pretend, as positivists would, that a view of objective reality is possible to achieve. All perspectives are necessarily subjective, processed through perception, and partial. But when post-modernists deny any responsibility to objectivity, they align themselves in cliques according to their various paradigms, consisting entirely of people who overwhelmingly agree with each other; it is hard to imagine serious peer review in such a setting. A “scholar” in these reference groups can now publish what (s)he finds in his or her toilet bowl, and there is no one to tell her or him that (s)he is wrong. But of course each such publication counts towards the university’s expectations of tenured and tenure-track faculty.

I’m presently taking a class in research methods that was supposed to assist in the research for my thesis. This has not worked out. But the professor argues 1) that social science is a quest for social change, an improvement in conditions, 2) that any research on other humans objectifies them, and 3) that he therefore turns his gaze upon himself in auto-ethnography. What this means is that he, a privileged person, reports on his experience of phenomena that principally affect others. Yet the very problem we started with is that the political, economic, and military elite prescribe policy and depict the conditions of disadvantaged groups. The only progress here is that the voice now is of a university professor.

He says that in phenomenological research, we must be careful to ask all participants exactly the same questions, as if they were replaceable parts of a machine, presuming that each communication with a participant will be understood by the participant in the same way. But the point of a phenomenology is to learn how people experience a phenomenon. And we are evidently to assume that they as individuals will experience the phenomenon of participation in research in ways that are enough alike as to lend coherence to the results. And this is a speech communication professor making this assumption.

But most damning of all is when we are to make the leap from the evidence we have gathered to interpreting that evidence, making it fit into some theoretical “paradigm,” asserting that certain theoretical relationships exist in an actual situation even when we cannot know that they exist or having any way to verify that they exist. It is an ultimate arrogance that entirely silences those whom we can no longer call participants or “co-researchers,” but must now return to calling “subjects.”

This becomes consistent if we accept an uncomfortable premise, that the researcher’s reality is the only one that matters (subject apparently only to the intrusions of peer review, such as it is, and of an institutional review board). We no longer focus on disadvantaged or stigmatized people, but rather on the researcher’s experience of them and of the phenomena they experience. In the name of not superimposing the researcher’s voice over others, the researcher now wholly substitutes his or her voice for others. Other human beings become as features in a painting, suffused with the meanings that an artist–not a scientist–attaches to them.

So a question emerges: Can such a painting benefit its subjects?

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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