Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Shifting PracticesReflections on Technology, Practice, and Innovation$

Giovan Francesco Lanzara

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780262034456

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262034456.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM MIT PRESS SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.mitpress.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright The MIT Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in MITSO for personal use (for details see www.mitpress.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 16 January 2019

Epilogue: Reflections on Work Past

Epilogue: Reflections on Work Past

Chapter:
(p.253) Epilogue: Reflections on Work Past
Source:
Shifting Practices
Author(s):

Giovan Francesco Lanzara

Publisher:
The MIT Press
DOI:10.7551/mitpress/9780262034456.003.0013

Abstract and Keywords

The Epilogue seals the book with a reflective evaluation of the work done, an analysis of the broader implications for social research, and the predicament of the researcher when s/he engages in reflective inquiry and intervention in a domain of practice. The problematic and elusive interaction between the researcher and the actors in the practice setting is inquired. Issues of vulnerability, empathy, reflexivity and temporality are discussed, and self-observation as an empirical possibility and a concrete practice is questioned. The status of reflective experiments is finally assessed: they fulfill both epistemic and ethical functions in that they foster the creation and dissemination of knowledge and expand the range of possible choices and actions of social actors in the present and in the future.

Keywords:   reflective evaluation, vulnerability, empathy, reflexivity, temporality, self-observation, reflective experiments, epistemic function, ethics

1 “A Very Difficult Game Indeed”

My research work on processes of innovation and redesign has led me to reflect on the cognitive and methodological problems that arise when an observer tries to account for the designs, understandings, and motives that guide practitioners’ actions when they are engaged in their practices. More specifically, I have asked how, in the attribution of competence and responsibility, one can account for both the actions actors undertake and the representations actors build of themselves and their own actions. Also, I have asked to what extent the modes and procedures of observation may influence the observer’s attributions and evaluations, and, in turn, how the self-representations of the actors observed may affect, in the course of inquiry, the methodological choices and understandings of the observer.

The kind of inquiry I have carried out has raised a whole series of second-order questions on the relationship between the observer and the observed, particularly regarding the consequences that the effort of penetrating into the representations of the actors observed can have on the character of such relations. To what extent can an observer legitimately penetrate into the representations of the actors observed? What kinds of access are technically rigorous, socially feasible, and morally acceptable? To what extent is digging deeply into the actors’ representations also a form of intervention, or perhaps intrusion, into them? There is often a tension between the wish of the actors observed to be in control of their own exposure to the observer’s gaze and the effort of the latter to elude and bypass the barriers of the former to look “behind the surface” and dig out more accurate information (Kelman 1982). For the sake of truth, the observer may repeatedly violate Immanuel Kant’s primary moral imperative: Do not use persons merely as means but treat them as ends in themselves. However, manipulative strategies may come from both sides: as the observer tends to assign the subjects a preprogrammed script, so the subjects often include the observer in their own personal (p.254) frames, disclosing and making accessible only those aspects of themselves that do not disturb or destabilize those frames. Actually it may often be the case that the researcher becomes, for the subjects, a medium for their voices to be heard and their stories to be told, or a sort of lightning rod through which relational tensions and conflicts are discharged. Or sometimes the researcher can collude with the subjects when he uncritically accepts their opinions, stories, or evaluations, to the point that his own interpretation of a situation or phenomenon coincides with the subjects’ views.

In social research, the relations between the researcher and the researched tend to be asymmetrical, with predetermined roles that are rarely questioned, least of all while carrying out the research work. However, if one admits that an act of observation is not independent of the observer and the observed, but, on the contrary, is a complex operation worked out through their interactions—that is, a specific form of interaction between partners—then one could envision situations in which the rules of interaction can become an object of inquiry and negotiation between the partners. In more radical terms: if the research method is largely based on interaction (or else, if research is done through interacting), reflecting on the interaction and how it shapes the production of knowledge becomes an essential component of the method. For example, one may legitimately ask which possibilities of validating the premises and findings of the inquiry may exist within the interaction itself, that is, how the rules of interaction can be used as research and testing procedures; one may also ask how shifting rules and modes of interaction may affect knowledge-making and what implications they may have for the epistemological status of the knowledge thus produced; finally, one may ask whether specific research procedures must necessarily be limited by moral rules pertaining to the dignity and privacy of a person, by the recognition of a person’s radical otherness, or whether they are in fact limited by the cognitive and ontological impossibility of peering into the deepest core of the mind of a person (Cassano 1989).

These questions lead to speculation regarding the relation between the researcher and the observed and reflection on the nexus among social relations, cognitive productions, practical interventions, and ethical responsibilities in the “game” of social research. The argument I wish to make here is that research practices, if they aim to answer such questions, must attain a higher level of reflexivity. If the rules and the practices by which research is carried out wish to escape the illusion of being above or outside the circularity of the interaction between the observing and the observed agent, and if they really aim to produce and disseminate cognitive resources that may empower social actors (Melucci 1989), they must allow for the reentry of self-observation into the method. Such reentry can be effected only if the researchers accept being (p.255) cognitively vulnerable to the materials of their inquiry. More than a purely cognitive choice, this reflective move calls for a new ethical disposition, even an existential attitude to research. The researcher must make himself into a subject or, as Leonard Duhl has suggested, he should learn to make an existential use of himself (Duhl 1990). The operation of reentry will not be without consequences for the way we define epistemology. Indeed, an inquiry into the shortcomings of rules and codifications that cannot be shared may lead the researcher to reflect on the possibility conditions of her inquiry and, if taken to the extreme, may even lead her to question her own identity (Crespi 1991). My argument moves from the evocation of an impossible game.

Let me illustrate the problem, then, by taking inspiration from the Queen’s croquet-ground in Alice in Wonderland, as told by Lewis Carroll ([1865] 1971):

Alice thought she had never seen such a curious croquet-ground in her life; it was all ridges and furrows; the balls were live hedgehogs, the mallets live flamingoes, and the soldiers had to double themselves up and to stand on their hands and feet, to make the arches.

The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo: she succeeded in getting its body tucked away, comfortably enough, under her arm, with its legs hanging down, but generally, just as she had got its neck nicely straightened out, and was going to give the hedgehog a blow with its head, it would twist itself round and look up in her face, with such a puzzled expression that she could not help bursting out laughing: and when she had got its head down, and was going to begin again, it was very provoking to find that the hedgehog had unrolled itself, and was in the act of crawling away: besides all this, there was generally a ridge or furrow in the way wherever she wanted to send the hedgehog to, and, as the doubled-up soldiers were always getting up and walking off to other parts of the ground, Alice soon came to the conclusion that it was a very difficult game indeed.

(Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland [1865] 1971)

The odd croquet game concocted by Lewis Carroll can be interpreted, I believe, as a powerful metaphorical tale of the conditions and problems that social research must face. In the research game typical of normal social science, the observer tries to fix an ambiguous and elusive reality by applying rules assumed to be stable to objects that are also assumed to be stable. These conditions are deemed necessary in order to effectively apply a research method and make the object of research, through the method, somehow knowable. Rules must be invariant over time, at least during the research work, generalized and approved by all. The conditions within which research and observation are carried out are assumed to be fixed, the research domain must not change, and the materials the researcher plays with, whatever their nature, must be, so to speak, available to being observed.

However, the strategy sketchily described in the previous paragraph creates an ideal situation for the observer, characterized by an asymmetry between the observing (p.256) subject and the observed object. The method, on the one hand, connects the observer and the object observed, but, on the other hand, it distinguishes and separates them: it is implicitly based on a theory of control, bringing the object under the heel of the observer so as to harness its whimsical behavior. Social research can have access to its object by enacting self-protecting strategies from the object itself. In order to know the object, it must neutralize its potential dangerousness, assuming its analytical invariance. The observer must immunize herself and her theory from the materials observed and from the very process of research. She therefore imagines and enacts situations in which she thinks of herself as the only autonomous agent and envisions all the other agents as controllable variables and parameters of her observation strategies (Elster 1983). The typical clauses—“coeteris paribus,” “given such and such conditions,” “let’s assume that,” “as a first approximation,” “if by hypothesis,” and so forth—all have the strategic function of neutralizing objects, phenomena, behaviors, situations, or processes that do not comply with the facts, by fixing and shielding a number of premises on the structure of the field, the objects, and the observational procedures. This is a necessary move in obtaining a research context free from the ambiguity and messiness of real-life contexts and in order to transfer procedures and results across contexts. The results produced through such a strategy of fixing and shielding become the “facts” and the “reality” for us.

The harnessing strategy described in the previous paragraph is an artifice for gaining access to the materials to be observed and building knowledge about them, and it can, in many instances, be very effective. But the croquet game invented by Carroll unmasks the artifice, thus showing us the conditions that make it possible and inviting us to reflection and self-observation. Just when the objects are to be used as inert instruments to play the game, they do not comply but, instead, make a mockery of the player’s intentions, showing their essential otherness. They are unavailable to support the player’s action, precisely like the flamingo that would twist itself around and look up in Alice’s face with a puzzled, inquisitive expression. They are anything but invariant and are not even mobile, but reveal their nature as autonomous entities, questioning the observer’s strategy and the rules of the research game. Hence some questions ensue.

What would happen, then, if the materials to be observed responded to the observer in ways that deviate from the canons established by the method, thus becoming suddenly unmanageable? What would happen if they behaved like the mallets/flamingoes, the balls/hedgehogs, or the arches/soldiers of the croquet game sprung from the creative imagination of Lewis Carroll? What would the consequences be if the observers make themselves vulnerable to the whimsical and unpredictable moves of the (p.257) object of observation? If, in other words, the observers allowed the observed to respond to the results of their research (e.g., the pictures and stories, or the inferences made), and if those responses were immediately reentered into the research process, hence becoming themselves additional materials for joint inquiry, then what implications would such a move engender for the method of social research? What kind of knowledge would be construed? If, in turn, the observer made herself observable to the materials she is studying, so that the latter would become observers in their own right within the same domain, to the point that they are given access to the observers’ premises and theories, what further dimensions would be opened, what problems, and what kind of complexity would be raised for the method? Would such a move entail giving up the method, or is it possible to think about situations of research and observation in which nothing stands still for the researchers? In which the materials, the procedures, the research tools, the field of observation, even the identities of the observer and of the observed keep endlessly shifting? In which a sort of conversation is established between the observer and her materials (Bamberger and Schön 1983; Schön 1992; Schön and Bennett 1996)?

2 Between Empathy and Reflexivity

The problems outlined in the previous section are by no means new in the social sciences, being at the core of the hermeneutic method (Gadamer 1989). Indeed, the social sciences observe and describe peculiar objects, in that they are endowed with a capacity for observation, self-observation, and self-description at the same level of semantic complexity that the observers claims for themselves. Besides, they try to interpret and make sense of complexity within the so-called real-life situations whose features are not too distant from the Carroll’s odd croquet game.

The very idea of conversation as a mode of inquiry originates in the field of hermeneutics and was later developed into a theory by Gordon Pask with applications to cybernetics, education, and epistemology (Pask 1976). The interpreter engages in conversation with his text, the researcher with his research materials. As the inquirer questions the materials and “talks” to them, the latter, in turn, respond by talking to the inquirer. Understanding, as well as misunderstanding, is jointly developed through a process of questions and answers between the inquirer and the materials: the questions posed by and to the inquirer always reveal a preunderstanding that the questioning subject already possesses, although he may not necessarily be aware of it. Yet, even hermeneutic models, if they fail to give the conversation a radically reflective turn, may fail to tap a knowledge potential, a cognitive opening, made available by (p.258) reflexivity. If the interaction between observers and observed is not reentered into the research and, in turn, observed, then the so-called hermeneutic circle may lead to an arbitrary and premature closure of the inquiry, thus short-circuiting and trivializing any interpretive effort; or, to the contrary, it may lead to a sense of desperate impotence in front of the innumerable interpretations that are possible.

A first problem is that, in a hermeneutic approach that privileges empathy and identification with the object, the interpreter’s attention is mainly focused on sensemaking or on the search for meaning. But a much-too-intense identification with the object and the urge to reveal its meaning at all costs may lead the researcher to underestimate the complexity of the interpretation and lose the capacity for self-observation. To assume that the object is fully penetrable and its sense fully decipherable may lead one to miss both the specificity of the social interaction and the structural difference between the inquiry and the action, and missing either of these can imply an irreducible opacity of the phenomenon of action, which no identification will ever be able to look through and no empathy will be ever able to fully comprehend. Thus the empathic hermeneutes, draped in the myth of full transparency and nonmediated communication, cultivates the illusion of being able to annihilate the gap between action and interpretation, dissolving his inquiry into natural communication, and cuts himself off from attaining potential cognitive resources that self-reflection and metacommunication on the relation between observer and observed may liberate. He loves his materials with a blind love, which may not be reciprocated, and the absence of reciprocation is not even noticed. In these conditions, full identification with the object and the attribution of meaning at all costs can turn into a form of unilateral and undue appropriation of the object. The unilateral, obsessive research of the meaning of others’ actions may cause the interruption of the observer’s capacity for self-observation.

On the other hand, if the persistent curse of the positivist social scientist is the search for, or the fixing of, a pattern (order, law, regularity) in the multifarious phenomenology of human behaviors, hermeneutic researchers face their curse too: they must confront the ambiguity and indeterminacy that plague any hermeneutic experience, making any attribution of meaning an open and incomplete endeavor. How then is it possible for researchers to escape from the indeterminacy of interpretations? How can truth or some form of validity be ascertained in dynamic and shifting situations in which events overlap or follow one another closely at a pressing pace, thus repeatedly displacing the researcher from his own descriptions and questioning the invariance of his point of view and even his identity across space and time? How then, in such situations, can one cast a discipline to the inquiry, one that does not harness the research subjects but still allows for comparative analysis and the validation of interpretations?

(p.259) There are therefore limits to mutual empathy and mutual vulnerability that originate in the legitimate requirements of objectivity, validity, and consistency. An analyst cannot live and be contented with the belief that her discoveries consist in nothing else but thoughts, feelings, and sensations that are experienced in an empathic interpersonal interchange with her subjects. On the contrary, she must ground her understanding of a process or situation on descriptions and interpretations that should go beyond what the subjects report. All interpretations—the researcher’s and the subjects’—must become materials for reflection and testing, and they should be confronted and assessed against alternative interpretations and points of view. Any particular construction and reconstruction of the researcher can turn out to be mistaken, inadequate, or incomplete. It may even be harmful, in spite of good intentions and the most dedicated empathy. But the practice of reflexivity may help the researcher to discover the sources of blindness and bias in her own interpretations.

3 How Is Self-Observation Empirically Possible?

The social sciences, perhaps owing to the influence of cybernetics, system theory, and the cognitive sciences (Bateson 1972; Hofstader 1979; von Foerster 2002; Luhmann 1995), have recently rediscovered and reconsidered the problem of the relationship between the observing subject and the observed object, a problem that, for that matter, has a long tradition in philosophical inquiry. Yet, even though the problems concerning (self)-observation have received keen attention and adequate treatment from a theoretical point of view, especially in the constructivist approach, they have been, so to speak, bracketed, producing little consequence for concrete research practices. We have long known of Heinz von Foerster’s often-quoted truism that “the description of the universe implies one who describes it (observes it)” (von Foerster 1981, 258) and his equally famous ontological statement that “the logic of the description is the logic of the describing system (and of his cognitive domain)” (ibid., 258); also, we have learned from Niklas Luhmann (1995) that a theory aiming at describing the complexity of social phenomena must be capable of self-reference. But it was never made clear, for instance, through which specific operations the observer/researcher can be reentered into his own observational procedures and his descriptions; it is by no means easy to grasp how an observer or a theory can empirically and operationally perform self-reference and self-observation. And, supposing that it could be done, we are uncertain as to what characteristics the resulting descriptions would exhibit and what added cognitive value they would bring to us. In other words, what is missing is a radical reflective turn of the methodology of social research. Recent sociological theories have indeed treated (p.260) the principles of reflexivity and self-reference as objects of their discourse, and they have even, in part, inscribed them in their own theoretical structure (Luhmann 1995), but they have never pushed themselves to the point of internalizing them within their research procedures; they have not drawn the relevant methodological and operational implications for research practice. As a consequence, the capability of social research to empirically observe its own observation processes has remained limited.

Plausible reasons may be found for the lack of reflective turn in research practice. The first and foremost is that the possibility of performing self-observation as a practical operation has been perhaps overestimated. If, on the one hand, it is indeed relatively straightforward to talk about self-observation, it is not, on the other hand, easy at all to observe oneself in practice, neither for the layman nor for the scientific observer, not least of all for cognitive productions theories, models, and systems. Evolution has made us fairly good observers, but, apparently, it did not program us quite as well for self-observation. Let’s say we have a limited capability for self-observation. Think about Gregory Bateson’s example: it is impossible to design a TV set that can represent, on his screen, the functioning of all its components, including the components supporting the production of such representation. In order to observe oneself, an observer should be able to split himself into two parts, the first one performing the observation and the second one being observed. The first part will not be observed while it engages in observation and, in order to be observed, should again be split in two, or an additional observing component should be added to it, but then this further component will have to be subject to observation by a further component in order to realize a complete self-observation. And so on and so forth, recursively, ad infinitum (Bateson 1972).

To the limitations outlined in the previous paragraph, that we may call mechanical, a further limitation must be added, this one stemming from the circumstance that the observational routines that we naturally and often unreflectively execute inhibit our capability for executing self-observation at the very same time. Such a circumstance arises from the way that practical knowledge and, in particular, our observational skills are structured and internalized in our cognitive system. Indeed, the capability that an observer shows in executing her observational routines is based on scripts and programs for action that are deeply embedded in her cognitive structures and are enacted in the contexts of use and meaning within which the observer operates. These scripts and programs constitute the core of the practical skill of the observer at performing effective observation, but they are usually invisible to the observer itself. The fact that they are taken for granted, being almost second nature, is a condition for their effectiveness, that is, their invisibility is a necessary condition for being able to act in practice.

(p.261) Among the conditions that make an act of observation possible is, therefore, the circumstance that the observer is imperfectly transparent (or opaque) to himself. All acts of observation, to be effectively enacted, must pay the price of a partial blindness of the observer with respect to himself and the position from which he stands and looks. And such blindness will be all the more deep if the observer has gone through a history of successful observations, that is, appropriate matches over time between premises and results, between expectations and experiences. In other words, blindness will be all the more deep if the game was played smoothly and without surprises, because, in such an event, the observer was not pushed to question and reflect about the rules, programs, basic premises, and context of his observations, that is, he was not driven to self-observation. What is a fundamental cognitive resource can then turn into a deadly trap.

Finally, a third source of empirical difficulty for self-observation may originate from the fact, strangely overlooked by research methodologies, that any observation is a cognitive operation that happens in time and has a temporal extension. The time dimension introduces an element of directionality and irreversibility: what was observed at time T0, in specific conditions, will not be observed again at time T1, in exactly the same conditions. Any observation is an act that affects the world and inevitably brings some variation to it. No act or sequence of observations, no matter how contrived the experimental conditions are in which they are performed, can escape the arrow of time, unless we make the restrictive hypothesis of temporal invariance of the context of observation. Even self-observation—the observation of one’s own observations or of the observing self—happens necessarily in time. Self-observation, as I have already said, entails the stepping back of the observer from the act of observation, and that happens in time. But how can we be sure that the identity of the observer keeps stable? That the one who self-observes is the same entity that observes? How can the reflexivity and circularity of self-observation be reconciled with the temporal directionality of the observing act? The difficulty of performing self-observation in practice seems to be connected, in ways that still elude us, to the temporal structure and the irreversibility of our observational experiences and cognitive processes. In a way, what has been known on one occasion will never be forgotten: it will stay with us forever, and it will have an influence on our subsequent cognitions, even when it becomes the unquestioned background of further knowing.

The more the game of research is played with no surprises, the more its rules are taken for granted and not subject to questioning. However, we may encounter situations in which the capability for self-observation becomes necessary. In discontinuities and breakdowns, when experience does not match expectation, when the accepted (p.262) rules and procedures for observation and research do not lead to the expected results, the observer is called to “see” and test such rules. It is precisely the instability, the elusive nature of the objects, the difficulty in using the tools, and the impossibility of following the rules that bring Alice to “feel very uneasy” and “look about for some way of escape … without being seen” (Carroll [1865] 1971). The impossibility of playing the game according to stable rules is nothing else but the impossibility of being an observer. In such conditions, one can make an effort to play the game all the same, at all costs, or else one may reflect on the very nature of the game and one’s own relationship with it: here is where a space opens up and an opportunity is offered for self-observation.

4 Reflective Experiments

The quirky move of the mallet/flamingo, which twists its neck to look up at Alice’s face with a puzzled expression, triggers a sort of backtalk between Alice and the materials of the game (tools, objects, rules): it initiates what we could call an experiment in self-observation. The unexpected move that does not comply with the game and prevents playing that specific game can be used to play a different kind of game. Precisely because the researcher is continuously displaced by the backtalk of his partners, he is compelled to engage in reflective inquiry and self-observation. Precisely because his way of understanding the game (rules, moves, strategies) is repeatedly challenged and reinterpreted, he is pushed to ask questions about the nature of the research game he has been playing so far (unquestioned premises, standard descriptions) and about why his own and his partners’ descriptions are not aligned and keep shifting over time. The backtalk enables all actors—observers and observed, researchers and subjects—(but this distinction is now blurred, because everyone, in the field, observes) to observe their own and the others’ observations, and also the observations of their own and the others’ observations.1

(p.263) Each of the actors, then, can see themselves reflected in multiple ways in the descriptions of all the others. They can see themselves mirrored and represented in different modalities—but the analogy of the video and the term featured would be more appropriate here than the analogy of the mirror. The observed events, situations, and even the entire design process become occasions for making reflective experiments. Thus, events are taken away from the spatial and temporal constraints of the action domain and transposed into a transtemporal discursive domain. They are submitted to a particular reflexive treatment that objectifies them. The descriptions that are made are not just more or less faithful representations of what happened (in spite of the actors claiming their accuracy and validity in terms of correspondence to reality: Otherwise, who would take them seriously?), but are, above all, communication tools, maps to make each other intelligible, that are reentered in the process of action.

The backtalk enables both the observers and the observed to reenact (and reflect on) events and experiences in the past. The process is doubled, it returns upon itself, thus generating a rewrite, a remake of itself. It “doubles back” on itself (Olafson 1979). Thus, through the backtalk, an abstract temporal dimension, which makes self-reference possible, is inscribed in the research method and in the restricted experimental domain within which actors operate. Moreover, the reflective move of the observer produces the effect he wants to observe: it is indeed the backtalk that produces the subsequent scanning and descriptions of events, as well as the descriptions of the descriptions. Had the backtalk not been enacted, all of that would have not come to the surface of what we happen to call reality.2

The quality and nature of the relationship between the observer and the observed determine the conditions and modes of access the observer can have to his research materials; data generation, collection, and selection strongly depend on such conditions, on the extent to which the observed makes himself observable and on how much he is willing to disclose to the observers. Reality is always fixed in the context of this interaction and evolves with it. The experiments clarify and make almost tangible the reflective character of the processes of reality construction—a character that is not (p.264) so visible, or is deliberately hidden, in the outcomes and end states of the processes. Therefore, in the experiment and, for that matter, in any other process of action, it is hard to tell whether what happens in the course of the process happens independently of the observers’ observations or is, instead, an effect of such observations; in other words, we can never be sure whether what is observed is observed because it really happened or else happened because it was observed. The observing activity and the materials observed are deeply entangled in the making of reality.

That which the observer originally thought could be fixed as a fact or event—a stable ground on which inquiry and sensemaking could be based—unfolds in a multifaceted stratification of multiple and shifting descriptions, that is, a string of bundles of descriptions. Hence events may take variable functions and positions within the process, and the actors make stories that work as bridges thrown between before and after in order to account for changing situations, additional information, and incoming events. Depending on the changing context, the traits of an event are recontextualized and reconstructed in different forms by modulating, accentuating, and recombining particular aspects of it. The same event undergoes further extensions in a layered sequence of descriptions. Therefore, the new descriptions and interpretations of an event do not result from a generalized mechanism of random or systematic variation of assumedly primitive units and subsequent selection and retention of some of them, as Niklas Luhmann (1982) contends, but, rather, they emerge from local recombinations and recontextualizations of chunks of elements and relations that can even stay invariant.3

The reflexive move of the observer in making himself vulnerable to the observed and making accessible to the observed even the rules and premises of his inquiry expands the scope of knowledge and opens it up to an empirical possibility of self-observation. This is what happened in the study of the design and educational adoption of Music Logo that is reported in part II of this book. In reaching for higher and higher levels of reflexivity, I was led, though I was hardly aware of it, by my previous research experiences and by the very nature of my inquiry. But, in turn, the consequences of reflexivity have retrospectively thrown new light on those experiences, (p.265) inviting me to reconsider both the methods used and the nature and validity of the conditions of my interpretations.

In reflective inquiries of this kind, the researcher strives to get closer and closer to the research subjects, who then become partners and coresearchers in their own right. However, the more the researcher reduces the distance, trying to penetrate deeper and deeper into her subjects’ personal experiences and produce ever more fine-grained descriptions, the more the contours of her research object seem to elude her and fade off into indeterminacy. It is more and more difficult to make attributions, describe actions, and fix meanings. New stories must then be constructed that will cover the gaps and resolve the ambiguities of previous stories. The rewriting of stories rescues events and objects from their obviousness, but it also casts a new kind of strangeness on them. Objects seem to withdraw and hide in a persistent state of remoteness. Hence the strangeness of the world is renewed again and again, but this is perhaps precisely what moves the researcher to action and drives exploration and discovery. Strange worlds appear, surging from the acts of scanning and chunking, waiting to be further deciphered. These are the reasons why one can get a sense of how difficult it is to tell precisely and once for all how events have really happened and, in particular, which should be the appropriate disposition (of both the observer and the observed) with regard to those events. Hence, what is fixed as the reality—the accepted facts, the known events, the shared truths—also constitutes the experiential and cognitive limit of the inquirer, marks the boundaries of the hitherto known world, and reveals the nature and quality of social interaction. And what is called reality coincides with the place and time in which the practice of reflexivity gets suspended.

By virtue of reflective practice, worlds that were perceived as stable and sealed in themselves open up and are now experienced as stages of an ongoing transition. Knowledge of them becomes questionable and transient, soon to be obliterated, yet useful for proceeding to further knowledge and reframing. In this connection, knowledge-making does not aim at crafting an accurate representation of a state of affairs, but rather at the making of worlds that may even happen to challenge the regularities that the received wisdom takes for granted, or to disconfirm the assumptions on which accepted knowledge is based. An ethical tension springs, almost unintentionally, from the perception of the transient character of knowledge and the cognitive limits disclosed by reflective inquiry. This tension directly affects the researcher, his actions, and his relations with his research materials. The researcher is neither the champion of an ethic of value-neutrality nor of an ethic of identification: he is neither a detached analyst nor an empathic missionary. Rather, I should say he is a (p.266) reflector who practices what Gregory Bateson (1972) would say is the ethic of relation and difference. His primary task is the production and dissemination of cognitive resources that may expand the range of possible choices and actions of social actors and may augment the actors’ capability to act. His reflective activity is contextual to the situations of action in which he participates and of which his observations and descriptions are inevitably a part, not only because they interact, in the present and in bounded domains, with the actions and the descriptions of the actors, but also because they connect events and actions in the present and the past with the possibilities for action in the future.

Notes:

(1.) Self-observation can therefore only start if observational procedures are included in a reflective, conversational structure. Otherwise it can be said that observation gets structured as a multilevel conversation that makes reflective inquiry feasible. Of course, the conversation can also take place between the observer and himself: how productive for reflective inquiry a solipsistic conversation will be is hard to say, particularly for the subject having it. Indeed, because one owns both the criteria for the production of one’s own image and the criteria for the evaluation of it, such an inquiry finds a limit in the circumstance that one can easily deceive himself on his earnestness in building and evaluating his own image. The image will inevitably end up uttering precisely the words the subject expects to hear. But, in this case, self-observation would not be a learning mechanism or a mechanism for generating differences; to the contrary, it would become a means for self-validation or self-deception.

(2.) To the naive empiricist who will question such a statement, calling it biased, one could respond by saying that, because such an effect cannot be completely eliminated in any kind of empirical research (in spite of protective measures), a higher level of objectivity can be reached through the awareness of the effects that the researcher produces on her materials and through the reentry of such effects into the research field and procedures. The peculiar characteristics of the inquiry and the organizational settings I have studied defy all attempts to cancel out the Hawthorne effect, that is, the influence of the observer/researcher on her materials (Mayo 1949).

(3.) If I may use a perhaps outmoded expression from the Geisteswissenschaften (Dilthey [1883] 1991), the shift to new descriptions resembles a continuous “transcoloration” rather than a discrete, rule-driven transformation. The Hawthorne effect mentioned in the previous footnote composes with the Rashomon effect, made famous by Akira Kurosawa’s movie, that is, the phenomenon by which any further description of the same event is self-consistent and convincing, but incompatible with previous descriptions.