Theoretical stigmatization - an ethical dilemma

Theoretical stigmatization - an ethical dilemma

In this blog, I want to highlight an ethical dilemma that is rarely, if ever, identified within the framework of educational research. The dilemma has to do with the fact that social and educational research always puts individuals and their lived world in a theoretical context.

I will distinguish three different approaches of researchers to the life world of the studied people: a) to understand b) to interpret and c) to question the lifeworld.

It is mainly in the third of these that the ethical dilemma is found. It is above all research where empirical data is collected through interviews and / or observations that I have in mind, but the reasoning has a wider application.

To understand the lived world

In the first relationship, the researcher strives to understand the lifeworld of the informants. Sometimes this is presented as the goal of the research and rhetorically the importance of making the voices of the informants heard is often asserted.

In this relation, the researcher is almost subordinate to the informant, it is the latter who has interpretive precedence as regards the nature of reality. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for the informants' life world and the informants themselves to be celebrated rather than stigmatized.

In a highly cited article, Wacquant analyzes (see reference below) three ethnographic studies of poverty in the urban United States and draws the following conclusion:

"Most significantly, all three authors put forth truncated and distorted accounts of their object due to their abiding desire to articulate and even celebrate the fundamental goodness - honesty, decency, frugality - of America's urban poor."

We see that Wacquant uses the word "celebrate" to show how the informants' life worlds are presented by the researchers.

Interestingly, the term "distorted" in the quote above opens up the possibility that it would be possible to give some form of objective / neutral description of these life worlds. However, it is the case that the lived world is always interpreted by the researcher, which is why the researcher's perspective becomes very important in the analysis of the study of life worlds.

In this way, it is of course not possible in any simple way to make informants' voices heard, as these inevitably become part of the researcher's worldview. Of course, this does not exclude an effort to do justice to the informants' life world.

To interpret the life world

It seems more fruitful, as has been said,  to understand research as a meeting between the researcher's perspective and the life worlds of the subjects, rather than to believe that the life world can be descried "as it is". Sometimes on talks about  a double hermeneutics, individuals' interpretations of their worlds are in turn interpreted by the researcher.

In the case of Wacquant's analysis above, we can speak of a triple hermeneutics, the world of the poor is interpreted by the ethnographers who in turn are interpreted by Wacquant. My  very brief comment on Wacquant's quote adds another level of interpretation.

However, it is not always the case that the significance of the researcher's theories is made explicit and that these theories are problematized. The theoretical perspective is often obscured. Rhetorical tools are used to describe the world as it "is".

There are probably several reasons for this. First, one may not be aware of the importance of one's own perspective for the interpretation given to what is being examined. Secondly, there is an expectation of science that it should be objective and rational and thus that knowledge should not be bound to particular perspectives. Thirdly, a concealment of the researcher´s perspective can increase the narrative quality of the presentation.

If we as researchers are explicit with our own perspectives, however, it becomes clearer what we do, so to speak, with the life worlds we ​​study. At best, the relationship between the researcher's worldview and the studied worlds  can end up in a fairly egalitarian relationship, even if the researcher of course always has interpretive precedence.

I would say that much of the educational science research I come in contact with still shows such a basic respect for the life worlds of the studied persons. But what happens when the researcher's theories attribute to the studied subject a subjectivity that the person in question does not recognize and which is negatively valued?

To question the life world

There are research traditions which rests upon a “hermeneutics of suspicion”. The expression means that the lived world is seen as something of a chimera. This notion that there is a more basic reality than the one we see and experience is probably as old as humanity itself.

It is the foundation of religion and has had an enormous influence on Western philosophy, not least through Plato's famous cave parable. In science, two of the foremost representatives of the hermeneutics of suspicion are Marx and Freud.

Both of these theorists claimed to know how things really are. The perceived world was dismissed as false consciousness by Marx and as distorted by defense mechanisms / resistance by Freud..

As I argued above, all social and educational research inevitably involves an encounter between theoretical worlds and life worlds, and it is in such a field of tension that interesting knowledge can be generated.  Moreover, there is no crystal clear boundary where theoretical interpretations turn into a hermeneutics of suspicion.

But I still want to argue that somewhere the hermeneutics of suspicion can become an ethical dilemma.

The concept of theoretical stigma

Tentatively, I want to define a theoretical stigma as a theoretical interpretation where the studied subjects and / or their actions are valued negatively in relation to how they perceive themselves.

Theoretical stigma can, for example, when teachers who think they are doing a good job and meeting all students needs in a thoughtful way in the researcher's theoretical interpretation beclmes described as reproducing social injustices.

Another example may be when students who work hard in school to be able to complete their life projects in theory are described as more or less ruthless careerists.

A further example could be an interpretation of professionals' work which means that they are seen as more or less involuntary victims of processes they do not understand, such as the state's efforts to create a certain type of citizen or childhood.

The ethical dilemma

This blog should be read as an attempt to outline the contours of what appears to be an ethical dilemma. I have argued that educational research necessarily involves a meeting between different worlds and ethical dilemmas can sometimes arise when these worlds meet.

A theoretical stigma means that the subject's actions are given a negative theoretical interpretation. However, this is not the dilemma, but the dilemma arises when two good principles come on a collision course.

On the one hand, we have the researcher's freedom to choose theory. Few in today's society would question what can be seen as a cornerstone of our democratic society and its search for knowledge.

On the other hand, we have the informant's right to be informed about the research he becomes part of. But this becomes impossible, at least in cases where the researcher uses theories that can take many years of study to acquire. Even if the informant cannot be recognized in a research material, her statements will be used in a way that the person could potentially feel great aversion to.

I do not claim to have a solution to this dilemma or suggestions on how it can be handled. However, I think it is important in our time, where not least the rights of the individual are increasingly emphasized as important, that it begins to be discussed.

Wacquant, L (2002) Scrutinizing the street: poverty, morality, and the pitfalls of urban ethnography. American Journal of Sociology, 107 (6), 1468 - 1532. (citation is from p. 1469)


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