The non-knowing subject
Readers, if you are an education student at the MA or PhD level, I would love to know where postmodern and poststructuralist philosophy are situated in your department. Where I am, these concepts seem to be at the margins most of the time. After reading Beyond Quality by Dahlberg, Moss and Pence (2007) a few years ago, I have been pretty intrigued by any research or theory that connects early childhood education to postmodern philosophy and to movements for social justice. The course I am taking on qualitative methodologies allows me to read about these theories more broadly, and most excitingly, to talk to someone other than a book (or colleagues who haven’t read these books and articles) about these theories. One of the things I have learned is that poststructuralists (at least according to my professor) don’t believe in the knowing, rationale subject, who is able to provide information on his or her experiences. However, the article I just read by Elizabeth St. Pierre (2000) suggests that the poststructuralist position is a bit more complicated than that. I have only read one article on this topic so far, but what I understand is that the poststructural subject is both an active agent who is constantly decoding and recoding her identity within “discursive formations and cultural practice” (p.504), as well as subjected to normalizing and oppressive structures and discourse. The individual subject is also capable of resistance within power relations, regardless of their social positioning.
My professor says that because he doesn’t believe in the knowing subject, he only interrogates discourses, not individuals. My problem is that I like talking to people, and I was traumatized by a research internship where I spent 135 hours all myself in the basement archives of a school board (more on that some other time). Also, documents were written by individuals, so I figure it’s the type of analysis that is important here, not whether you analyze interviews or documents. As I am situating my doctoral project within a narrative paradigm, and not poststructuralism, I was very excited to read about the defended subject in a chapter by Hollway and Jefferson (2008). According to these authors, individuals are not capable of describing their experiences as they lived them, because memory is filtered through our emotions; in particular, people tend to forget or modify experiences that cause them anxiety. This idea makes sense to me intuitively, but Hollway and Jefferson base their ideas on psychoanalytical and Gestalt theory, and propose a process of free association interviewing that they suggest allows them to bypass peoples’ unconscious defenses to get at the heart of their concerns and their stories.
I don’t know very much about psychoanalytic or Gestalt theory, but I have a sense that they wouldn’t be compatible with poststructuralism, which is ok because I am not doing poststructuralist research – I would have to take a few years out and just read philosophy, which I would love to do eventually, but I am very excited about the narrative idea that we understand life through stories.
What do you think readers? First of all, do you have an opinion on whether talking to live humans can lead to useful research with the potential for social change, and second of all, how do you understand the subject in your research?
References, for those who are interested:
Dahlberg, G., Moss, P. & Pence, A. (2007). Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care: Languages of Evaluation, (Second Edition). London and New York: Routledge
Hollway, W. & Jefferson, T. (2008). The free association narrative interview method. In L.M. Given, (Ed.) The Sage Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods, (pp. 296–315), Thousand Oaks, CA : Sage.
St. Pierre, E.A. (2000). Poststrutural feminism in education: An overview. Qualitative Studies in Education, 13(5), 477-515. Retrieved from: http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals