Scientific Knowledge through Involvement - How to Do Respectful Othering*

By Johnsen, Hans Christian Garmann | International Journal of Action Research, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Scientific Knowledge through Involvement - How to Do Respectful Othering*


Johnsen, Hans Christian Garmann, International Journal of Action Research


The theme of this article is how we as social scientists can research others through involvement, and develop true knowledge about the other without "othering" them, that is, not objectifying them or making them an instrument in our research, but rather be respectful of the other as a person. The thesis of this article is that othering is a matter of degree as well as principles. Social science and Action research can do respectful othering. Doing that is both a matter of personal skill and the wisdom of the researcher and of complying with some design principles. I argue that these design principles can be related to four areas of knowledge that we are likely to find in an involved research situation: knowledge about oneself, knowledge about the other, knowledge about the relation and knowledge about the situation.

Key words: involvement, respectful othering, action research, research design, knowledge

Introduction

The question I will try to discuss in this article is the following: a) how can we as social scientists research others through involvement, and develop true knowledge about the other without "othering" them, that is, not objectifying them or making them an instrument in our research, but rather be respectful of the other as a person? I use the word involvement to indicate that I have in mind a research situation where one is approaching the other in a personal way, trying to get a deeper understanding of the other, and also intending to develop knowledge in a reflective process with the other.

This question is closely linked to other questions of a more philosophical, sociological and theory of science kind, which I will only briefly touch upon here. For example, one could ask; b) Why should we be interested in answering this question (question a),1 and not least c) why should Action Researchers in particular be concerned with these questions? This paper is not mainly about b) or c). Question b) and c) have been dealt with by others, also in this journal, like Shorter (2004) and Eikeland (2007).2 However, I will have to make some references to these debates in order to position my discussion on question a). My thesis is that we can do objective research on others without othering, and use this insight to develop more general knowledge of society, again without othering. Key to this, I argue, is how you do your research. The article's purpose is to discuss the issue of othering, and present some design principles for respectful othering in social research.

The philosophical and sociological discourse on alienation, othering and objectification of the other, forms the background for question a). The issue of not othering others is relevant for all social science research, not only Action Research. However, they are also references to arguments by Action Researchers against some forms of conventional social research. Subsequently, it is natural to start my discussion with a review of some main positions in current debate within Action Research on this issue.

The structure of this article is as follows: First I briefly recall some of the arguments within Action Research related to othering. Second I go briefly into the sociological/philosophical debate on different understandings of othering. Third, I give some examples from my own research on the relevance of this topic, and use organization theory as my specific reference. Fourth, I discuss how can we research others and develop true knowledge about the other without othering them, that is, not objectifying them or making an instrument in our research, but rather be respectful of the other as a person? The thesis of this article is that othering is a matter of degree as well as principles. Social science and Action Research can do respectful othering. Doing that is both a matter of personal skill and the wisdom of the researcher, and of complying with some design principles.

1. Action research and the debate on "othering"

Action Research is a particular kind of scientific method, or rather a methodology, and thereby important; it is a perspective on how to do research, more than a method (Greenwood 2007), but it is also a scientific method for knowledge production, a method for finding out "how things are" and to give a true reporting of things (Johnsen 2005).

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Scientific Knowledge through Involvement - How to Do Respectful Othering*
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