Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

'Oh' Moments and the Alchemy of Sociological Research: An Inaugural Lecture

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

'Oh' Moments and the Alchemy of Sociological Research: An Inaugural Lecture

Article excerpt

Abstract

'Oh' is a speech particle that can be a token of a change of state or a transformation in the speaker. Sociological research itself is transformative. Sociologists have become adept at transforming our understanding of what appears to be mundane and everyday into significant and influential features of social order. Additionally, as researchers our close analysis of the social world, sometimes in attempts to resolve baffling puzzles, transforms our own understanding of the social world. Through sociological research we deepen our understanding of social processes-but research also changes the researchers themselves. In this article 'oh' moments in sociology are discussed, and how they represent a shift to a new understanding. Illustrations of these 'oh' moments are taken from research in the sociology of health and illness, and ways to foster such moments are discussed.

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

The last inaugural lecture from a professor of sociology at Victoria University took place on 6th October 1977 - 37 years ago. This speaks, no doubt, to the longevity of sociology professors at Victoria University, so I look forward to handing the professorial baton on some time in the 2040s.

That lecture by Professor Mike Hill in 1977 was titled "People who do". To set up his discussion Professor Hill provided the following, unreferenced, popular definition of sociology: "Sociology is the study of people who don't need studying by people who do" (Hill, 1977: 2). This satirical take on sociology provided the foundation for a discussion of the social embeddedness of the sociologist and Mike Hill called for a humanistic sociology, ending the presentation with a question: "knowledge for whom?"

This question of "knowledge for whom" is as pertinent today as it was 37 years ago. It is clear that knowledge should be for the community, and for those who participate in the research, but we sometimes forget that knowledge also has to be for the researcher, as without transforniing our own understanding as researchers we simply describe the world and reinforce the taken-for-granted and the status quo. Sociology is implicitly critical at least in the sense of constantly calling into question our assumptions and what we take for granted, including the researcher's assumptions.

I think sociology has advanced in many ways over this 37 year period, and we have honed and developed more sophisticated tools to both describe the social world and to theorise, or make sense of that world. One particular analytic tool that I have been grappling with over the last few years - conversation analysis.

The "oh" in my title is placed there for a number of reasons. John Heritage, a conversation analyst, defined the speech particle "oh" as a 'change- of-state' token (Heritage, 1984). This means that in ordinary, everyday conversation, when someone says "oh" it can, on many occasions, mean that they now understand something differently, in a new way. As Heritage states, they have "undergone some kind of change in his or her locally current state of knowledge, information, orientation or awareness" (Heritage, 1984: 299). It means that a transformation has taken place - from a previous state of understanding to a new state of understanding. Heritage argues that the speech particle 'oh' is "as deeply implicated in the behaviors of 'coming to see something' as 'ouch' is in the domain of pain behaviors" (Heritage, 1984: 337).

The alchemy in my title refers to that arcane art of transmuting metals. Alchemists of the middle ages had the goals of transmuting common substances into gold, finding the elixir of life that would cure all diseases, and achieving ultimate wisdom. These are lofty goals indeed, but what I want to argue here is that sociological research is, in some senses, analogous to alchemy. We can think of the analogy in two ways. One is discovering the richness in the mundane and everyday - like transmuting lead into gold. …

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