Academic journal article Educational Research for Social Change

Hacking through Academentia: Autoethnography, Data and Social Change

Academic journal article Educational Research for Social Change

Hacking through Academentia: Autoethnography, Data and Social Change

Article excerpt


This intervention addresses who may produce and own knowledge, and who may disseminate knowledge for social change. My argument reflects my own experience in which I try to balance between data-led, quantitative research on the one hand and critical indigenous qualitative methodologies (CIQM) on the other. Both approaches are institutionally regulated: where positivism fits in easily with regulation, CIQM tests and contests the assumptions and auditing regimes that limit the boundaries of inquiry. In addressing these issues, my exploration addresses the contradictions that emerge via the metaphors of researchers as flies-on-the wall (the objective gaze) or as flies-inthe-soup (the subjective experience).

Where's the Researcher?

One of the glaring weaknesses of conventional scientific methods is that they totally ignore researcher position, researcher-researched relations, and how encounters are shaped by the dynamic nature of the relationship with those subjected to the scientific gaze. Most methods textbooks assume that the academic enterprise is inexorably rational, coherent, and impartial-the only way of finding out. The inevitability of numerical analysis is often taken for granted. These kinds of approaches assume a supposedly objective all-seeing and supposedly objective fly-on-the-wall. However, socially immersed researchers are more like flies-in-the-soup, swimming around, trying to make sense of the sticky, tactile, enveloping, and more often than not, bewildering field experience.

Conventional methods often lack a sense of history, feeling, and intuition. Data is considered objective, discrete and factual, self-evident and true, rather than being an instrumentalist indicator of bygone positivist, and later, modernist ages. Positivism, proposed by August Comte (1865/2009), projected the existence of a real, referable world separate from human consciousness that can become known via experimental methods, hypothesis testing, with the data so generated being subjected to verification. Positivism claims to be neutral, value free, confirmed by the fly-on-the-wall oversight, that is, free from the subjective bias of the researcher (who is usually in the soup but whose methodology conceals this location). However, data is not axiomatically impartial-someone designed the instruments to find it, organise and code it, and then interpret it.

Conventional science limits the production of certified knowledge to an approved social class that is licensed to work in educational institutions. Further, despite the lessons of post-structuralism and other recent postparadigmatic innovations, conventional science still discredits, even disparages, forms of knowledge generation that break with positivist frameworks. Orthodox approaches also rarely discuss failure, negative results, or admit that "findings" cannot always be found. Order (science) is imposed over disorder (the experiential) and the mess and confusion of quotidian life is concealed because these conditions obscure the clarity of structure.

Ways of knowing are always partial, relational, and in the process of becoming. All of these ways-as methods-centre on the researcher-researched relationship, and how this is negotiated. The gluey metaphor of the fly-in-the-soup best describes the social sciences researcher position. In sociology and anthropology, for example, the methods of autoethnography, self-reflexivity, critical indigenous qualitative methods, and lived research, amongst others, are now gaining respectability as relational ways of knowing-as means of reinserting researchers back into analysis. Positivism, in contrast, conceals researcher presence by claiming absence-the fly-on-the-wall approach.

Autoethnography-which in our approach self-reflexively examines self-other relations-is being increasingly applied in order to fracture received notions about science, objectivity, and validity, including in South Africa (Mboti, 2012; Tomaselli, Dyll, & Francis, 2008). …

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