Saturday, February 11, 2012

On evidence

Research, like photography, is a selective record of things that have already happened. The writing of research is inevitably retrospective, and in this sense is always a partial history - a flawed recollection of the past, albeit one that is consumed in the present. And this is what makes research design such an interesting process. It is the point at which we are planning the future selection of evidence from which we will attempt to construct the story of something that hasn't happened yet. It details how we will select, collect and analyse the materials that we haven't yet collected. No wonder, then, that when we read research - even good quality research - it so often feels as if some realities have been hollowed out, or that there is an airbrushed image of truth. As with history with a capital 'h' it is usually the lived experience of the human subjects that is hidden, perhaps simply because this is always so complex and fluid. It is only really the most patient of ethnographers who can capture the fleeting shadows of human intentions, emotions and their various attempts to forge meanings. In the Julian Barnes novel: 'The Sense of an Ending', there's a great quote about history which is attributed to a Patrick Lagrange. It goes like this: 'History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation' (p17). Since the source isn't formally acknowledged, are we to assume that it is a work of fiction? Whatever the conclusion, could it be re-worded as : research is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of interpretation meet the inadequacies of data?

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