On ontological assumptions, epistemological beliefs, and methodological challenges

inner-selfFor the last couple of weeks, I have been busy fine-tuning the theoretical framework underpinning my study and, specifically, trying to delineate its social ontology. By now, I have come to firmly reject ontological models of the world which reduce social reality to just one dimension of the individual versus social dichotomy (i.e. upward or downward conflation) or blend structure and agency into “an amalgam whose properties and powers are completely interdependent and ineluctably intertwined” (Archer, 2007, p. 41), such as Giddens’ theory of structuration or Bourdieu’s logic of practice. Instead, I find compelling the social realist approach in which agents and structure are conceived of as two ontologically different strata of reality and accorded their own essential properties and causal powers. Such ontological anchorage is crucial for my research as it aims to construe ethical consumption practices as intentional and conscious projects of reflexive agents while also duly acknowledging their inevitable conditioning by the structural and cultural properties of objective reality.

Reflexivity is a central concept that guides my understanding of what fuels agential capacity to mediate the enabling or constraining powers of the structure thereby giving rise to both societal (of the objective contexts around them) and personal (of themselves as unique personalities) morphostasis and morphogenesis. Ontologically, it is my key premise that “a subjective mental world of personal experiences exists” (Popper, 1972, p. 136), and that all human beings possess “a generative ability for internal deliberation upon external reality” (Archer 2003, p. 20). The peculiarity of agential mental workings is that they are “both objectively real and subjective in nature” (Archer, 2003, p. 36, my emphasis), for they only exist when and as experienced by people and are “ineluctably tied to the subject” (Archer, 2003, p. 37). This subjective or, to use Searle’s (1998, p. 42) term, “first-person” ontology of individuals’ reflexive deliberations has important methodological implications that need to be acknowledged and considered. As Archer indicates, to conceive of reflexive self-dialogues as an integral part of human mental processes means to affirm that people have inner lives that are private, covert and only available and knowable to the subjects’ self-examination (unless shared with someone else). This “first-person perspective” automatically implies the “first-person authority” (Archer, 2003, p. 46), meaning that individuals’ self-knowledge and self-understanding always have an epistemic privilege over any third person’s analysis.

The acknowledgment of the authority of people’s own narratives presents both methodological opportunities as well as significant challenges. On the one hand, it makes in-depth interviewing a key investigatory method, for it is only by soliciting people’s subjective accounts of their deeds and examining the reflexive workings behind them that one can attempt to gain access to the inner repositories of individuals’ authentic self-knowledge. First-person narratives, therefore, are the only medium through which the investigator can hope to bring to light individuals’ “inner self” and uncover the true, hidden meanings of their actions, choices, and practices.

On the other hand, however, unveiling reflexive deliberations behind people’s past actions and choices is a daunting methodological challenge. As Archer (2003, p. 32) notes, when we ask people to recall and account for something from their past, “we are asking for attentive retrospection. This is not like taking a second look at a filed photograph; it is much more like police procedure where witnesses are asked to recall “any detail, however trivial”. This raises several concerns: first of all, human memory is always at risk of a faulty recall, that is, subjects may simply fail to remember all essential details in which case they may deliberately or unconsciously make something up to fill the apparent gap in the narrative. The question arises as to whether and to what extent we may expect people to retain memories and impressions of past experiences (which they might not at all have taken any particular notice of back in time) and reproduce them at the investigator’s request with the precision needed to inform an accurate analysis?

Secondly, even if it is possible for an individual to revive past events and imagine experiencing them again, can he also reanimate the same mental and emotional states that he once lived through? Or is it true that “the life of the mind is fundamentally Heraclitan, for it never descends twice into the same stream” (Archer, 2003, p. 60)?  If James (1950, p. 234) is right that “experience is remoulding us every moment, and our mental reaction on every given thing is really a resultant of our experience of the whole world up to date”, does it then follow that whatever a person makes of his past actions and choices can never be held as a true reflection of his former self for our interpretation of any given moment from the past is always and inevitably refracted by all our subsequent experiences?

Finally, if our focus is on something that only subjects themselves can claim knowledge about, how can we ascertain the truthfulness of their accounts and ensure that no potentially crucial events, experiences or aspects thereof are being withheld from us or presented in a different light? (the latter appears an almost insurmountable complication in light of Goffman’s assertion that all people unceasingly engage in impression management and identity work).

This daunting array of methodological hurdles need to be most carefully considered, yet should not prevent attempts at achieving genuine understanding of inner human worlds and lives, however challenging a task this might be.

References

Archer, M. S. (2003). Structure, agency and the internal conversation. Cambridge University Press.

Archer, M. S. (2007). Making our way through the world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

James, W. (1890). 1950. The principles of psychology.

Popper, K. (1972). On the theory of the objective mind. In Objective Knowledge: an Evolutionary Approach. Oxford: Clarendon

Searle, J. R. (1998). Mind, language and society: Philosophy in the real world. New York: Basic books.

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