Where or How Should We Begin?: A Methodological Appetizer

I have in my previous post stated the central concern of my project as the investigation of what makes the “good life” in today’s China. I then proposed to shed light on the subject by carrying out an “ethnography”.

But what exactly does that mean and how, as a practical matter, does one proceed ? Specifically, what methods should we deploy to conduct the study of “good life” in China in particular, and of social phenomena in general? What would count as data? What qualifies as legitimate knowledge? Who  speaks for the “Chinese”? Given that China is the size of a continent with a dazzling diversity of cultures – CCP officialdom has declared the number of “ethnicities” to be 56 – what is considered to “represent” China?

Clearly, we have waded into the difficult waters that muddy the enterprise of knowledge and its production. I have no wish here to enter into or elaborate on the long-running debate in the “West” (and “non-West”) about the nature of knowledge and its legitimations. That dreary task is for later (I promise).

For now it suffices to say that this debate has traditionally juxtaposed Science as knowledge par excellence against its  supposedly “inferior”, non-scientific variants. In brief, the archetype of traditional Scientific Knowledge has been modelled on a Knowledge of Nature, and is a legacy of the  European Enlightenment. Being predicated on a science of the Natural world, this putatively superior form of knowledge entails a number of features.

First, it was believed to obtain via the senses. Secondly, sensory knowledge was exalted because it derived from an Empiricist and Materialist worldview, with Matter being thought of as the sole basis of  Reality. Furthermore, consistent with this materialist ontology,  scientific knowledge was believed to be produced by a Knowing Subject situated at a distance from the Object-to-be-known. This distance/detachment/dissimilarity between Knower and Known was believed to insulate the Knower from the intrusion of his subjective feelings/prejudices, thus privileging him in the knowledge enterprise. A further corollary of this materialist worldview was the notion that Reality could be grasped precisely, specified and measured in exact terms, thus the reification of Measurement/Quantity to the neglect of Qualitative appreciation. So, third, by virtue of these properties, scientific knowledge was thought to be Objective, even Universal, produced from a “point-of-nowhere”. Perhaps it is fitting, as such, to think of Science as offering a God’s-eye-view of the world in a secular age that had declared God to be all but dead.

Longstanding debates in the enterprise of knowledge (epistemology), however,  have questioned the degree to which such a model of knowledge, a Science-of -Nature can be used to study the Social world, with its criteria of objectivity and with its demarcation of the knower from the known, the subject from the object. And this is to say nothing of its materialist/empiricist underpinnings.

Detractors of the classical science model (eg. Wilhelm Dilthey and Max Weber, among others) argued that Society was fundamentally  different from Nature, and therefore required different approaches/methods for its study. Hence, the arguments (dating back to the late 19th C) contrasting the Natural Sciences (naturwissenschaften) from the Human Sciences (geisteswissenschaften).  And, hence also, the perennial tension between Positivism – the belief that Society can be studied in the same way as Nature – and Hermeneutics. While the former is devoted to the search of “objective” and “causal laws” about an external reality, the hermeneutic enterprise leans toward examining internal life and its  processes of subjective interpretation and meaning. While Positivism has emphasised the role of explaining causality, Hermeneutics has veered towards reflexive understanding (verstehen).

Why have I raised these philosophical matters?  How are they relevant to my modest proposal to conduct an ethnography of Chinese social life? What do these considerations imply for ethnographic work?

Admittedly, I was inspired to ponder on these issues after coming across Ken Robinson’s discussion about the diversity of our senses and intelligences in The Element (2009). Referring to our multi-sensorial abilities, including our often taken-for-granted sense of balance,  he writes (33):

“All these senses contribute to our feelings of being in the world and to our ability to function in it. … They illustrate how profoundly our senses, however many we have and however they work, actually affect our understanding of the world and of ourselves. Yet many of us don’t know or have never thought about some of them.”

Robinson adds (35): “Athletes have a profound sense of the capacities of their physical bodies, and their achievements show how limited our everyday ideas about human ability really are. If you watch athletes, dancers, musicians, and other performers of their class at work, you can see that they are thinking, as well as performing, in extraordinary ways.”

“As they practice, they engage their whole bodies in developing and memorizing the routines they are shaping up. In the process, they are relying on what some call “muscle memory”.”

“In performance, they are usually moving too quickly and in ways that are simply too complex to rely on the ordinary conscious processes of thinking and decision-making. They draw from the deep reserves of feeling and intuition and of physical reflex and coordination that use the whole brain and not only the parts at the front that we associate with rational thinking.”

In the final analysis, Robinson argues that our limited understandings of our senses as well as our intelligence derive from an Enlightenment-inspired tendency to privilege the domain of (rationalist and empiricist) Reason. What strikes me particularly is the panacea Robinson recommends for such Enlightenment proclivities: a need to step back and appreciate the holism and richness of human experience in its entirety. Indeed, Reason is but only one of many dimensions of human being. Consider again the connotations invoked by the following terms:  “sense of the capacities of their physical bodies”, “engage their whole bodies in developing and memorizing routines”, “muscle memory”, “too complex to rely on the ordinary conscious processes of thinking”, “deep reserves of feeling and intuition”, “physical reflex and coordination that use the whole brain and not only the parts at the front associated with rational thinking”. What is consistently being invoked is the holism of human being; even thought is a bodily experience, a somatic and physical process.

And just as the typical conceptions of our senses are found to be wanting, so too our typical understandings of knowledge, as outlined above. In other words, the critique of how we traditionally conceive of our senses (and of intelligence) apply equally to our common conceptions of (scientific) knowledge. It is a critique, above all, of reductionism: the tendency to mechanically reduce the totality of human possibility and potential, knowing and knowledge, to a fraction of its parts and to regard, erroneously, these fragments as the whole.

This insight, then, paves the way forward. It exhorts us to approach our research with a  commitment to holism and with the modest understanding that reality is oftentimes not only ineffable, but ever unfolding. We should, as such, remain open to all possible and diverse approaches of grappling with “reality” and not confine ourselves to prefabricated methodologies or preconceived ideas about what counts as legitimate knowledge. I have in this post highlighted some problems of epistemology but space has prevented me from dealing with them in sufficient detail. It is a topic to which I shall return. In the meantime, the practical methodological implications of “embracing holism” will become apparent in the posts that immediately follow.

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