What matters to us opens us to new ideas. As clinicians or researchers, we don’t make sense of an idea as a free-floating ‘thing’ but through how it relates to our practice. If we think it might help us make enough of a difference, we put effort into understanding the idea and bringing it to life. Doing this can involve a variety of intellectual, social and practical work. As this is a time-consuming but largely invisible process, sharing different experiences may help us to value and find ways of supporting it more effectively. My PhD therefore involves hearing about speech and language therapists’ experiences of putting ideas into practice.
One problem arises when we have a hunch that an idea is worth following up, but the gulf between what we know and what we think we need to know about it is overwhelmingly vast. In designing my PhD study, for example, I had a hunch that ideas from sociology could be really important, but there are only so many hours in a day and only so many books and papers I can read. To act on my hunch in a way that would help me make meaningful progress, I needed to float ideas from sociology without drowning in them. Eighteen months in, this is still percolating, but I have built a metaphorical bridge.
If we can start to ‘see’ any research study as a social scene, it becomes clear that the researcher is an integral part of what goes on in it. Visual metaphors are very good for making sense of different perspectives on a scene: ‘through the lens of’, ‘from my point of view’, ‘as I see it’. However, it can be hard to see past dominant assumptions about the world, especially if the researcher frames a study from that angle.
In trying to think about the social scene of my study more critically, I became aware that I was using an aural metaphor to apply the idea of ‘social ontology’. Social ontology is concerned with the nature of being, becoming, existence and reality in the social world. Ideas about agency, structure, culture, power, time, place, bodies and material, for example, all influence the design and conduct of research, whether we choose to hear them or not.
If social ontology is the background noise of a study, part of my ethical role as a researcher is to be aware that there is a certain amount I can do to try to ramp up or dampen down different dimensions. A bit like a sound engineer with a mixing desk, this means I need to be attuned to both the purpose of the mix and the possibility of what could be heard if things were different.
For more on social ontology, see the Centre for Social Ontology website and Mark Carrigan’s blog. Knowledge is indeed a social product, and I am particularly grateful to Margaret Archer and Mark Carrigan who hosted a PhD workshop at Warwick University in June 2014 called ‘What’s the point of social ontology?‘