A repentant preamble
I certainly still remember my first apprehensions as a student in History and then in Political sociology and IR having to go through the different but compulsory courses on methods and methodology. The courses on Medieval Latin in Latin (ouch!), were my worst nightmares! It was a little bit less than twenty years ago but it still haunts me. Paleography, sigillography and the others auxiliary sciences of history, followed by Emile Durkheim’s Rules of Sociological Method, Max Weber’s Methodology of the Social Sciences as much as the all classic Marxist literature, to cite just a few of the essential canonical readings within a French university such as Nanterre. At the same time, I discovered the work of Michel Foucault and definitively fell in love with his (apparent) seductive liberated tone. I was enjoying his spirit of contradiction, his way to mock geometry and the straight line for he was living intellectual disorientation as a principle of salvation. In a nutshell, I felt stuck between “critique is awesome” and learning meticulous, rigorous methods of research. I owe much to one of my professors at Nanterre, Bernard Lacroix. He was the one who guided me through the works of Durkheim, Feyerabend (1975), Elias and Bourdieu, helping me to see how all of them have contributed to show the limitations of method in various and compelling ways and how the notion of progress in science does not occur through rigid application of a methodological catechism. “Anything goes” as Feyerabend said, for all methods are limited by the often unarticulated and hidden assumptions that give rise to them in the first place. Critical Methods? Sounds more like a duplication or a redundancy. So where is the problem? Critical, maybe. Or the rigid view on what method should be, i.e. ‘methodo-idolatry’? It is a somewhat tricky oscillation between two equally problematic poles actually.
Who is not “critical” raise his hand! Among the very ten best buzzwords to get a chance to be published or to be selected for an international conference, “critical”, is without doubt highly positioned. It nearly works as a mantra up to the level that across every social sciences discipline critique has been raised to the level of obsession, not to say caricature, i.e. “critical chic”. I would even go further. Critique has been emptied of its own substance, simplifying the rules of aerodynamics; it flies far above the ground for it is too often rigorously empty! How many times have we been in a situation of reading or listening to a piece of research and, although we could genuinely enjoy the poetical and complex theoretical dimensions of the work being presented we were very often left unsatisfied with a quite straightforward question… so what? “God, you’ve got some big flavours, boy!” Thanks for your positive reception of my provocative view my dear Gregg Wallace, and actually, the analogy with MasterChef works smoothly here. Research in such an insecure and crumbling academic world works like intense culinary challenges: flavour and texture, substance and methods. It is just that critical is in a critical stage for we may have forgotten the rigorous, demanding, on-going and meticulous self-examination that goes with it in any solid research. Reflexivity matters! But reflexivity is something one learns systematically, step by step.
I usually start my very own course on methods and methodology with the story of “petit Marcel“. Little Marcel was working in his uncle’s office, sorting out his uncle’s papers. Little Marcel used to think that it was boring and he complained to his mother. His mother replied in a letter that, certainly Marcel’s uncle knew exactly what he was doing and supposed (rightly) that in order to learn one may have to do some unexciting and repetitive work. Actually, Emile Durkheim knew what he was doing and, eventually, little Marcel became the internationally well-known Marcel Mauss!
For generations of researchers method has been used in a rigid, orthodox fashion. What is your method? Where do you fit? Any choice of method IS a political decision with a distinct message about what really matters. As Bourdieu taught us like many others before him, we think, act always from somewhere for something. It also means that any search for an objective method is doomed to failure and may blind the researcher to the value-laden assumptions s/he is making.In other words, any method enables certain types of understanding while foreclosing others at the same time. The issue is only an issue if we fall in the trap of methodo-idolatry, of method-driven research. As soon as we engage with the issue of method from the practical side of the practice of research, it changes – the trick of the job is that, actually, researchers are mostly question-driven. What my own research taught me through the years could be summarized very easily in one good old fashioned Greek sentence: “Παθήματα μαθήματα”, you suffer, you learn!
There is no pure method and only adjustments (tekhné), creativity, dedication and resourcefulness, e.g. Do It Yourself or “bricolage” in French. “Bricolage” is the embodiment of ingenuity in the sense of opportunity (“opportunity makes researchers – or thieves”), experience, sagacity and flexibility. My very own heroic bricoleur has a name: the Mayanist William Laurens Rathje. He died very recently but left us with a superb legacy. While he was studying American eating habits, he changed his approach from survey and interviews to… garbage! What could be a better way to study eating habits? What people have owned – and thrown away – can speak more eloquently, informatively, and truthfully about the lives they lead than they themselves ever may. Just brilliant!
The “bricoleur” is not an amateur: his/her work is grounded in a web of complexity; All observations of the world are shaped either consciously or unconsciously by social theory – such theory provides the framework that highlights or erases what might be observed; theory is a cultural and linguistic artifact, its interpretation of the object of its observation is inseparable from the historical dynamics that have shaped it. The task of the bricoleur is to attack this complexity, uncovering the invisible artifacts of power and culture and documenting the nature of their influence not only on their own scholarship but also scholarship in general. In this process, bricoleurs act on the concept that theory is not an explanation of the object —it is more an explanation of our relation to our objects of research.
Let’s face it. Research in security and (un)secured zones are not the only forms of dangerous, precarious or restricted-access fieldwork one can come across in the discipline of International Relations. Through research based on confidential or forbidden archives, stigmatized objects or actors in IR, the categories of danger, uncertainty and of the forbidden take very different meanings, disturbing the order of things, the forms of knowledge and the researchers’ ethos. While it would be comforting to imagine the researcher to be free of influence, such detachment has really never been possible; any immersion in a dangerous, precarious or restricted-access fieldwork is a process of disorientation, crossing the issues of expectation and obligation. Starting with and thinking through this inevitable precariousness of any fieldwork on the edge may stir the stagnant waters of doxical methodological assumptions in IR. Are you ready for the challenge?
As such, I see critical methodology as an evolving reflexive theory of obscenity, of ad hoc unorthodox violation of the canons but not a meta-theory. It aims at clarifying hidden philosophical, political and historical assumptions, rendering historical and political what has hitherto been hidden from history and politics. It is also an ongoing exercise of devising and exploring unorthodox and creative approaches to fruitful scientific inquiry that eventually challenges the order of things as much as it conveys a practical sense for the research to engage critically with his/her ideological, cultural, moral and political commitments. To put it differently, critical methodology is Research With Attitude!