Bringing ideas to life

Theory as method: the importance of Foucault in my doctoral research

Published in Foucault, Research Students by Olga Campbell-Thomson on November 4, 2013

(c) Benoît Mars

(c) Benoît Mars

Now that I have completed my doctoral dissertation, I have the feeling it could be accomplished in a shorter time and it could progress in a more straightforward manner… In short, I wish I knew where my search for method and theoretical underpinnings would lead my work to. Well, back then I didn’t know. So, the entire process of doctoral research was lengthy and rather circuitous, but it was also rewarding as it evolved.

What started as a search for the method, ended up as a propitious finding of the theoretical framework for the analysis and interpretation of the data. My encounter with Foucault’s theorizing on the constitution of the subject not only shaped my thinking, it also allowed me to gather a voluminous corpus of the data into a manageable structure, and helped decide on the methods of data analysis. In this respect, theoretical perspective and method evolved in tandem and were supporting each other. However, meaningful encounter with Foucault did not happen right away, and the name itself was nowhere in my initial research proposal.

With a background in linguistics and speech communication studies, I searched for an understanding and explanation of social reality in language.  When I located my specific research interests in the field of education, I focused my attention on the discursive construction of meaning. I found critical discourse analysis (CDA) to be the most promising analytic approach for my investigation of the process of identity construction in the educational setting. My engagement with critical discourse analysis was thorough and, seemingly, for life. I collected an extensive library of every single piece written under the banner of CDA. I studied approaches to CDA developed by Norman Fairclough, Vienna school, Wodak’s elaboration of the Discourse-Historical Approach, as well as work of other CDA practitioners. I even tried to develop my own method of critical discourse analysis and, duly, started producing pieces of analysis. A full year passed by as my disjointed ‘analysis pieces’ piled up, with no clear indication of how they would lead to the shaping of the final product.

Foucault entered the scene of my curiosity mainly because his name was appropriated (as well as misappropriated) by the world of discourse studies. My reading of Foucault’s primary work was prompted by the desire to bring clarity into the whole endeavour of critical discourse analysis. It soon became clear that Foucault could stand on his own and was far bigger than popular misconception of him as a ‘discourse man’. As time went by, my interest and involvement in Foucault’s work deepened. Critical discourse analysis had to go. Foucault stayed.

My personal engagement with Foucault’s investigations of how human beings become subjects transformed in my inquiry into how students become national subjects in the context of schooling. This is easier said than done. My genuine fascination with Foucault’s masterly ways of unravelling the social processes of meaning construction was not enough for the crafting of my own investigation. Foucault made a generous offer of his tools to the users and noted that ‘they can use [his tools] however they wish in their own area’ (quoted in O’Farrell 2005, p. 50). Yet, he did not offer any methodological template or a distinct method of analysis. He also insisted that he had not produced a complete theory of any kind. I had to find the tools which would be the most useful in my research.

Sticking to Foucault was not by compulsion of any kind; it was by choice. Careful reading of Foucault’s scholarship suggested a number of possibilities applicable to the fields of inquiry well outside the themes he rendered in his own analyses, and I feel I made the right choice as I persevered with ‘rummaging through his toolbox’ (a paraphrase of Foucault’s own words).

Rooted in Foucault’s analytic approach to social processes of knowledge construction, my study approached the process of national identity construction as revealed in a set of practices in the context of schooling. In order to make sense of the schooling practices, and how they are revealing of students’ construction of their national selves, several stages of analysis of the data were undertaken. Initial coding provided a list of categories which were registered as national identity markers, based on the definition of the notion of national identity as positioning in relation to states and nations. The next stage identified recurring patterns and themes, which cut across different types of data.

Foucault’s theorizing on the constitution of the subject was integral to the critical reading of the data, as I was moving back and forth through the emerging themes and patterns. Application of Foucault’s theorizing on the constitution of the subject meant that the process of national identity construction in the context of schooling was viewed as neither the passive reproduction of dominating structures, nor a manifestation of free will, but as the constant interplay of the two, revealed through a set of practices. This approach to the analyzing of the social processes is articulated by Foucault as the interplay of various technologies, and was conceptualized in my study as the interplay of structure and agency.

Foucault’s conceptual tools allowed reading of the data in terms of interaction of structural components of the schooling environment and of actions of individuals revealed through practices at school. Reading of the data through Foucault’s analytic framework enabled me to identify several factors contributing to the process of national identity construction and to build a graphic model illustrating the interaction of these various factors, as parts of the same complex process. The model was used as the guide to discuss the findings of the study in relation to the research questions.

My experience with working through theoretical/conceptual/analytic framing of the doctoral project has been of great benefit to the project itself, and also to my development as a researcher. Used as a means of understanding and explaining the data, my analytic framework went far beyond critical reading and interpretation of the data and the findings. It provided links between various components of the dissertation, it helped craft the compositional structure of the case, it tested and strengthened the statements of ontological and epistemological foundations of the study. Finally, after the dissertation project has been examined and approved, it prompts further pursuit of its utility.

About


Olga Campbell-ThomsonOver the past twenty years, my career has encompassed research and teaching in the fields of Linguistics, Speech Communication and Education in the United States, Cyprus and the Middle East. For the last seven years, I was lecturing in the University of Qatar and, in parallel, I studied for my doctorate degree in Education at the University of Manchester, England. During this time, my home base was in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which I chose as the research site for my dissertation project.I have now relocated to Scotland and I am continuing my research into the role of education in sustaining or reducing conflict in society. I am particularly interested in how students’ identities are structured through their schooling experience. I apply Foucault’s analytic tools to describe, understand and explain social process of identity construction in the context of schooling. I am also interested in broader issues of social cohesion and intercultural relationships, and am expanding my theoretical base into various strands of social theory, as well as exploring Plato’s ideas on the relationships between the individual, the community and social morality.

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