Friday, November 22, 2002

On being a Theory Wank

My friends are right - I am a qualitative theory wank - with all the good and bad that comes with that. And the past 48 hours have really given me a taste of what that can mean ;)

So let me start by telling you what PLSJ means to me. By the time I finished my BA in anthropology I was convinced that anthropologists create a peculiar type of cultural knowledge because they do not give people access to their field notes. Last month I posted some comments on the role of reflexivity and transparency in the production of academic knowledge. I set up this site as a way to engage these topics as I do my research. But it turns out that my professors had a point - we can't anticipate people's responses to our thinking out loud and that sometimes causes problems. I still believe that posting my research notes serves a valuable purpose, even if it serves me most of all ;) I would much rather engage people with half-baked ideas than to simply give access to my final response (which can seem more definitive than it actually is). I'm flaky, and hopeful, enough to believe that by doing so, I open rather than close the discursive space. I am a qualitative researcher and, accordingly, it is never my task or goal to tell you "what it all means"...

So why all this concern? On Tuesday I did some thinking out loud about social software and since then I have received an unusual amount of correspondence. First, let me say that I was really pleased to hear from so many intelligent people, and even a little flattered that they would find my comments interesting. But I also seemed to have stumbled upon a community about which I know very little. I am not a techie, and I only occasionally practice at design. That either group of people would find my research as anything but tangential to their practice comes as a bit of a surprise! And I promise I will respond to each of you individually as I get the time.

As I've said many times, my primary concern is social and cultural theory and I work with examples of, and ideas around, new technologies to advance these theories. I am often reminded by my friends that being a theorist is a dangerous job - in many ways we don't need to answer practical concerns and that can be quite off-putting to people who actually need to accomplish something "real". I never forget my place of privilege: I am supported by the State - by Canadian taxpayers - to think about things and to imagine different realities. And while that may indeed be work, it sure as hell isn't considered a job.

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