Proceedings of the 2nd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "The Body Politic"
3 & 4 September 1996, Johannesburg, South Africa
Opening address and welcome
Deputy Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of South Africa
The term "body politic" naturally evokes many shades of meaning; a collage of meanings -- as is evident from the variety of interpretations and applications in the official programme. Allow me to list and comment on a few:
* There are black and white bodies of knowledge which acknowledge sameness and difference; commonalities and divergences;
* There are women who windsurf and become objects of gendered embodiment:
* There are embodiments of soul; dangerous bodies; propped and unpropped bodies;
* There is also invasion of the body -- in fact, body-snatching even if it amounts to something as small -- or perhaps as big -- as foreskin-piercing in the case of Vasili Kapetanakis' exhibitionism;
* And then, of course, there are the usual buzz of qualitative body-of-knowledge-talk -- humankind as meaning-makers; the reclaiming of language; discursive practices; texts, icons, images; narratives; stories.
* And finally there are the busy bodies of conference-making -- the academic staff of Wits and UNISA. Let as thank them for undertaking this body-crunching and mind-sapping task.
Although the contributions to this conference come from a variety of disciplinary homes (e.g. psychology, sociology, ethology, fine art, music, linguistics and languages) there is a shared kinship which, to generalise somewhat, lies in a scepticism of the theoretical and methodological positivism that has dominated the mainstream of western social science during most of the 20th century. This scepticism is, of course, not new.
Ever since the early Greek thinker Parmenides (500 B.C) argued in favour of a fixed reality that can be comprehended only by the rigour of logical and rational analysis, there were dissenting voices -- e.g. that of the Greek thinker Herakleitos, a contemporary of Parmenides. And he claimed the opposite: Coherence and stability persist within, and indeed because of, the process of continual change -- hence, reality is fluid, changing and creatable in the minds of humankind. Since then the debate has continued mostly in an unhealthy either/or fashion. Rarely reconciliation of the extremes, of the both/and type, have been attempted.
Be that as it may: Allow me, in opening this conference, briefly to explore the nature of the shared kinship that attracted you to this conference: I pose the question: How do we know about humanity?:
Two intriguing metaphors that point at seemingly opposing ways of knowing/understanding the phenomena of the world can be depicted as knowing through story-telling and knowing through setting-up an experiment. To say: "Let me tell you a story" and: "Let us do an experiment" are attention-getting phrases.
Amongst academics from a variety of disciplines there is consensus that story-telling is one of the primary forms through which human experience is vested with meaning. The urge to tell stories comes so natural that one may view the narrative thinking mode in humans as an instinct: In the same way that spiders instinctively weave webs and beavers instinctively build dams, humans instinctively tell stories.
I think it was Roland Barthes who proclaimed that narration (story-telling) is simply there like life itself; that it is international, transhistorical, transcultural.
But equally pervasive is the notion of knowing the world through setting up experiments -- thus entering the Western world of natural science where humankind employs rigorous observation to prove through logical argument and inference how and why the phenomena of the world are as they are, or are not as they seem to be. And add to this the natural-scientific tools of empirical data-hunting expeditions, elegant experimental designs and powerful statistical inferences.
How compelling this metaphor is, is demonstrated by people's fascination with the proclamations of positive science:" Scientific experiments have proved that...; the scientific evidence indicates that...; science has proven that...". It is if many people consider the scientific word as the final word about almost anything.
For the purposes of my brief excursion I will lump together under the narrative thinking mode the so-called tender-minded qualitative approaches to understanding what humanity is. These approaches, in many different ways, suggest that human sciences are of necessity value-laden. As such they are not only about people, but for people and hence it is compelled (obligated) to -- via its body of knowledge and insights -- contribute towards the reconstruction of society and improving the lot of humanity; or, at the very least, to do justice to what it means to be human.
This mode of thinking creates an image of the human person in terms of lifelikeness; exemplifying the urge to appreciate what is authentically human and to expand the focus of inquiry to meaning-making processes in real-life contexts. Hence the emphasis is on the essentially social foundation and dialogical dependence of the human mind. Accordingly intersubjectively shared meanings, produced by language and other symbols, become the very basis of a human science.
In this regard the view of Mikhail Bakhtin is pertinent to the narrative thinking mode:" The exact sciences constitute a monologic form of knowledge: The intellect contemplates a thing and expounds upon it. There us only one subject here -- cognizing (contemplating) and speaking (expounding). In opposition to the subject there is only a voiceless thing. Any object of knowledge (including man) can be perceived and studied as a thing. But a subject as such cannot be perceived and studied as a thing, for as a subject it cannot, while remaining as a subject, become voiceless, and consequently cognition of it can only be dialogic."
All these aspects seemed to converge on the question of meaning, especially shared meaning and signification -- two concepts that encompass and join together the scholarly interests of almost all the human sciences. In this regard one may quote Greimas from the perspective of literary structuralism:
"Meaning and the problem of signification is at the centre of the preoccupations of our time. The world can only be called 'human' to the extent that it means something. Thus, it is in research dealing with signification that the human sciences can find their common denominator."
May I suggest that finding common denominators, in interdisciplinary fashion, is the very business of a conference of this nature. May I dwell for a moment on the topic of interdisciplanarity.
The well-known psychiatrist R. D Laing once said that the most fundamental scientific insights about human nature, the meaning of life and problems of living, have been predated and anticipated by great art.
What he meant by this has been aptly described by John Fowles in his book The Aristos:
Art ... is the expression of truth too complex for science to express... Art is the human shorthand of knowledge... a tremendous condensing in the case of great art of galaxies of thoughts, facts, memories, emotions, events, experiences to ten lines in Macbeth, to six bars in Bach, to a square foot of canvas in a Rembrandt.
This suggests that the arts -- be it literature, music or visual art -- can supply humanity, a nation, a community with the greater "story" that connects, unites and reconciles. To paraphrase Alexander Pope's Essay on Man slightly:
See how story into story runs
What other planets circle other suns
Stated differently, in the world of art there is an undeclared or tacit "guild" or "fraternity" that seeks to find and appreciate shared humanity; to discover sameness amidst difference; to experience the fusion of different cultural horizons; to come to a deep understanding that "us" stories and "them" stories contain the ingredients of a shared humanity, and to find and share in art tears that are too deep for thought; to create art that does not
prescribe but allow us to sense and experience the significance of life and to appreciate anew what it means to be human.
The dynamics of this tacit guild's quest for shared meaning becomes evident in the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey's -- a precursor of hermeneutics -- claim that understanding (Verstehen) is based on entering the world of the other, of identifying with another, and to recognize yourself in the other.
Similarly in the American playwrite Tennessee Williams' drama The Sweet bird of youth a character says: "I don't ask for your pity, but just for your understanding. Not even that -- no. Just for your recognition of me in you."
And far removed from this particular context the black African poet Sipho Sepamla speaks, in 1976, of the events that happened in the hey-days of apartheid that gave him the blues:
the blues is the shadow of a cop
dancing the immorality act jitterbug
the blues is the Group Areas Act and all its jive
the blues is the Bantu educational act...
The poet then complains about his father's screams in the night, about people crowded together on station platforms, about empty promises and forgotten intentions. Finally he joins all people, white and black, since -- as he says -- we are all blues people.
I want to holler the how long blues
because we are the blues people all...
the blues is you in me
The key phrases -- recognising you in me and finding me in you -- coming from the different but shared worlds of Wilhelm Dilthey, Tennessee Williams and Sipho Sepamla -- contain the true essence of human encounters where compassion and respect compel us to discover sameness and difference; to realise that there is, also in and via literature, music and visual art, a universal sense of belonging; and the urge to respect and cherish difference.
In conclusion I want to suggest that qualitative methodologies -- if guided by the sentiments of respect and compassion for "research objects" and the intellectual skill of analytical rigour -- may be seen as enhancing the fraternity of the "blues people"; and as contributing to a human science by the inventive and constructive power of shared meaning.
Now, the most difficult part of my task to open a body politic. Do I use the magic words abrakadabra, or Open Sesam a la. Alibaba, or shall I simply say: By the powers vested in me, I declare the conference open. I do.
2nd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "The Body Politic"
critical methods society - www.criticalmethods.org - [email protected]