The hug: An affective awakening to more-than-positivist qualitative research

Year: 2016

Author: Aberton, Helen

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Researcher: ‘Jane can I hug you?’ Jane had just given a harrowing account of the tragic death of two sons in separate farm accidents, which led to learning about gardening and tending living memories in ‘the boys’ rose garden’. As there is no place for the affective embodied researcher in conventional positivist qualitative research methodology, in my interview notes I did not transcribe my impulsive (guilty) response, or record the hug. In this paper I propose to draw on my doctoral experience to demonstrate my realisation that conventional qualitative research (St Pierre, 2014) training was inadequate for my doctoral research and will present alternative means of ‘data’ analysis. I investigated the learning of women in community organisations in a rural Australian district. Research on informal learning tends to be informed by the traditional construct of identity as an individual cognitive achievement, or the social constructivist construct with its emphasis on the inter-relationships between ideas of identity, agency and structure. The assumption is made that the researchers and participants share understandings of ‘learning’, particularly with respect to the role of material objects in it. Learning theorists rarely frame these objects as having agency; they are taken to be passive recipients of human actions and intentions. As the dominant understanding of adult learning is subject to ‘pedagogic authority’ in educational institutions (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990) it excludes particular forms of adult learning. Furthermore, if informal learning research, which occurs outside educational institutions is framed through concepts drawn from practices in educational institutions, it follows that the methodology may be limiting, and informal learning will be framed either in terms of codifiable practices or remain in the background. In order to focus on the learning and identity formation of women who did not self-identify as learners and to make sense of the research process I adopted a poststructuralist approach. ‘Data’ were more experienced than read, and the encounter was more experimental, for ‘the researcher does not know in advance what onto-epistemological knowledge will emerge from the experimental mix of concepts, emotions, bodies, images and affects’ (Davies, 2014, p.734). In materially complex and messy practices I risked using analytic methods which challenged my training. I will give examples of the actor-network theory (ANT) way of inquiring into the processes and associations which form arrangements of things and humans in action, (assemblages of relations), which emerged with the research, bringing to view material and affective enactments of identities, ‘learner’ identities and otherwise.