Unreliable Memories

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    A B S T R A C T This article addresses two concerns that are central tomuch of the qualitative research currently ongoing in both the social

    sciences and other fields of social research: the status awarded to

    biographical knowledges and, associatively, how such knowledges are

    dealt with in concrete research. The first section calls attention to the

    unreliability of memory in order to cast doubt on the veracity of lay

    actors accounts and thus question their position in social research.

    The second section, taking up this challenge, addresses a number of

    critical issues related to both the theoretical and the empirical status

    of biographical knowledges in qualitative research. Foremost of these

    are how both ignorance and the dynamic nature of memory are

    integral to the construction and reconstruction of biographicalknowledge. The methodological considerations that arise from this

    discussion are then considered more explicitly. The article seeks to

    provoke, rather than foreclose, critical thought and debate.

    K E Y W O R D S : biography, epistemology, memory, qualitative,reflexivity


    Qualitative research has become an important, if not critical, element of

    many fields of social research. The concerns discussed in this article have

    arisen from research carried out under the banner of rural geography.

    However, they are central also to aspects of qualitative research in the social

    sciences more generally, as well as many of the other disciplines concerned

    with exploring social (including cultural) life. These concerns are, broadly,

    the status that researchers can attribute to actors knowledges that is,

    biographical knowledges and how the status of such knowledges impacts

    upon how they can be, and might most usefully be, utilized in social research.

    The article first raises the problem of unreliable memories as a means to

    problematizing the reliability and inter-subjective correspondence of lay

    Unreliable memories and othercontingencies: problems withbiographical knowledge

    G R A H A M G A R D N E R

    University of Wales, Aberystwyth

    Qualitative ResearchCopyright SAGE Publications(London,Thousand Oaks,caand New Delhi)vol. (): -.[-() :;-; ]



    A R T I C L E

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    actors accounts. It goes on to provocatively address the empirical and

    theoretical status attributed to actors knowledges, and discusses how

    problems of ignorance and partial truth might be creatively addressed in

    concrete research. The methodological considerations that arise out of this

    discussion are then considered more explicitly.The problematic status of biographical knowledge is, of course, hardly a

    new or an unacknowledged issue in the social sciences and related

    disciplines. In particular, feminist scholars, frequently from within the

    disciplines of anthropology (Shostak, 1981), oral history (Gluck and Patai,

    1991) and psychology (Gilligan, 1982, 1998) have emphasized both the role

    of culture in structuring such knowledge and the (often unspoken)

    assumptions that structure research methodologies and researchers

    attitudes to those they study (see also Hutheesing, 1993; Nast, 1998;

    Robinson, 1994; Targounwick, 1990: 411). Accordingly, the now vast

    literature dealing with qualitative methods increasingly emphasizesresearcher reflexivity, openness and sensitivity to different ways of knowing,

    along with a questioning sometimes leading to a wholesale rejection of

    previously dominant positivist, reductionist and ethnocentric approaches to

    researching the social world (Altheide and Johnson, 1994; Cook and Crang,

    1995; Denzin, 1994; Evans, 1988; Katz, 1994; Oakley, 1981).

    Such work is valuable, particularly in its removal of the idea of the

    researcher as neutral observer in the field and its highlighting of the

    interpretative tensions between systematic generalization and idiographic

    particularism. At the same time, however, in certain respects much of this

    work is limited in application. It tends to draw on, and stress, the importanceof immersion-type fieldwork, where researchers spend a considerable period

    situated in the local culture they are studying; emphasis is on extended and

    repeated contact with local actors, the establishment of relations of mutual

    trust between researcher and researched, and reflexivity generated through

    participant-observation. For the many researchers who, by choice or

    necessity, spend far less time in the field, the questions it raises and the

    suggestions it makes can therefore either appear far removed from their own

    concerns, or desirable but wholly unattainable, given the manner in which

    they work.

    The material drawn on for this article comes from a number of semi-

    structured interviews carried out under severe restraints in a highly

    antagonistic research context.1 An angry and bitter dispute over housing

    development in a small English village had left residents suspicious of talking

    to anyone, for fear that their comments would be leaked to the press and

    misrepresented. Along with this difficulty, the community had nothing

    resembling a public space where participant-observation could be carried

    out; the use of discussion groups was out of the question because both sides

    ostracized each other; and those who did agree to speak barely had time for

    one interview, quite apart from multiple sessions. Thus, researcher

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    researched interaction was fleeting, highly partial and non-repeatable:

    snatched moments with no hope of return far from the anthropological


    While some, with good grounds, may be wary of the type of reflexivity

    practised in this case carried out from the comfort of an office, cubicle,home or library (Nast, 1998: 95) it nevertheless does correspond (albeit

    perhaps in an exaggerated fashion) to many researchers experiences of

    interpreting the initial outcomes of their fieldwork labours. It is thus intended

    that this article offers an alternative, underplayed perspective on some

    established problems, and extends and provokes current debate, rather than

    makes claim to raising wholly original questions or providing definitive


    Methodology and social reality

    The inspiration for this article stems from the authors ongoing research as a

    geographer into the institution, reproduction and transformation of

    topographies of power in rural spaces. Rural geographers, along with social

    scientists more generally, increasingly recognize that the socially constructed

    and discursive nature of social spaces makes these spaces ambiguous and

    ambivalent (Cloke, 1997: 368). If this assessment is to be more than a

    rhetorical claim tacked on to any piece of research, it demands a rigorous (i.e.

    not self-indulgent) scepticism towards any ontology that attempts a priori to

    reduce interpretation and explanation of social processes to a single factor.

    Accordingly, the methodology for the above research is explicitly informedand underpinned by recent empirical and theoretical works in the philosophy

    and methodology of social science that demonstrate how social spaces are

    stitched together (Lyotard, 1984; Murdoch and Pratt, 1994) out of multiple

    and often conflicting discourses (broadly, knowledges), narratives and

    materialities (Haraway, 1997). It also takes heed of commentary by Dyck

    (1999) and Graham (1999), who point out that while there are wide bodies

    of literature separately rich in empirical, theoretical and methodological

    content, the entanglement of, and relationships between, the three remain

    relatively less examined.

    The research methodology aims towards treating social actors as

    knowledgeable, intentional agents, active and reflective in the constitution of

    their own identity(ies) and social worlds. The information they can provide

    regarding both their own conduct and the conduct of other actors (both

    individual and collective) is seen to be critical in terms of understanding the

    processes bound up with the articulation of power or any social processes

    in any particular locale (cf. Bourdieu, 1977, 1999a; Giddens, 1984; contra

    Althusser, 1972). Further, the research is not only concerned with objective

    accounts of physicalmaterial spacetime interactions. Rather, it also seeks

    to discover the motivations that actors have in acting in particular ways, and

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    how they interpret the processes in which they are bound up, in order to

    come to some understanding and appreciation of the interconnectedness and

    complexities of action, awareness and concern (Sack, 1997).

    This focus reflects a growing concern over the past 30 years amongst those

    researching various aspects of social life to take fuller account of actors own,situated knowledges; a concern driven in substantial part by historical and

    ongoing critiques of a once dominant positivist research paradigm concerned

    with a narrowly defined so-called objectivity and with measuring the

    (in)validity of different knowledges in terms of pre-defined, conventional

    scientific, modernist parameters (cf. Haraway, 1989; Staeheli and Lawson,


    But some time after an initial confidence in the anticipated outcomes of

    enabling the subjects of research to speak for themselves came . . . doubts.

    A preliminary provocation: thinking about lies, lied, lying ...

    untruth, falsehood, barefaced lie, fib, white lie, little white lie . . . fabrication,

    made-up story, trumped up story, invention, piece of fiction . . . falsification,

    falsity, fairy story, cock-and-bull story, dissimulation . . . prevarication,

    departure from the truth, terminological inexactitude, tall tale . . . whopper . . .

    (The Oxford Paperback Thesaurus: Kirkpatrick, 1994).

    The truth, the whole truth ...

    The ex-chairwoman of a parish council is interviewed on a variety of topics,key amongst which are her past and present involvement with both formal

    and informal local social and political institutions. On a number of occasions,

    in response to direct questioning,2 she asserts that she no longer occupies any

    such positions and that she takes no part in the current political and public

    life of the parish. For example:

    Well, thats the Over Sixties would be about the only one that I do really much

    to do with [sic]; I mean, [the] synod, which is church again, but I mean Ive

    come off that and I just do the our own one, now. . . . No, no. No, no, no;

    definitely not, no, no. Oh no, I was seventy last June, and theres no way Im

    going back into anything like that [parish council business]! [laugh] Letsomebody else do it.

    At a later stage in fieldwork, however, interviews with other residents, alongwith some fortunate finds in the local library archives, conclusively

    demonstrate that, in fact, the ex-chairwoman continues to occupy severalimportant local positions of influence including chair of the local charitiescommittee, chair of the local WI and chair of a nearby village hall trust; thatshe is a founder member of a recent group set up to oppose social housingdevelopment in the parish; and that she apparently exploits her position asthe largest landowner in the area to exert political pressure on those who

    depend on her employment.

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    Revelation: sometimes, respondents lie. Or do they? Perhaps this

    respondent simply has a very poor memory. Lets try another.

    . . . and nothing but the truth

    A parish councillor (one who told the truth about the ex-chairwoman)

    recounts how he came to be co-opted onto the parish council, after putting

    himself forward as a neutral outsider in an attempt to peaceably settle a

    dispute over who should represent the parish council on the local schools

    board of governors.

    I said, look, this is ridiculous, this is not doing anyone any good, can I put myself

    forward as a compromise candidate? . . . Erm, and they said, no, get stuffed. . . .

    But as a result of that, someone rang me up a couple of months later and said,

    would you like to be on the council ...

    It later transpires, again through speaking to other local residents, that thissomeone was the chairman of the parish council and that the two alreadyknew each other. Further, his coming forward was (apparently) part of ascheme worked out in advance with the chairman to ease his co-option ontothe parish council, and at no point did he genuinely intend to become a


    Was this respondent lying? Did he have a poor memory? Did he get

    confused? All three? Or is what is going on in both these cases more

    complex, more subtle, than that?

    As yet, the research has produced no easy or definitive answers to

    the questions raised by the inconsistencies between the above actorsaccounts, accounts given by others and (where it exists) accounts in archival

    material. Nor is it anticipated that it will do so in the future. This therefore

    raises the question, with regard to both this particular research and social

    research more generally, of to what extent lay actors accounts can be relied

    on in research that is not only, or primarily, concerned with language as

    dominant representation or discourse (cf. Fairclough, 1989). This, in turn,

    then raises a host of other issues, related to the theoretical and empirical

    status and validity of interview data in qualitative research. Rather than lay

    out a tick list of the veritable embarrassment of rich topics that could be

    drawn out for discussion, two themes are selected here as particularly

    pertinent, given recent calls within the social sciences to more fully recognize

    lay voices (Cook and Crang, 1995; Philo, 1992; Robinson, 1994) as well as

    challenges to objectivist theories of knowledge (Best and Kellner, 1991;

    Lyotard, 1984). These themes are the problematic status of lay actors

    biographical knowledge and how that problematic status impacts upon the

    research process.

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    (Re)presenting a life: the problematic status of biographicalknowledge

    A significant proportion (87% in a recent review, Baxter and Eyles, 1997) of

    qualitative research utilizes some form of interview, whether structured,semi-structured or unstructured. According to the research topic, particular

    disciplinary constraints and the personal attitudes of the researcher

    (Robinson, 1994: 217), interviews may be aimed at a variety of ends in terms

    of the accounts generated from them: from ostensibly objective reports of

    events to intentionally highly subjective accounts of autobiography.

    Whatever the specific aims of any particular process of interviewing,

    however, it has become increasingly recognized that interviews can generally

    provide multiple points of access into the processes bound up with the

    production and reproduction of social relations (Herod, 1993). Moreover,

    and associatively, when carefully set up and sensitively interpreted3 they can,in principle, provide opportunities for respondents to articulate their own

    experiences in their own voice that is, they can relatively empower those

    being researched (Bourdieu, 1999a; Hale, 1991; Miles and Crush, 1993; Pels

    and Nencel, 1991).

    Accordingly, the increasing use of interviews (both structured and semi-

    structured) in the social sciences has been accompanied by recent calls to

    take advantage of this opportunity to listen to the plurality of voices that

    occupy different spaces (e.g. Janesick, 1994; Philo, 1992; Valentine, 1993).

    Researchers will then, it is argued, be better informed in speaking about,

    for example (and highly pertinent in the context of the authors research),how actors become included or excluded from particular networks of

    power, or from formal and informal arenas of decision-making and

    representation. Further, researchers will be encouraged to recognize how

    social spaces cannot be reduced to or conceptualized as homogenous arenas,

    but are bound up with multiple and sometimes conflicting uses and

    interpretations that are interconnected with questions of meaning, power

    and authority.

    Such attitudes and approaches attribute and rightly so a high degree of

    veracity to the accounts of lay actors. At the same time, however, it has to be

    accepted that some of this confidence in the high status of such accounts

    may be misplaced. As a starting point as illustrated above, and as many

    other researchers have discovered (Crapanzano, 1980; Evans-Pritchard, 1940;

    Kuper, 1961; Robinson, 1994; Stoller, 1986) quite simply, interviewees

    may lie, telling the researcher only part of the truth or nothing like the

    truth. They may lie for many reasons (just as anyone does): because they

    wish to conceal the existence of particular mechanisms and institutions (in

    order to protect them) (cf. Thomas, 1993); because they do not think it is any

    business of the researcher to be asking a particular question but do not wish

    to directly tell her or him so; because they are getting close to an

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    embarrassing or painful issue and they do not want to be reminded of it

    (Anderson and Jack, 1991); and so on.4

    Thus, in an interview and in an interview transcript, more often than not

    the researcher is faced by what Goffman (1971) calls the actors frontstage

    presentation. That is, she or he is being given the identity, the persona, whicha particular respondent is presenting or staging for conduct in this particular

    timespace (pp. 92122). What the researcher rarely gets a chance to see is

    the backstage of this frontstage; all the work, the strategies and the

    negotiations that have gone on out of their sight and hearing in order to

    manage that frontstage presentation (cf. Giddens, 1984; Ward and Jones,

    1999; Woods, 1998). Therefore, quite simply, the researcher cannot get to

    see certain activities and events, and associatively may not become aware of

    certain other actors, that might be critical in terms of the outcomes they

    witness on the ground. In the context of the authors research, for example, it

    is highly likely that a great many of the actors associations, both past andpresent, will remain out of sight, with the result that any interpretation of

    what is going on will be based on highly partial data.

    This raises a quandary. The researcher wishes to respect the voices of lay

    actors; but, at the same time, she or he risks using data that are in some

    senses unreliable. In terms of a Critical or Transcendental Realism an

    ontological assumption that certain social processes operate to some extent

    independent of their recognition (cf. Bhaskar, 1978)5 such qualitative data

    sometimes just do fail to deliver the goods.

    There are, of course, established methods for avoiding the pitfalls of

    respondents unreliability it would be a nave or desperate researcher whoaccepted one persons account as the definitive definition of a situation. The

    most common, and probably most reliable, method of ensuring that reality is

    (re)constructed with some correspondence to what actually took place is

    triangulation. Here, where possible, multiple accounts, and perhaps multiple

    types of data and methods of data collection, are used to either corroborate

    or refute particular findings (see Baxter and Eyles, 1997: 506, 514).

    Such attempts to establish the social reality of processes and events, in

    terms of actual, concrete, timespace intersections and co-presences are, and

    should remain, a vital and an integral part of the researchers work. At

    the same time, however, the problem of apparent lying overlaps with

    another problem: that of respondents apparent unawareness of particular

    aspects of their social world(s) aspects that the researcher may well

    consider to be of prime importance in defining just what is going on at a

    particular site. In turn, this problem of ignorance is part of a far larger

    problematic: the epistemological status (or lack of it) awarded by researchers

    to biographical knowledge.

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    Partial truths: the problem of ignorance

    The administration of interviews and subsequent interpretation of interview

    transcripts is often highly frustrating. The outcome of, for example, an hour-

    long interview and seven hours laborious transcription of that interview is,frequently, an account miserably bereft of the concrete, nitty-gritty nuggets

    of information that would make the researchers life easy. Interviewees are

    fond of alluding to events and processes that could prove to be important in

    terms of the context of the research, but even when pressed will not or

    cannot provide detailed specificities. Or, they fail to mention, or display

    apparent utter lack of knowledge about, an issue or a domain that is

    prominent in the researchers mind as absolutely essential to what is going

    on. On other occasions, interviewees make allegations concerning

    themselves and/or others that turn out to be entirely contradictory to what

    appears to have actually taken place. Or, and this is perhaps the mostcommon scenario, information is provided that the researcher has no means

    of corroborating or refuting (e.g. through triangulation). It would be cynical

    and misleading, however, to assume that on all, or even most, occasions

    interviewees actually lie that is, deliberately attempt to mislead the

    researcher although there are numerous examples of where this has been

    the case (see the extract quoted previously).

    Rather, on one level, actors researchers included may be entirely

    unaware of the operation of particular social processes, even ones that are

    highly pertinent to their own life strategies. On another level, they may be

    enabled and constrained by mechanisms and institutions that they verymuch take for granted, and therefore do not see as a matter for inclusion in

    an interview. On another level, they may be partially (and perhaps uneasily)

    aware of certain influences in their life, in a variety of domains, but are

    unwilling or unable to articulate them to the researcher. At the same time,

    while actors are aware of what they do and why they do it, they may very

    well be unaware of some of the consequences of their actions that is, they

    know what they do and why they do it, but they may well not know what

    what they do does (Foucault, 1981: 95; Brown and Capdevila, 1999). That

    is, as an increasing number of researchers emphasize, accounts are always

    partial truths (Clifford, 1986).

    The problems of remembering and forgetting

    Further, actors may have forgotten something that took place. Respondents

    are not conveniently fitted with the biological equivalent of a write-once CD-

    ROM that enables them to dispense portions of memory at will and in specific

    detail. Both neurological and psychological processes mean that memory of

    many events and experiences, particularly if they are not considered to be

    particularly salient, decays with time (cf. Foddy, 1993: 90100). Moreover,

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    the very processes of remembering and recalling are highly complex in them-

    selves. Individuals rarely remember, store and recall information and life-events

    in the form of a text which remains inert and unchanged. Rather, memory is

    a living field, the form and content of which exhibit a continual and mutually

    informing dynamic (or process of structuration) both internally and in theirrelations to ongoing engagements in social worlds (cf. Fentress and Wickham,

    1992). Thus, remembering is more akin to a state of mindthan a mechanical

    trawl through an archive by an independently conscious I (Rorty, 1980).

    Accordingly, memory cannot be thought of as providing anything like

    complete and accurate accounts of events and processes.

    Even more troubling, the distinction between deliberate (i.e. intended to be

    misleading) lies and the act of creative, retrospective self-invention may not

    be at all distinct. The author of an autobiography subtitled A Memoir With

    Lies (Slater, 2000) recounts her adolescent experiences of epilepsy. Frequent

    fits resulted in multiple gaps in her memory, leaving her sense of life-storypunctuated by discontinuities. In order to overcome this sense of

    incompleteness, she invented happenings to fill the gaps and, out of

    ingrained habit, continued to do so even after neuro-surgery cured her

    epilepsy. Thus, her autobiography has been constructed in the same way she

    filled her memory lapses with lies (endcover). More radically, and

    provocatively, Slater suggests that everyone to a greater or lesser extent

    (re)constructs their life in this way that everyone has gaps in their life, or

    episodes which they wish to forget, or reconstruct in terms favourable to

    them so that (auto)biography is replete with must-have-beens, could-have-

    beens, might-as-well-have-beens, should-have-beens, and consequently isalways a dynamic hybrid of fact and fiction. (For other exemplars of

    unreliable memoirs, see Golden, 1998 and Hotchner, 1993.)

    Problematizing biographical knowledge

    So, given this problematization, what status is the researcher to attribute to

    biographical knowledge? Does it prove that the quantifiers were right all

    along: that qualitative research is another word for lazy scholarship, and that

    mathematics is the only true metaphysics? Or, perhaps even worse, does the

    spectre of structuralistdeterminist Marxism return (if it ever went away), to

    whisper in the researchers ear, false consciousness, false consciousness . . .;

    that power imposes itself on the vast majority . . . via a process that escapes

    them (Althusser, 1972: 233).

    The problem of ignorance is thus part of a far larger question that

    fundamentally problematizes the status (or lack of it) that researchers

    attribute (and feel able to attribute) to biographical knowledge. This,

    inescapably, then problematizes the status that researchers award to the

    subjects of their research, and therefore challenges the primacy increasingly

    accorded to them in the construction of research methodology. It has been

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    pragmatic knowledges (cf. Bourdieu, 1977, 1999a; Giddens, 1979, 1984;

    Rorty, 1980, 1998); they are contingent ways of interpreting the world,

    constructed and re-constructed through multiple and ongoing timespace

    specific encounters with other (single and collective) actors and bodies of

    knowledge.It is vital, however, that such an assessment in no way romanticizes or

    fetishizes biographical knowledges, by representing them as quaint folk, or

    native, or local narratives that should be afforded a priori empirical, moral

    and epistemological primacy. Rather, it should represent an important,

    necessary step towards recognizing that the problematic status of

    biographical knowledge is more than just a technical problem to be overcome

    and this is the case for almost all types of social research, not only

    anthropological attempts to produce thick descriptions of local cultures.

    Fuller consideration of it can be an integral part of considering the

    motivations and capacities of actors, and the outcomes that emerge fromparticular circumstances and intersections of those actors. Consequently,

    this consideration should also become an integral part of evaluating not only

    research methodology, but also the theories of the social world (bound up

    with ontology and epistemology) that should both inform and be informed by

    that methodology.

    Consideration of biographical knowledge involves, amongst other things,

    interpreting specific statements against the context of the whole of an actors

    account(s). It requires understanding how it is that certain knowledges attain

    truth value become a matter of relatively uncritical belief and are relied on

    to inform action through unpacking and associatively reconstructing,however tentatively and partially, the process of their formation over and

    through time and space. In essence, it requires thorough consideration of, or

    at the very least being able to bear in mind, what episodes and situations in

    the world cause an agent to prefer that one [belief] rather than another be

    true (Davidson, 1990: 322).

    Fuller consideration of the contingencies of the production and

    articulation of biographical knowledge can therefore be a means to exploring

    concretely how highly differential knowledges are produced and reproduced

    through local and wider social processes; and how those knowledge

    differentials can then have political outcomes in terms of individuals

    differential abilities to engage with the institutionalized forms of power in

    both local and wider contexts.6 Further, it can be a means to more

    thoroughly yet also more critically embracing qualitative research methods,

    as the remainder of this article outlines.

    Methodological considerations

    Despite the claim laid at the beginning of this article to a practically

    orientated discussion of some of the problems with biographical knowledge,

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    the preceding section has ended up with a prescription that falls little short of

    a utopian vision for social research. In methodological practice it will rarely

    be possible (or desirable) for the researcher to adhere faithfully to all its tenets,

    and this article in no way attempts to hold up its assertions as a benchmark

    against which concrete research should be measured. Rather, it has raised,then deliberately and inescapably left unanswered and open, a number of

    questions, in an attempt to provoke thought and debate. In this sense, it is a

    partial, contingent and contestable account just like those of the actors it


    However, out of the issues raised, two methodological principles can be

    drawn out and unequivocally privileged. First, that obtaining an adequate

    understanding of any of the processes bound up with the articulation and

    consequences of power in a locale involves affording adequate recognition

    of the importance of actors accounts. Social processes are dependent on

    the practices and interpretations of concrete individuals, and therefore theaccounts they give of themselves and others should heavily inform the

    researchers account of those processes.

    Second, and more contentiously, that the affording of this recognition is

    necessary but insufficient to obtaining that understanding. Respondents

    accounts are valid perspectives on the positionality and intentions of their

    authors and the self-witnessed outcomes of their actions. However, they

    cannot, alone, fully inform any adequate conceptualization (i.e. theoretical

    understanding) of the processes bound up with the constitution and re-

    constitution of social life. Respondents accounts are just that: accounts.

    They are knowledges generated in, partially constituting and constituted by,particular contexts those contexts being the power/knowledge complexes of

    different and multiple timespaces. At the same time, they are not nave

    attempts to describe the world, but are actively constructed through the

    negotiation between researcher and respondent in the attempt to manage a

    particular social identity.

    Utilizing biographical knowledges in concrete research

    An account can thus be utilized in (very broadly) two ways. First, as a mode

    of access to the lived experience of the actor the meaningfulness of which

    that actor has privileged access to and understanding of. This lived experience

    is critical to the researcher being able to at least partially understand the

    personal understandings and meanings that actors generate in their

    engagements with particular worlds; and in turn assess how those meanings

    and understandings impact upon those engagements.

    Second, as an account that partially informs and is informed by, through its

    positioning in multiple networks of agents (cf. Haraway, 1997) and wider,

    fuller empirical and theoretical frames of reference (Bourdieu, 1999b:

    12863). This then critically foregrounds the relational aspect of social

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    processes: that they are bound up with actors associations and intersections

    with manifold social actors, institutions and bodies of knowledge.

    In short, emphasis is placed on the emergence through the formulation of

    methodology and the research process as the whole of an intersubjectively

    produced final account: an account which ensures that the others voice isheard alongside that of the researcher (Baxter and Eyles, 1997: 510), but

    that does not afford empirical, moral or ontological primacy to either voice

    over the other (Rorty, 1991: 200).

    Interpretation and rigour in qualitative research

    There is an ongoing dispute in the philosophy of the social sciences a

    dispute which periodically breaks out into fully fledged intellectual warfare

    over the relative merits of quantitative and qualitative research methods. This

    debate goes well beyond the surface question of whether numbers meanmore than words. It is a debate, fundamentally, over the differing legitimacies

    of different intellectual world views of differing opinions as to how

    researchers can most accurately know the social world.

    It could be argued that this debate is unimportant, since the principle of

    using qualitative methods in social research is now relatively comfortably

    established, at least in the UK academic context. This would, however, be a

    politically dangerous argument. Although in academia the texts produced

    utilizing such methods may sit largely unchallenged alongside and

    sometimes complementing texts relying on numerical analyses, in the

    harsh world of political decision-making it is all too evident that it isnumerical knowledge which holds dominance (Boyle, 2001). In terms of its

    consumption by non-academics (journalists being a notable case in point),

    knowledge that cannot be summarized in statistical form, or at least neatly

    categorized and slotted into pre-defined boxes, is the poor relation. Critically,

    this discursive disparity is more than merely academic; it reflects a

    politically affective favouring of one world-view over another (cf. Gilligan,

    1998; Rorty, 1998). Which of those worlds is made more discursively real

    has considerable implications for public policy across a range of fields.

    This brings to the fore an issue that has been immanent in the discussion in

    the bulk of this article: that of rigour or its apparent lack in qualitative

    analysis. It is frequently made to appear (and this is perhaps the established

    and popular view amongst those outside looking in on the social sciences)

    that qualitative research is soft analysis, at best producing illustrations of

    issues already recognized, defined and solved through enumeration,

    tabulation and calculation, at worst serving to cloud and draw attention from

    those same issues. Problematizing biographical knowledge could be seen as

    further proof of this status as the poor relation. Is this, after all, the case? In

    the final instance, is qualitative research no more than the easy alternative

    for those who cannot manage good, hard statistics?

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    The immediate, simple answer must be a resounding no. Recognizing that

    knowledge is both personally and socially constructed, and therefore bound

    up with issues of contingency, uncertainty, ideology, discourse and

    legitimation, makes qualitative interpretation anything but the soft option.

    On the contrary, it means that the qualitative interpretation of data, in manyways, can be more demanding than the quantitative interpretation of data,

    since it is all the more critical that researchers are thorough, rigorous and

    honest in their interpretation of these data. The inherent fuzziness of much

    data derived from semi-structured or unstructured interviews, for example,

    should not be used as an excuse for lack of rigour in interrogating these data.

    That was the simple answer. But the assertion that qualitative

    interpretation is, or should be, rigorous requires some unpacking and

    elaboration if it is to more than superficially defend such academic labour

    whilst accepting the discursive ground (positivistic science) that rigour is

    usually invoked to defend. The notion of rigour should not be automaticallyidentified and allied with only those interpretative strategies that seek to

    produce knowledge constituted primarily in terms of causeeffect

    explanatory relations rather than those that are more concerned with

    understanding how people think about and experience their lives (cf. Cloke et

    al., forthcoming). While rigour can be invoked in order to obliterate difference

    and ambiguity, and to force Other knowledges into rigid conceptual

    frameworks and modes of understanding, it can also, alternatively, be a

    measure of the reflexivity and sensitivity with which the contextualized and

    partial knowledges (Staeheli and Lawson, 1995: 329) produced by both

    researcher and researched are connected in the generation of academic texts.Rigour in this scenario would eschew the idea of there being only one

    legitimate reading of biographical (and other) knowledges, and favour

    interpretative strategies that made space for the multiple stories out of which

    any account is woven.

    Similarly, the hard/soft dualism, deliberately problematized (see earlier) by

    scare quotes, can be, and often is, read as a highly gendered construct.

    Hardness is taken to correspond to a masculinist desire to enter (penetrate)

    the world in order to find its Truth (Rorty, 2000: 25) whilst softness

    corresponds to a feminine sensitivity to and tolerance of the multiple truths,

    subtleties and ambiguities of this same world (Atack, 1998: 35). But this is

    only one, limited, reading. Invoking such a dualism does not necessarily give

    privilege to hard over soft as, unfortunately, much modern science does.7

    Hardness can be associated with a phallagocentric idea of thrusting strength;

    but it can also mean brittleness, inflexibility, stasis and deadness. Conversely,

    while softness might be seen by some as weakness, it can also be read as

    malleability, flexibility, suppleness and fluidity: as resistance to being

    congealed, and always having the potential to flow in unexpected directions.8

    Thus, the uncertainties and ambiguities of biographical knowledge are

    not problems to be solved according to benchmarks set out by positivist

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    science. Rather, they are both difficulties to be creatively coped with and,

    strengths to be exploited, according to what ends the researcher hopes to use

    that knowledge.

    ConclusionIn discussing the problematic status of biographical knowledge, this article

    has sought, by encompassing many disciplines of social research, to

    contribute to and extend the ongoing debate over the connections between

    theories of knowledge, the constitution of the social world and empirical

    research into that world. In particular, it has attempted to draw out and make

    more explicit some of the tensions between methodology, epistemology and

    ontology, and to suggest how those tensions might be fruitfully negotiated.

    In doing so, it has echoed the emphasis of the majority of the burgeoning

    literature on qualitative research: that a thorough but also critical embrace ofthe idea and practice of qualitative research necessitates recognition of the

    contingency and uncertainty of the social world. Simultaneously, however,

    rather than calling for a wholesale disavowal of established theoretical

    conceptual orientations in the encounter with the Other, it has in some ways

    (re)asserted the importance of researcher authority over the (re)presentation

    of the texts resulting from social research. That is to say, although

    interpretative strategies need to be open so that fruitful avenues of enquiry

    are not prematurely foreclosed and in order to make space for the

    unexpected, they also need to operate a degree of closure.

    While the intersubjective nature of social research involves or shouldinvolve the researcher renegotiating their own position(s) in terms of how

    they think about the social world, ultimately they can still only ever interpret

    that world by occupying, and exercising, the power stemming from a

    particular position, and through their own (embodied) subjectivity, which

    includes all the unquestioned assumptions that necessarily entails (Blunt and

    Rose, 1994: 58). To research at all is to place and create order(s) on the

    world. It is never a question of whether or not to have order; the question is

    which order to choose.9

    But the idea of order does not have to place the researcher in the mould of

    the stereotyped, 19th-century, modernist social scientist eager to impose a

    discipline on an untamed world in order to make it tame, productive and

    amenable to subsequent re-ordering. Rather, operating around what might

    be called a post-modernist idea of order, it is possible to envision researchers

    as modest witnesses and participants (cf. Haraway, 1997), critically aware of

    and passionately seeking to understand both their and others positionings

    (Janesick, 1994). From this basis, they would seek to create a plurality of

    knowledges: knowledges that complement, contradict and seek to undermine

    one another, or come together in unexpected ways to create new events and

    modes of understanding. It is from such encounters between researcher and

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    data and, before this, between researcher and researched that the most

    critical and exciting accounts of social life can emerge.

    N O T E S

    1. This is not, of course, to suggest that immersion-type fieldwork is anything likean easy or unproblematic process in terms of access or interviewee dissimulation(see Crang, 1994; Ostrander, 1993; Robinson, 1994; Rose, 1997; Stoller, 1986).

    2. For example: Since leaving the parish council, have you remained active orbecome newly involved in other areas of village life? Prompt: Could you give meany details?

    3. What constitutes sensitivity is highly problematic in itself (cf. Gilligan, 1998),and it is recognized that the gathering and interpretation of accounts is bound upwith questions of researcher authority, the construction of interview schedules,ideology and academic conventions that are largely passed over here (see

    especially Foddy, 1993; Herod, 1993; McDowell, 1988; 1992; Robinson, 1994).4. The issue of lying is closely allied to the matter ofsilence. Silences within accounts

    may, as Hale (1991) points out, be bound up with and thus indicate self-subjugation; but they may also be part of an exercise of power: a means ofdenying the researcher access to certain aspects of social relations or particularknowledge. More complexly, self-subjugation and the exercise of power may co-exist: silence is then a way of keeping safe the perhaps minimal and preciousagency a person experiences (cf. Spivak, 1990: 19).

    5. This is a crude glossing of the many arguments contained within the field ofCritical or Transcendental realism a field which is both externally contested (i.e.

    by other ontologies) and internally conflict-ridden (cf. Sayer, 1992). Moreover,there are many problems with Critical Realism, such as its account(s) of languageand languages relation to the world. It can, however, serve as a useful peg on

    which to hang research, insofar as it assumes that the social world is notreducible to what can be said about it.

    6. At the same time, it should be made clear that none of the discussion above isintended to suggest that interrogation of the wider-scale and/or more politicallyintended circumstances of the formulation of different discourses (cf. Fairclough,1989; Foucault, 1972) should become any less of a priority in social research.

    7. For a prime historical example, see Nagel (1961) and, for a critique of this

    discourse, Haraway (1989).8. At the same time, as McDowell (1988) and Herod (1993) note, the belief that

    certain research methodologies are intrinsically and inevitably gendered can bemisleading and unhelpful in itself. Relatedly, it is also interesting, and a pointworthy of further study, that industrial modernity is now associated withhardness and inflexibility, while post-industrial modernity, or post-modernity, hasbecome associated with metaphors of flexibility and fluidity (cf. Bauman, 2000).

    9. Contrary to popular belief, even notions of chaos and complexity nowfashionable in contemporary natural science are shot through with deepontological notions of an underlying, generative order (see Kauffman, 1995).

    A C K N O W L E D G E M E N T S

    This article draws on material from a research project into power, identity and social

    change in rural spaces funded by the ESRC, award no. R00429834416. I am very

    grateful to Bill Edwards, Mike Woods, Deborah Dixon, Mark Goodwin, Verity Jones,

    Helen Twidle and two anonymous referees for helpful comments and suggestions.

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    G R AH AM G AR DN E R is a postgraduate research student in the Institute of Geographyand Earth Sciences, University of Wales, Aberystwyth. His research interests are

    power, identity and social change in contemporary rural spaces, and the methodology

    and philosophy of the social sciences, and he is currently completing his PhD on these


    Address: Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences, University of Wales, Aberystwyth

    SY23 3DB, UK. [email: [email protected]]

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