Receipt: November 28, 2022
Acceptance: January 17, 2023
This text enters into dialogue with the article "Essays on the abyss: politics of the gaze, violence, technopolitics" by Rossana Reguillo, in which the author poses the question of methodological imagination and recounts her own work in the production of knowledge over the years. From the reading, I propose a reflection on the ways in which we do social research, in three axes: the positioning we build as researchers, the practices of social research, to finally reach the theoretical and methodological imagination.
the methodological imagination at the edge: notes about the production of knowledge
This text enters into dialogue with the article "Essays on the abyss: Politics of gaze, violence, technopolitics" by Rossana Reguillo, in which the author plants the question using methodological imagination and recounts her own work on production of knowledge over the years. Based on the reading, I propose a reflection about the ways we do social research, using three axes: the position- ing we build as researchers, social research practices, and finally arriving at theo- retical and methodological imagination.
Keywords: production of knowledge, research positioning, scientific practice, methodological imagination, theoretical imagination.
Social research, understood as a series of knowledge production practices that we carry out in a specific socio-historical context, is -or should be- in permanent transformation. Therefore, it is worth questioning a series of assumptions about scientific work, as has been done for a long time by the sociology of knowledge and the philosophy of science. In this sense, but on another scale, it is always a good exercise to account for what we do, how and why we do it.
Rossana Reguillo's article "Essays on the abyss: politics of the gaze, violence, technopolitics" does just that. The researcher presents an account of her own work of knowledge production over the years, in which she distinguishes three key dimensions: 1) the analysis of images and regimes of visibility; 2) the analysis of violence and the atrocious; 3) the analysis of networks from technopolitics. All this review comes from an interrogation on the methodological imagination that the author makes from a reflection on the transformations of the contemporary scene and "the impacts of these transformations on our ways of thinking and approaching the critical work in the production of knowledge about the world" (Reguillo, 2023: 6).
To enter into dialogue with the article, I propose a reflection on the ways in which we do social research, based on three axes: the positioning we construct as researchers, the practices of social research and, finally, the theoretical and methodological imagination. I will make use of three fragments of artistic works -a scene from a film, a part of a poem and a line from a series- that help us to think from another perspective.
Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet, wrote "Children of the Time." I reprint an excerpt from the poem below:
We are children of the times,
the time is political.
All your, our, yours
daily business, nightly business
are political issues.
Whether you want it or not,
your genes have a political future,
your skin has a political hue,
your eyes a political aspect.
What you say, resonates,
what you keep silent, has a meaning
of all forms, political.
As a child of an era, she grew up between two wars and lived through the great transformations of the 20th century, xxthe poet had a lot of material. This poem serves to bring home the need to recognize that our positioning as researchers is constructed. Some things we do not choose - for example, where we were born, what events are occurring in the world - and others we do - such as the perspectives for approaching certain objects and the decisions we make about ethical issues. Many of us grew up with the images that circulated in school, of the scientist as a neutral and untainted being, who does his or her work objectively, completely oblivious to outside interests. However, people investigate some things and not others, in one way and not another. We see social reality through lenses that have ontological, epistemological, theoretical, methodological and ethical layers. Thus, our scientific practices depend on a series of decisions and the methods we employ are never neutral (Anderson, Adey, & Bevan, 2010; Becker, 1967; Collignon, 2019; Corlett & Mavin, 2018).
More than 50 years ago, Howard Becker (1967), in a presidential address at the opening of a conference of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, put this issue on the table:
To have values or not to have values: the question is always with us. When sociologists undertake to study problems that have relevance to the world we live in, they had themselves caught in a crossfire. Some urge them not to take sides, to be neutral and do research that is technically correct and value free. Others tell them their work is shallow and useless if it does not express a deep commitment to a value position (Becker, 1967: 239).
In this line, the author asks which side we are on. The image, to a certain extent classic of the researcher, is the first. The path that Becker takes, that others of us take and that Reguillo takes, is the second. She expresses it explicitly in her article. Based on Critchley, who in turn follows Levinas, she emphasizes the ethical demand and the moment of asymmetry, about which she says the following:
This asymmetry has been present in my work for many years, always challenged by "the infinite demand of the face of the other", an ethical and academic, social and aesthetic position, which leads me to become infinitely responsible for our pains and our searches (Reguillo, 2023: 31-32).
This positioning has to do with ethnography, from which it is not assumed that one is outside the reality being analyzed, but inside. There are always subjects in ethnography and ethnographers usually take charge of what they observe, describe, analyze and produce.
In terms of positioning as researchers, it is always worthwhile to make explicit the position from which one starts and the implications this has on the methodological decisions, the phases of the research work and, above all, on the relationship with the participants. So far it seems that decisions are individual, but it is important to consider organizational elements -such as the position in the university or research center, the support one has there, the degree of autonomy one has to decide from which topics to address to which work team one has- and contextual -such as the socio-political conditions of the city, the country and the world; and the national scientific policy-.
Rossana Reguillo's work can be read in the key of "daughter of a political epoch", not only because she has been affected by conjunctures, but because she has gone after them: from the explosions in Guadalajara in 1992 to the Atocha bombings, the emergence of Occupy Wall Street in the United States and of #YoSoy132 and Ayotzinapa in Mexico, as well as the growth of organized crime in Mexico (Reguillo, 2022, 2023; Rodríguez-Milhomens, 2008). Pursuing events, in the logic of the anthropology of the event, is an ethical and political decision with methodological implications.
In Jack Reacher1 (McQuarrie, 2012), the ex-military man of the same name and the lawyer Helen Rodin -characters played by Tom Cruise and Rosamund Pike- collaborate in the defense of James Barr, another ex-military man -played by Joseph Sikora- accused of multihomicide. At first, neither of them seems to believe in the subject's innocence. Even Jack asks Helen to meet the victims' families and, with them, their stories. When she has come to grips with knowing the pain of the losses and has finished convincing herself of James' guilt - which she had taken for granted almost from the beginning, in the face of almost obvious evidence - Jack asks her what she is not seeing. As he reviews all the data, inconsistencies begin to surface and what seemed obvious, was a millimetrically planned operation.
Let this scene serve to think about the ways in which we do research, specifically in our social research practices. Personally, I am very annoyed by manuals and research classes that are conducted in a linear fashion, giving the impression that this is the only possible route and that everything must be a link to be added to the previous one. However, social reality -whatever is investigated- is often harsher, more interesting and surprising than any research plan has foreseen. In this sense, Restrepo (2018) points out that the capacity for wonder is one of the basic skills or abilities of ethnographers, but we can broaden the reflection and place it as a key element for anyone doing research of any kind.
When opening the article we are commenting here, Rossana Reguillo (2023) points out:
I am interested in bringing to the center of the discussion the question of methodological imagination, an expression with which I try to illuminate an often opaque fringe in academic work and that - it seems to me - remains tied to a set of canons, procedures and modes that today crash against a reality that is not at all that which saw the emergence of ethnography or participant observation, the interview or the survey to cite some methods that have been central in the development of the social sciences (Reguillo, 2023: 6).
It is a very strong critique of research practices, in which there seem to be no methods and techniques other than the conventional ones, which we learned in those linear manuals and which are still relevant for many things, but which are not the only possibilities and which do not close the door to transformation and the creation of new forms.
The author speaks of a "Thundercats methodology":
That old cartoon where Lion O, the lord of the ThunderCats, before becoming the great warrior, raised a sword and shouted: "Sword of omens, let me see beyond the obvious". The methodology of the ThunderCats is a device that permanently constructs estrangement. But you have to build it, you have to maintain it, it is a muscle that if you untrain it, it loosens (Rodríguez-Milhomens, 2008: 16).
Thus, methodological imagination is vital in the face of emerging or transforming objects, such as the realities we have seen in the pandemic, which had already been discussed by Rossana Reguillo (Diffusion, "The Pandemic") and Rossana Reguillo (Diffusion, "The Pandemic" amic, 2020a), Edgar Gómez Cruz and Emiliano Treré (Difusión amic, 2020b) and which has also been a challenge for other researchers (Flores-Márquez and González Reyes, 2021).
At the beginning of the first episode of The Rings of Power (McKay and Payne, 2022), the voice in off of Galadriel - played by Morfydd Clark - remembers her childhood and, in it, her brother Finrod, when everything was beautiful: "We had no word for death" she says. She then tells how the horror came with Morgoth and the elves had to leave Valinor, their home. "We learned many words for death", she points out. Beyond the transition from tranquility to violence and horror, there is one key issue: words. The elves didn't have a word for death, but the gruesome reality led them to learn and create not one, but several words for it.
Reguillo's work is full of new terms to understand the changes in a country convulsed by violence, such as Mexico. We can see a little of it in this article, "Ensayos sobre el abismo: políticas de la mirada, violencia, tecnopolítica", but also in the book Necromachine: when dying is not enough. We see this when she speaks of regimes of visibility and finds that in this game of the visible and the invisible there are disputes over the representation of reality, which translate into politics of the gaze; we also see this when she moves from the narcomachine to the necromachine and finds resistance in the counter-machine; or when the analysis of large volumes of digital data -and, rather, metadata- leads her to reencounter the grammars of horror, but also with the collective resistance of technopolitics (Reguillo, 2021, 2023).
This is where, from an ethnographic point of view, he explores different ways of approaching complexity, in the analysis of images and in the analysis of big data. Let's go first to big data. In recent years, we have seen a shift towards the analysis of digital data through sophisticated tracking, cleaning, systematization and visualization techniques. Contradictory as it may seem, here the ethnographic gaze and methodological imagination are key, on the one hand, to interrogate the data and, on the other hand, to see beyond the trends. This is evident in the text we are commenting on: "To ask the data for connections, the digital not as a special domain of reality, but as a modeler in the social production of meaning: the digital as space, as object, as practice" (Reguillo, 2023: 19).
However, one misses in this case a reflection on the ethical aspects of working with data and metadata. It is precisely from ethnographic and qualitative logic that there have been many criticisms of the use of data for research, because the same techniques that are used to conduct academic research, with a genuine interest in understanding digital expressions, are also used for less transparent purposes.
Let us now turn to images. In them there is an enormous potential for expression, but also in analysis, as various authors have posited (Becker, 2015; Bourdieu, 2003; Darley, 2000; Frizot, 2009).
Beyond images, art has been a key space to document, understand and interpret reality. Becker (2015) argues that, in theater, literature and photojournalism there are very clear efforts to analyze society, hence his book is called Para hablar de la sociedad… la sociología no basta. Mills (2000) states that this analytical work from art sometimes comes before science and emphasizes the value of the sociological imagination that artists develop. In this line, Reguillo states that "art and performance are capable of penetrating areas of experience that traditional journalistic or academic approaches cannot access" (Reguillo, 2023: 14).
These unconventional approaches -to say the least- allow us to find other places of enunciation and other logics of analysis, which coexist very well with ethnographic logic. According to Gómez Cruz, "ethnography in its most updated version is a method in which almost artistic processes, reflexive processes, processes to which we are not normally accustomed in the training in methods have to be central" (Difusión amic, 2020b). In this sense, together with the methodological imagination, Gómez Cruz adds (Difusión amic, 2020b), a kind of "conceptual and theoretical imagination" emerges -or we need it to emerge-, which is the translation of the findings into theory.
In the face of a collapsing reality that tests our capacity for wonder, methodological and theoretical imagination become fundamental elements in social research.
The article "Essays on the abyss: politics of the gaze, violence, technopolitics" is a dialogue on the logics of knowledge production in the work of Rossana Reguillo, based on a question about the methodological imagination. It is to open the research kitchen to account for the processes that the researcher follows and the logics behind the methodological decisions she has made. In this sense, it can be read as a methodological text that helps to think about the ways in which we produce knowledge. In the work we also see the traces of the theoretical imagination that Rossana Reguillo has been putting into play.
As a commentary on the article, in this text I have proposed three axes, which in turn translate into invitations. In the first place, the positioning that we construct as researchers is a reminder that no methodological decision is neutral, but that there are ethical and political stakes in scientific practices. It is also an invitation to make explicit from where, how and for what purpose we are producing knowledge. Secondly, we agree with the author in this critique of social research practices that stick to conventional forms, even when reality is exploding and demands much more committed and creative ways of approaching it. It is an invitation to question our practices. The last axis recovers and acknowledges Reguillo's effort to name horror, but also hope. This point serves to sustain the need to develop methodological and theoretical imagination in research.
The logic of a commentary is to maintain the dialogue, so these three axes are designed to continue talking in different spaces, because, although many publications are signed individually, in the previous process there are usually more people and ideas resonate when they are discussed. In that sense, this commentary is a bet for the collective.
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Dorismilda Flores-Márquez is a research professor in the School of Communication and Marketing at Universidad La Salle Bajío, and holds a PhD in Scientific-Social Studies from the Universidad La Salle Bajío. itesomember of the National System of Researchers of Conacyt at level i. President of the Mexican Association of Communication Researchers for the period 2021-2023, coordinator of the Internet Studies Seminar (Mexico) and co-coordinator of the Participatory Communication Research section (iamcr). She is the author of Imagining a better world: activists' public expression on the Internet (iteso2019) and co-coordinator, with Rodrigo Gonzalez Reyes, of Methodological imagination: coordinates, routes and stakes for the study of digital culture. (Tintable, 2021).