Just after the proclamation of a ‘hard Brexit’, I went off to the European Congress of Qualitative Inquiry in Edinburgh. Consider the irony in this travel. Traversing the boundaries of what already is a non-Schengen zone, I take with me (besides my passport for the border control) a USB stick with a presentation on boundary objects as a methodological approach. These are, nevertheless, not the last boundaries I will engage with.
Specifically, this congress itself is a beautiful example of a boundary. A boundary between science, social work, therapy, and art. A boundary where different disciplinary, textual, visual and bodily languages come together and where there is a rich mix of inductive and deductive research, post-human and humanistic inspired work, arts-based approaches and traditional text-based presentations. Moreover, on this boundary, nobody seems to be excluded. How does such a blurry boundary operate?
Boundary as a shared space
As theorized by Susan Leigh Star (Star, 2010; Star & Griesemer, 1989), a boundary constitutes a shared space. A shared space where differences meet, where different practices connect and mediate, without necessarily finding agreement. In a congress, the keynote is a very particular example of this kind of shared space. The keynote denotes the moment in the congress schedule in which all parallel sessions are paused, and in which a communal, congress overarching session is planned. It becomes the central input all attendees can refer to, can talk about with each other.
The shared space of this congress is specifically dedicated to feminist, post-human, arts-based research. The first keynote addressing embodiment and bodily practices, the second an actual performance and the third a dialogue. Although I do not consider myself as a conservative person, I was initially a bit skeptic on the idea of a performance rather than a speech as a keynote. However, I found that there was something about it that worked: instead of forming a silent immobile audience ready with their notebooks and staring at the text in the powerpoint, we as attendees were drawn into a story in which we were not only listening and watching, we were invited to reflect and participate ourselves. We were totally present; without any distraction on mind wandering. The time after the performance therewith created a moment to reflect post hoc. It encouraged us to discuss what the performance showed us, and didn’t show us. These were different from the discussions we had on the speeches, as they were not focused on the accuracy of the statement, but on the comprehensiveness of the image that was created.
Boundaries as a marker of difference
Besides the keynotes, the congress was traditionally organized around parallel sessions. These session enable, to some extent, to make a selection on what kinds of research you wish to see. My experience of the congress was therefore totally different from those of my colleagues who attended other sessions. While this established boundaries as differences between our experiences, it also and again created room for a shared space to discuss. Together, we talked about a wide variety of presentations: there were dances, bodily analyses, poems, songs, videos… some more intelligible than others. Here, the boundary between science and art and therapy (!) became blurry. Some of the presentations were clearly based on research, as they followed or explained a thoughtful methodology. Yet, others merely relied on the provoking power of arts without explain the steps taken to formulate the arguments, and even others did not go beyond the emotional and highly personal character of therapy. The question is: is this kind of diversity bad? Do we really need to distinguish research from other modes of practice? Although I do not claim to have the answer, this observation taps into the specificity of research and the forms of knowledge that it can and should produce (Latour, 2013).
Boundary towards critique
Not only is a boundary something shared, something that marks difference: it is something that includes and excludes. It opens up for certain ideas, things, people, while closing off for others. As this congress was very friendly, very open to difference, it was initially hard to identify where its closures were. However, they soon appeared in moments of silence. That is, while each session was concluded with an opportunity for questions and discussions, these were more often than what I am used to filled with an awkward silence. Otherwise, audiences applauded the bravery the presenters for taking up their experimental approaches, for the refreshing nature of the new insights, the engagement with the topic but… there was little room for critique. Barely did I hear suggestions for improvement, a challenging statement or even a question for clarification. This environment created for itself an impediment towards critical discussions. Even now, writing this blogpost, I feel a small knot in my stomach. Is this not too much of a partial, negative observation? Am I allowed to formulate this critique? I don’t know. But I invite anyone to question or criticize it.
Latour, B. (2013). Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns. Harvard University Press.
Star, S. L. (2010). This is not a boundary object: Reflections on the origin of a concept. Science Technology and Human Values, 35(5), 601–617. https://doi.org/10.1177/0162243910377624
Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. R. (1989). Institutional Ecology, “Translations” and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19, 387–420. https://doi.org/10.1177/030631289019003001
About the author
I am a PhD student in her late twenties, equally appointed at KU Leuven in the Methodologies of Educational Sciences Research Group. My research is focused on developing a method(ology) to analyse educational websites, specifically MOOC platforms or other forms of open education, in a qualitative manner. I appreciate the period of the PhD research to scrutinize educational, technological as well as academic and social aspects of Iife. As I have a (overly) wandering mind, I am happy to share a room and ideas with some great colleagues and now, given this initiative, with a wider (blog) audience as well.