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academiaWhat do academic disciplines and institutions have to offer society on matters of concern to it? What tools does sociology have to reach an alerted, potentially-receptive, risk-focused public? The challenge with complex problems like risk is to be able to reach beyond academia to people in their everyday situations, and to support them to see and make relevant changes.

In the previous Theory Café Blog I drew on Ulrich Beck’s theoretical framework for the Global Risk Society. Beck’s perspective enables us to see how local development cannot be contextualised as being simply local. Localities everywhere are impacted on by a globally-interdependent, boundary-less, risk-impregnated wider world. Local development therefore needs to be conceptualised and implemented in ways that take account of this interdependence. However, because Beck’s analysis focuses on global risk rather than on any global opportunities, I shall begin again with his focus, before seeking to broaden it.

I then referred to both Harold Garfinkel’s local interactive, ethnomethodological method and to Bruno Latour’s all-encompassing Actor Network perspective. These approaches are more finely-grained than Beck’s. Latour’s approach is more comprehensive than Garfinkel’s in that it refers to networks that exist and penetrate everywhere, from the most universal, even cosmological, to the most local and personal levels. Garfinkel’s phenomenological and communicatively-based approach, on the other hand is more grounded, in that it is able to reflect and theorize meticulously on how people, reflexively, understand and discuss matters as they perceive, feel, and interact in local, face-to-face situations.

Paradoxically, while Beck has raised the issue of risk and reached a wide public, Latour’s and Garfinkel’s perspectives, which arguably can be made to do rather more to help clarify and address issues Beck raises, have not reached and engaged the public. For instance, Latour’s more finely-grained analysis and contextualization is able to recognize and track any or all aspects of Beck’s risk in minute detail. Garfinkel’s tools likewise can be brought to bear on the perception and responses, and possible responses to such risk by actors on the ground in their actual, local situations. However, Beck has been by far the most effective, as a sociological publicist, in reaching the public on issues of risk, as only a few sociologists have been able achieve on this or any issue.

An important question for sociology, or for that matter academia, is what do academic disciplines and institutions have to offer society on matters of concern to it? Equally important, does academia have any effective means of connecting and communicating directly with the public, apart from occasional successful books and articles by academics with flair, like Beck?

More specifically for sociology, what tools does it have to reach an alerted, potentially-receptive, risk-focused public? Perhaps the risk issue itself could be better dealt with if it was able to be contextualised and managed in a more holistic way, rather than simply as a problem of risk? Do Latour’s and Garfinkel’s approaches have what is needed?

The challenge with complex problems like risk is to be able to reach beyond academia to people in their everyday situations, and to support them to see and make major changes in their societal or local perceptions and practices. The problem is one of communication. In terms of theorists’ ability to communicate, approaches such as that of Latour and Garfinkel must be deemed to be too academic, too abstract in their concepts and too technical in their language. Beck has at least been able to reach more of the public and contribute to their understanding of environmental and other risk issues in some books and articles, though he has been able to offer little detail on “how to” go about making the needed changes.

The big question here is how to draw together globally and locally-focused approaches in ways make them accessible to people where they live, in their everyday lives in their localities. Such a “whole of locality” approach must also be inclusive of all local inhabitants as potential co-researchers. This is to enable a community to emerge around what all can see as their own needs and aspirations.

The theorist I wish to turn to as providing a crucial starting point lacking in the other theorists is Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur is a pre-eminent theorist of the creation and reading of narrative. His sociologically-informed account is grounded in the everyday and opens up how reading narratives can change the perception of the everyday, including the possibilities is contains.  Yes, this approach involves some leaps of imagination – “imagination” is a key word also strongly theorised by Ricoeur.

The first leap of imagination here is to think of Ricoeur’s narrative theory as able to provide the basis for a new, accessible social scientific methodology that enables people in localities to come together to co-construct their own, on-going developmental narratives.

This leap from everyday to narrative to theory and methodology need not be altogether surprising. Everyone has to live somewhere, in some kind of locality. Almost everyone also loves what they see as “a good story.” Story telling is basic to human existence, what we are, where we come from and what we want to become. Stories can be built up into wider narratives that are able to encompass numerous heterogenous elements, in other words, almost anything at all, including anything that theorists like Beck, Garfinkel, or even Latour are able to encompass. In the last few decades, digitisation, miniaturisation and mass production have made film and internet technologies more accessible and user friendly. Inclusion of local inhabitants in shared processes of filmed narrative creation is much more possible.

What has been needed is a methodology that brings the local everyday, narrative and film making together. Over the last few decades I’ve been working to develop such a methodology. This was the basis of my local development and PhD work and post-doctoral scholarship.

Although Ricoeur’s account is itself a purely academic and literary one, it can nonetheless be built into a practical social scientific methodology that can reach and engage people and assist them to see their situations as they are and as they would like them to be, in their localities.  Further, it can do this in ways which enable them to get around many social, academic and other fragmentations, so that people from quite diverse backgrounds can engage in the complex matter of local development that is both situated and also relates to wider, ultimately global settings.

The methodology can reach people because it uses locally created and relevant film, as well as face-to-face group communication that is augmented by internet communication. Ricoeur’s narrative theory is, accordingly, blended with internet and film theory.

Basically, the methodology involves small groups of people in their locality viewing a DVD film of a first act of a drama that raises issues about the kind of place they would like to live in together. Participants are then asked about their response, first as single individuals, and then in small groups, until the whole group is participating together. The responses for each of the groups participating are posted onto the Internet, where anyone can add further to the discussion, or correct any inaccuracies. Anonymity is guaranteed. It is not possible to tell from the responses the identity of the person or the group. On the basis of these cumulative responses a further act is carefully scripted and filmed, pointing in the directions that the participants have come up with and opening up some of the relevant issues for their on-going, “whole of locality” development.

A point that I would like to stress here, is how such filmed acts, readily available on DVDs, could become a rich source of material for research and teaching, including transdisciplinary collaborations about the everyday.  Not only that, but academics – for instance, Latoureans, ethnomethodologists and those interested in Beck, could also provide useful analysis and recommendations for future filmed acts from their own special knowledge, including from their disciplinary perspectives either as individuals or members of trans-disciplinary networks or teams. This methodology could give social scientists and other relevant academics something they have not been in a position to achieve to date: direct, on-going connection with inhabitants in localities. Institutions and personnel involved with the development, implementation and evaluation of social, economic and other policies would also be able to so connect and learn, whether before and/or after academic work was carried out.

In other words, this research methodology as represented on the locality-produced DVDs, would enable new levels of engagement, communication and collaboration between local communities, and academic and policy personnel and institutions.

Developing and communicating this methodology forms a major part of my post doctoral project (June 08 – June 09). I welcome discussion, challenges, ideas, and suggestions, as well as support that will enable this research program to continue.

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