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Saturday, January 20, 2018


One of the joys of teaching is that, in the preparation as well as in the classes themselves, one is constantly challenged to explain oneself. So now that I have been teaching a class on ethnography to master students at Erasmus University Rotterdam those past months - just one session to go next week - I cannot feel but thankful for all the old insights it forced me to revisit and all the further and sometimes new directions it forced me to examine.

One of the things we - my dear students and me - read and spoke about right in the beginning of the course was the debate on realism. Can we access reality directly, unmediated by our interpretive frameworks which allow us to make sense of reality?

For a contructivist, an interpretivist like me the answer is negative. There may be - maybe: there is - a reality beyond our interpretation, but we are only able to access that reality through our interpretation of it. To me it seems that this has consequences for one's position on truth. Truth consists of truth claims, and the nearest one gets to truth is plausibility of such claims.

That makes research a quest for the delivery of plausible interpretations. And searching for plausibility means explicitly looking for opportunities to discuss one's interpretations with others, to invite others to listen to and disagree with your interpretations in order to come up with even more plausible interpretations, knowing that, in the end, plausibility is asymptotical: there is no point where plausibility - however strong its arguments - turns into absolute truth. (Even worse: plausibility is plausibility within a paradigm; and when the paradigm shifts - check out Kuhn - the whole circus starts anew).

This interpretive-constructive stance is not just connected to thoughts about research and truth. In the end, it is more existential than that, in the sense that it leads to a form of epistemological agnosticism. Something like: the whole idea of approaching plausibility through academic debate and so-called rationality is, in itself, a procedure which in the end cannot with good reasons be presented as the superior form of the interpretation of this our so beautiful world and life. It can be defended as plausible, yes, and of course as more plausible then others. But given the asymptotical character of plausibility, there must in the end always remain some leeway for tolerance of other interpretations of our world.

True interpretive constructivism leads to modestness and humility. To a certain form of provisional relativism. To the absurd idea that, although one cannot feel other than that one is right, one must also tolerate diametrical opposed claims of interpretational truth as at least discussable and potentially understandable - without them becoming acceptable.

One such an alternative interpretation of the world is a strictly religious one. For example, one where a god is not a human construction but where God is an acting reality. In the end, my interpretive-constructivist position leads me to a kind of double position towards this. On the one hand, for me at present it is rather impossible to fully belief that this is an interpretation I could not only rationally try to understand but could accept - could feel to be forced to accept - as the reality I live in. On the other hand, I must accept that, although  there is too little plausibility in such a world view for me to be able to live (in) it, it is a world view where others do live their lives in.

This, then, brings me back to the value of ethnography. Ethnography is, in the end, the attempt to interpret the world others live in in a way that ultimately respects those others. It is, for example, the sometimes completely contradictory attempt to give a plausible 'academic' interpretation of worlds which sometimes are at odds with this same academic stance.

The attempt, sometimes, of painting the blue world other people live in without using blue paint, because you strongly belief - up to the point of 'knowing' - that there is no place for blue paint on your palette.

To finish this off in a strange way: that is why I am endlessly fascinated and moved by Marilynne Robinson's novels and essays. Read them, just to experience the breathless existential astonishment of what it means to accept this world as the miracle it is; the desperate attempt to express an in the end irrational world view (which is a pleonasm) in plausible words and images.

To describe in words how words ultimately fail to describe.

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