How I think

July 24, 2013

How I think, and why I think the way I do

In readying my doctoral dissertation (published 2005) for my committee’s review and approval, I found that three of the four members of my dissertation committee appeared to have some reservations about the theoretical framework I had employed in my study.  For the fourth member, it was familiar and made sense. For the other three, it appeared to be unconventional. Thus I had to explain myself to their satisfaction. Here’s my reviewed-and-updated version of how I did so.

My choice of topic, construction of theoretical framework, and selection of analytic methods and tools are products of my upbringing, education, experience and interest in the worlds of journalism, science, and politics [where I have worked]. Just as a journalist makes subjective decisions every time she chooses to do a particular story (or not) or consult a particular source (or not), a qualitative researcher makes subjective decisions in choosing a subject of study and a method by which to study it. My interest in and perspective on the cultural roles of science and scientists and journalism and journalists, which led me to choose a particular subject and methodological stance for this study, are products of a lifetime of influences.

I developed what I think of as a political consciousness in the late 1960s and came to assume that authority can be, and often should be, questioned. [2013 updated: I regularly reevaluate this assumption. So far, I still find it valid.] A new wave of feminism played a prominent role in the development of my thinking about the world. I received my undergraduate education at a university of the liberal arts that encouraged its students to question everything, especially authority and reality. Among faculty and students, politics were not hidden from view. I majored in social sciences and planned to be a social worker. But with jobs in the field scarce when I graduated, instead I ended up in Washington, DC, and in 1978 I began a career as a journalist, reporting environmental news. I was dispatched to the White House, Congress, federal agencies, and elsewhere to decipher debates over toxic waste cleanup, industrial air and water pollution, land use decisions and so on. Editors and other colleagues worked with me to ensure that I learned and abided by the conventions, values and practices of journalism — though no one, as I recollect, ever identified them as such.

Over the next several years I came to specialize in reporting science and technology news. My work as a journalist sharpened my political consciousness, and after my first few years of reporting I began to realize that I had political interests that affected how I saw the world of news. I began to realize that I could choose what to tell my readers to think about — and what to think about those things. From my perch inside the Washington Beltway, I watched scientists acting as cultural authorities and gradually realized over the course of these observations that I had not been, and should be, questioning why they had that authority, or whether they should have it.

They were scientists; therefore they were authorities, I had been assuming. I watched others validating that authority, for some time unaware that I myself was participating in the process. I watched other journalists judging scientists’ authority according to their institutional affiliations, ranks, prizes, publications — and I followed suit, without much awareness of what I was doing and why I was doing it. I suspect that many of my colleagues were in the same boat; we did not talk about where and how and why we learned the rules by which we did our work. But perhaps we should have been asking more questions about our authoritative sources — why those particular people at that particular time in that particular place on those particular issues?

By 1983, reporting on policies and plans for the commercial development of outer space for Space Business News (now defunct), I could see that the issue I was covering was an ideological rather than a practical matter, a product of the Reagan administration’s “let the private sector do it” philosophy rather than any real potential for profit. My publisher declined my request to start an opinion column in my publication, for fear of offending readers. I realized I had other options for reflecting my views in my work — for example, paying closer attention to what was said and not said in my stories, who was quoted and who was not. I quit Space Business News in 1985 due to disagreement with the publisher over what constituted news and who should have the authority to make those decisions. I began consulting work for government clients, observing from a different vantage point how credibility, authority, and power are constructed and deployed.

[A note from Doctor Linda: the publisher I refer to above was Tod Sedgwick, now U.S. ambassador to Slovakia. His associate at the time was David Gump, now of Deep Space Industries. I have been attempting for the past year to determine who, if anyone, holds the copyright to all the stories I wrote and published in Space Business News from 1983 to 1985. I have attempted to contact Sedgwick via the Embassy of Slovakia. The embassy has not responded. If I can determine that this material is not copyrighted, I can have it scanned and made available online. Anybody got ideas?]

Over years of following the politics of science, I observed how government, industry, and academia defined science to serve their interests. As I watched scientists, and others, spar over global warming, missile defense, asteroid threats, and other issues defined as scientific problems through the 1980s and ‘90s, I began to wonder — and I still do wonder, often — how does one decide who is telling the truth? And what is the truth, anyway? These questions, among others, led me to pursue doctoral studies in communication. Looking back, I suppose it is reasonable to say that I left journalism because I had become more interested in “how” and “why” than in the “who-what-when-where” of social action. As many scientists have discovered in their work, I have found in my research that the more I explore these questions, the further away I seem to be from answers…. But I am more interested than ever in the exploration of space.

I do not believe that science, or any other authoritative field of endeavor, is apolitical or value-free, and I do not assume that the cultural authority of science, or any other field of knowledge and expertise, is beyond question. I also do not assume that the scientific establishment, or any other establishment, is not justified in its claims to cultural authority. I do assume that those who possess, or want to possess, cultural aiuthority should be able to justify possession.

My interest in the cultural authority of scientists and journalists stems from working with scientists and journalists. I want to better understand this cultural authority — where it comes from, how it works, who has it and why. And given that scientists claim this authority and non-scientists continue to validate this claim, I believe that contributing to a better understanding of this authority is a productive social endeavor.

As a moderate social constructivist, I assume that a physical reality exists independent of human perception and that social interactions define how we perceive and relate to this reality. My inclination to look at the world from a critical perspective is a product of my interest in understanding authority. My interest in exploration as an analytic approach is a product of my early experience in a family of self-taught naturalists as well as my professional experience in the field of space exploration.

With regard to structuralist, functionalist, structural-functionalist, postmodernist, poststructuralist, feminist, and deconstructionist perspectives on social reality, my own perspective on social reality is none of the above in any strict sense and all of the above in at least some small sense.I am interested in how structure, function, values, interests, and any other social or cultural factors that appear to be operative and relevant may play a role in the social construction of reality, in specific cases and in general. Though I am now inarguably a member of the socioeconomic middle class, I continue to think of myself as a member of the subordinate culture of the working class in which I grew up as well as the subordinate culture of womanhood in which I still live. (My male colleagues and associates argue with me that women are no longer members of a subordinate culture. I beg to differ.) I am familiar with the practices and perspectives of the dominant culture as well as those of my subordinate cultures, and consequently I have developed a preference for considering multiple perspectives in exploring empirical and social reality. As feminist theorists of science have observed, and I have come to believe, drawing on multiple perspectives in attempting to understand the world is useful and that understanding the origin, nature and deployment of scientific authority is necessary to determining the appropriate role of science in shaping democratic society.

A final note: My dialogue with my dissertation committee over the course of my defense enabled them to broaden their frames for considering my analysis, findings, and conclusions, to look at my work from different perspectives. One member asked me how I might amend my approach for another study of this sort. I said I would be more confident about starting out without a rigid framework for analysis, as I had learned that an open frame allows one to see more (and maybe further and better). It has been said that the exploratory sort of criticism I engage in rarely proceeds in a linear fashion. With regard to that warning, now that I have completed numerous works of criticism I can say, emphatically: no kidding!


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