Distorting into clarity

Jean-Micheel Basquiat, Untitled (Two Heads on Gold), 1982


John Law, After Method, is one of those books I’ve skirted around for years. I never quite understood Actor Network Theory and now I fear the moment has passed. We are all posthuman now. I’ve had another too quick look at it this week. And like one phrase Law uses in connection to the research process

‘Distorted into Clarity’.

An aspect of educational research involves developing a coherent narrative based on the data we have generated. And then presenting (or noticing) only those bits and pieces of our data that appear consistent with that narrative. The data overall, never presents a distinct, coherent, free from contradiction narrative in and of themselves. It is something we create. A device. This I think is in part what Law means when he refers to ‘distorting into clarity’.

The study of education policy, leadership and ethics is fraught with examples of this kind of clarifying distortion. It is hard for any analysis of the social world to do otherwise.

This is how he introduces the idea.

If we start to make a list [of the things our research is unable to to do justice] then it quickly becomes clear that it is potentially endless. Pains and pleasures, hopes and horrors, intuitions and apprehensions, losses and redemptions, mundanities and visions, angels and demons, things that slip and slide, or appear and disappear, change shape or don’t have much form at all, unpredictabilities, these are just a few of the phenomena that are hardly caught by social science methods. It may be, of course, that they don’t belong to social science at all. But perhaps they do, or partly do, or should do. That, at any rate, is what I want to suggest. Parts of the world are caught in our ethnographies, our histories and our statistics. But other parts are not, or if they are then this is because they have been distorted into clarity. This is the problem I try to tackle. If much of the world is vague, diffuse or unspecific, slippery, emotional, ephemeral, elusive or indistinct, changes like a kaleidoscope, or doesn’t really have much of a pattern at all, then where does this leave social science? How might we catch some of the realities we are currently missing? Can we know them well? Should we know them? Is ‘knowing’ the metaphor that we need? And if it isn’t, then how might we relate to them? These are the issues that I open up in this book.

Any attempt to explore organisation conflict, is confronted with these sort of difficulties

Even conflict is too string a word since this sounds like something clear, unambiguous, contradictory perceptions that emerge from or lead to antagonism. I’m thinking of something gentler, that passes by almost unnoticed.

Professional aspiration vs policy demand

The conflict between professional aspiration and policy demand (Ball’s seminal text about the struggle for the soul of the teacher is the perfect example of this); this is a tension that causes great discomfort and needs to be resolved. It results in a loss of illusio (Bourdieu), and or what might be referred to as a schizoid professionalism. It is a state that has devastating consequences for professionals. Its antidote may be found in Keats’ negative capability.

This type of contradiction can be clearly articulated though it may take some time to define and understand. My sense is that professionals may experience it as a general ill-ease; a discomfort. But, once they are offered a broad outline of its shape and implications – it is a tension that makes immediate and obvious sense.

Pot – tay – to vs. Po – tah – to

There is also the contradiction between different research participants accounts of the same event or phenomenon. A manager’s perception that their policies are experienced by staff as ‘a chocolate fountain’, an outpouring of sweet delight that staff may dip into at the pleasure, is an evocative example of this. The staff may experience managers as remote, out-of-touch, unwilling to listen …

policy as espoused vs. policy as lived, rhetoric vs. reality

We all know the organisational that’s detailed policies around equity and inclusion, That *aspires* to be an equal opportunities employer. That strives to maintain its investors in people tag but somehow even though it’s an inner city college seem not to employ any ethnic minority lecturing staff, and has an all male senior management team.

We can all think of teachers who if asked will insist that their pedagogy is based on the broad principles of Socratic questioning. But when we see them teach what we see is an extended monologue punctuated by a few ‘guess what I’m thinking’ questions thrown out every time their student audience seems to be wilting.

In less anecdotal terms an example of this from research data is a participant who says: ‘we will never let a colleague fail’ a few moments before describing how some colleagues were ‘performance managed out of the building’. (Is it just a coincidence that those from marched out of the college were also active unionists?)

Is this a simple stunning lack of reflexivity. Or worst still – a deliberate attempt to deceive. Or – thinking with Goffman – a front of house presentation of self. That is, does my interviewee ‘conduct himself [sic] during our encounter so as to maintain both his own face and the face of the other participants.’ Where the self who participates is understood as both

*an image pieced together from the expressive implications of the full flow of events in an undertaking; and as *

*a kind of player in a ritual game who copes honorably or dishonorably, diplomatically or undiplomatically, with the judgmental contingencies of the situation?’*

There is however – another source of contradiction, ambiguity, contestation and conflict. And this is one that I like a great deal: doublethink

Doublethink: the capacity to hold two contradictory ideas together simultaneously with little apparent awareness that they cancel each other out and with little sense of ill ease.

This might seem like something of an affectation.

*The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function*.

(F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1956: 69)

What is distinct about doublethink is that participants seem to hold views which negate each other once placed side by side but they are apparently oblivious to the contradiction.

The concept emerges from Orwell’s 1984:

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them; to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy; to forget what it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.


Dan Mask, 1989
 Image is Rotimi Fani Kayode, Dan Mask, 1989.




(Yep, this is part of my brief attempt to read texts that I should have read 20 years ago but didn’t or did read and promptly forgot about them. 1984 is on audible and when I take a break from reading (listening) to gruesome crime novels, 1984 is a bit of light relief.


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