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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Monday, June 02, 2008

local knowledge and knowing in the doing

about a year ago, I saw Lost in Translation. it's really an excellent film, but what I found most striking was the depiction of being an American visiting Japan. I was there for a conference back in 2006 (and incidentally took my phd qualifying exam while staying in Hakodate, but that's another story), and I found myself watching various scenes say, "yeah, that's exactly how it feels." watching the movie felt like being a lone American traveling in Japan.

however, the other people with whom I watched the film weren't quite as taken with it. only afterward did I consider that none of them had been to Japan or any non-western country (here, I'm counting most of western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand as "western"). I suspect that part of the reason they didn't care for the movie is that they couldn't particularly identify with it. the plights of some of the characters certainly transcend the particulars of the situations that brought them to Japan, but the particular aesthetic, the feel, the experience of watching the film resonated with my experiences in Japan so strongly that I saw that as one of the film's greatest strengths, its ability to so perfectly capture and express that experience.

I've recently been doing a bit of research about blog readers. one particularly striking thing I've noticed during this process is the difference between reading about blogs (and virtual communities and online identity); no matter how many times I'd read Nardi et al. or boyd or Miller and Slater or any of these other folks, I never could have gained the understanding I got from actually doing the research myself. rather, I could never have gained the same kind of understanding from only reading. I draw at least two important conclusions.

first, there is no substitute for actually "getting one's hands dirty" doing research. I heard it suggested recently that, often, it doesn't matter what you set about to research, as long as you research something, because even if you think you know what you're studying, you're going to wind up working on something different. to that I'd might add that even if a large majority of your results are reiterations of those from previous studies, you as the researcher come to know those same results in a different way (perhaps even more fully) than the way you would know them from reading alone. this sort of knowing, the "knowing in the doing" or what Schon calls knowing-in-action, seems impossible without the doing.

second, it makes me wonder about the place and purpose of scholarly writing as a means of sharing ideas. it's not that the type of knowing that comes from reading isn't valuable. rather, the author/researcher, because of her or his unique experiences, understands what s/he knows in a way that the reader cannot, unless of course the reader has had similar experiences. granted, there is a sort of deeper philosophical issue about how we can ever come share meaning, but I'm going to side step that for the moment in favor of something slightly more pragmatic. if the major method of disseminating knowledge in academia is writing papers, and the kind of knowing/understanding that comes from reading is different from the kind of knowing/understanding that comes from doing, why not have more of an emphasis on doing, especially doing together? I think this sort of emphasis on doing is at work in various places, but it doesn't seem to be fore-fronted as much as might be beneficial (this is probably also my bias towards constructivist/constructionist learning coming through). rather than having conferences consist of presenting papers, lets get together and do studies together, analyze data together, theorize together, design together, and generally engage in our practices and concomitant (collaborative) knowledge construction together.

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