How do I come to know anything? How do I know that what I think I have come to know has any kind of validity or usefulness? Are ‘usefulness’ and ‘validity’ two quite distinct things?
These seem, suddenly, quite pressing questions. My workplace is moving towards a more collaborative approach to research. I’ve already begun work in a small research collective, and the signs are that I’ll soon be working in a much bigger one. The bigger collective will be working on projects of ‘national and international significance’. I know that I’ve been moving, in recent years, to a more consciously articulated ‘way of knowing’, which I’ve been calling here (following Macdonald) mythopoetics. In my bigger research team, I’ll need to be able to speak about what I think I can offer, as (for example) a research team investigates something like the connection between a nation’s desire to raise standards of professionalism and the introduction of accountability measures.
What contribution might mythopoetics make?
(I’ve picked this example because it was the question addressed in an excellent seminar at my university given by a visiting scholar last month.)
If I try to imagine a research team working on such a project, it’s easy to see how more traditional researchers might employ their methodologies to help come up with knowledge that is both useful and valid.
The statistician would look (as the visiting scholar did) at a wide range of national and international data to tell us something about student achievement, levels of teacher education, professional development trends, accountability measures and so on. The emphasis would be on the longitudinal and the big picture.
The sociologists and the critical theorists would contribute knowledge about societal dynamics and differences, and about the nature of the discourses operating (and their tensions), and about power differentials; we’d end up knowing more about the worlds in which policy makers, administrators and practitioners talk and think about their work, and about societal pressures that shaped certain decisions and outcomes.
What would mythopoetics contribute? As a mythopoetic scholar, what might I come to know about professionalism and accountability? How could I be confident that what I might know could be either valid or useful?
The mythopoetic approach seems to sit on very shaky ground. It rests on the belief that the unconscious is real, that it knows things, and that there are ways to access that knowledge. A mythopoetic methodology, then, is a communication between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Its sources are intuition and the imagination. It is, as Margaret Somerville has called it, a methodology of emergence. It involves patiently sitting with a question or an issue and allowing meaning to surface, then wrestling with what emerges in order to put it through some kind of refiner’s fire to test its validity and usefulness.
It is the methodology of the novelist and the poet, confronted with the blank page and guided by what emerges through the rigorous and disciplined attention given to the craft of creating an object that approximates, as closely as possible, a sense of the real, the authentic.
It is Proust coming to understand family, love and memory; Tolstoy making sense of war; Rilke opening our eyes to the invisible and numinous.