Did I really say that?

I have been meaning to say something about Tina Miller’s book Making Sense of Fatherhood, about the experience of being a first time dad, but I have been too busy being a second time dad, although I did read it before Baby 2 was born. I really enjoyed it, not least for reminding me of episodes and feelings I had forgotten about; it also provided the occasion for an odd parlour game at Christmas, in which friends/partners tried to guess which of the anonymous interview subjects was me. The thing that was most interesting about reading a book in which you are one of the research subjects is, of course, being confronted with your own words inflected by the social scientist. Reading a short chunk of your own words inevitably generates a desire to clarify, elaborate, or revise – at no point did I find myself thinking that Tina had misrepresented me at all, but it made me realise something obvious – a very long extract of me talking at length doesn’t count as evidence, whereas a short extract of me talking along the same lines as other men saying similar things does. I was forced to think quite hard about what you can and cannot say about the things people say to you in interviews on a research project I was working on during the same period I was being interviewed by Tina, and we ended up going for a modest interpretative strategy in which one assumes that people are able to reflect coherently on their own practices, and that this sort of talk provides some insight into their own evaluative practices. Tina does something similar with the stories that me and other dads told her, so I do not have any complaints. But reading her book has reminded me of the inevitability of a disjuncture between the concerns animating those who provide elicited talk, and the purposes for which this talk is being solicited by the social scientist. Which might be obvious. And I don’t think this is quite as ethically problematic as might be supposed – the other thing that reading my own words, some of them at least, written back at me made me think is that participants in research projects like this might be best thought of as gifting their words to the researcher, in a sense, providing them with raw material upon which to do analysis and interpretation. Which does raise some questions of what is owed back in return for this sort of gift – I think, at a minimum, some commitment to not thinking of your research subjects as moral fools, hypocrites, or dupes (the basic models for a lot of critical social science, after all).

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