Universal vs. Particular

By js, 27 September, 2008, No Comment

Laclau and Mouffe both discuss the concept of the particular and the universal.

This is something that has had me worried for some time. We get that push from all directions especially in working on the dissertation and any research project. We either start from a question-problem which  may be universal or we eventually have to look at our results and how they can or will be generalized.

I know that I want to focus on the particular and I think we should in order to make our research manageable. But then in order to create “interest” for the results and conclusions which you have created you have to connect somehow to the universal.

Choosing what strategy to take has been a struggle. Because so little research has been done on my topic specifically and what has been done has been looking at it in a more “universal” way, then I have several paths that I can choose.

I can choose to compare (as Rich suggested) the blogs that I have chosen with what has already been written about blogs. This does not seem like a viable option for me; at least, it is not a choice which aligns with the philosophical-epistemological choices which I have already made. For example, I have chosen to use critical race theory as one of my theoretical constructs. One of the tenets of CRT is that we start our study by looking at people of color rather than looking at a theory that has been created without critically engaging what people of color may be doing and then applying that theory to my work. I think doing something like this would be completey irresponsible. First, I would be assuming that the theory (which more than likely is being pushed as being “universal”) would apply at least in part to my population. This makes sense at least initially since all people must have something in common and we can begin with the commonality and then transcend to the difference. I think this is the process that Jaime took in his dissertation. He was looking at/applying certain concepts but in the process of doing the research he realized that it did not apply and he had to move beyond what he had started with. So in this case we can say “see this theory does not apply to this particular situation-context-population”; this is also what Pablo Vila did in his study of border identity. He took the theories of Laclau and Mouffe and others and he realized that they only applied to a certain extent but then he had to create a new theory which would explain what he saw happening with identity construction in the border people he studied. So he goes from the universal to the particular and then creates a theory based on the particular and in constructing the theory he goes back to the universal.

In my case, I wonder if beginning with the universal will taint what I find and that it will blind me to other things which may be there. For example, when I started and I thought I wanted to look at Yossos theory of cultural capital, then all I was going to do was going to apply that theory to the blogs. That seems like a pretty simple study. I could hope that I will find something more going on that Yossos theory does not account for; perhaps find what Yosso laid out but also find other things. The problem that I ended up having with this theory was that it seems to me that those things which Yosso points out are not necessarily just applicable to people of color. In fact, in reading the Massey book, many of those elements of cultural capital are present in the structures which cause inequality. Instead the difference is who is part of what group; different groups seem to manage the negotiation of the capital in different ways; it is not that the forms of capital are necessarily different but the way in which and the ends to which the cultural capital are gained and put to use are different. According to Massey, the structures are set up to give one group of people an advantage.

For example, if we think about navigational capital and social capital and apply those in the college environment, we can see how it works for the dominant group. Colleges are environments which need to be navigated in very specific ways, from the application process to the completion of graduation requirements. One doesnt inherently know how to navigate these structures; they are not set up in a way which is in any way “natural.” Instead, in order to be successful one needs something which helps one navigate it. Usually that something is really going to be a “someone”; this is when the social capital comes into play. We will know someone who will help us navigate. The way in which we learn to navigate those structures from the people can be from talking about it all your life if you have parents who went to college so that it becomes something that you “just know” how to do. If that hasnt been part of your conversation-life then you will be clueless when it comes to entering that structure. Then everything must be explained because from the outside there isnt necessarily any logic that can been in how this structure was created. For students of color who are primarily first generation students to attend college, then certain programs, if they are lucky, have been set in place to help them navigate. The main problem with many of these programs is that they only help with part of the structure rather than helping to traverse the entire structure from enrollment to graduation. All the knowledge that is “tacit” and natural for those who have the privilege of having generations who will contribute to their social and navigational capital is very difficult to make explicit especially when there are so many layers to the structure.

So I could decide to examine the blogs looking for these elements of cultural capital and how the blogs construct or negotiate those; but ultimately, I think that it would be more productive to go to the blogs to see what is there first. To go in with no preconceived ideas or theories to apply and see what I find there first.

Coming back to my decision of where to begin, the universal or particular–I am much more committed to starting from the particular, that is, starting from the blogs rather than the theory, to look to see what I find; then I can say that it applies to theory a, b, c or not which then means I will have to come up with something. I think the danger here, and one of the reasons why I am having a hard time taking the leap, is that I dont know what I will find–I  am not confident that I will find anything  which is worth finding (although this may just be my internal critic talking)–and if it does end up applying to theory a, b, c which I initially decided to ignore then what does that say about my epistemological and political choices.

I am also very reticent about saying that I want to look at what Chicana blogs tell us about Tech Comm. I have to come to terms with the fact that most of what I have seen about technology and people of color is all about how to “use” them/us; how to reach us in order to persuade us. I have written before about how I do not want my work to become part of the structure which helps to oppress. I have to think about how my teaching, administrating and my research may be doing this. Since my research agenda is just beginning then I have to keep this in mind as I design my work. The bad thing and what is very disconcerting is that much work that begins with good intentions ends up working in very different ways and for the detriment of one particular group.

Now am I going to be forced to think about Tech Comm first as I design my work or can I “get away” with only thinking about “rhetoric and technology”? I think I will resist this as much as I can and I will have to find my own way of dealing with/defining Tech Comm so that I am working against what I see as the oppressive tendencies of this field.


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