How nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-Glass House! I’m sure it’s got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting through into it, somehow, Kitty. Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through—’ … And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist. In another moment Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-glass room. ~ Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There
In qualitative inquiry the researcher is often trying to find systematic and ethical ways into their research, and once immersed in that world, they are working out and applying ways to navigate it. The interrelationships between self, participants, methods, data and field of study are messy, web-like and complex.
This blog post is a response to one by Naomi Barnes, in which she explored her thinking around diffraction as an alternative to reflection and reflexivity. Here I pour out my own stream-of-consciousness which was incited by that post, in an attempt to make meaning through writing, and in doing so maybe open up some possibilities or provocations about ways of thinking about how researchers interact with, and conceptualize their interactions with, their research.
Naomi (channeling Karen Barad) talks about reflection as being like looking into a mirror, and reflexivity about looking into a mirror of mirrors. She begins to frame diffraction as a more complex way of looking at the self. She writes:
The moment you pass to the other side of that yellow line your life could go in any direction because new people, materials and environments wait for you there. Those things will transform you as a person every step you take and you will transform those things.
This relates beautifully to Alice’s experience of passing through the Looking-Glass, into the world beyond the mirror, in which things are different, backwards or transformed. Diffraction, though, does not reflect, but provides a tiny hole for light to pass through.
In a related example, the film The Matrix directly references Alice and Wonderland in quotes such as “Follow the White Rabbit” and “see how deep the rabbit hole goes.” In the film, a mirror is Neo’s portal into his new consciousness about his reality. Rather than travel through the mirror, he finds the mirror overtaking his body, travelling over and into him. In this scene it seems the fluid mirror, which could represent a reflection of world and self, infects Neo. He becomes distressed as the reflective surface encroaches over his body and eventually into his mouth. Does this reflect how uncomfortable we can be with reflection? How reflection can be internalized?
I’m not familiar with Barad’s work but this notion of how researchers might think differently about reflexivity got me thinking about Alice and the Fresnel lens as a metaphor for thinking about the ways we approach thinking about our positionality.
A Fresnel lens is one in which concentric circles etched onto the surface provide a multiplicity of refractive surfaces. This makes the profile of the lens look jagged, but from above the lens is symmetrical, with those hypnotic circular grooves. This means that the lens can be used to collect, gather, focus or change the direction of light. It can take non-uniform light and evenly distribute it. It can additionally magnify and project images. (Please take my understanding of the Fresnel lens with a bucket of salt. I’m not a physicist, and my introduction to the Fresnel lens was a hand drawn illustration on a napkin in a London pub. There is more information about it here and here.)
I wonder how this lens, which refracts, re-shapes and re-focuses light and images, might provide researchers with a metaphor for thinking about themselves in their work. The Fresnel lens allows us to consider ourselves as one lens, but with multiple refractions. It is at once whole and made up of elements, circular and angular, drawing in and reflecting out. What lens do we use when we consider ourselves and our places within our work, our contexts and our texts? What do we refract? How and what do we collect? What is omitted?
Any lens, the Frensel included, has those things for which it is useful and those applications for which it is not. What are the limitations of ourselves, and the ontological, epistemological and methodological lenses we apply? What is eclipsed by the instruments we use? What is magnified, projected or gathered together?
Does the mirror or lens overtake and control us, or do we control it? If our realities and our research texts can only ever re-present or present partial accounts of reality, what might we gain (or lose) from moving through the mirror, instead of looking into it? Or through the lens? Which lens should we use? In which direction should we point it? How does our choice limit or expand the possibilities? How might this align with our purpose? Focusing vs. magnifying. Collecting vs. projecting. Diluting vs. intensifying.
Meanwhile, if our identities are contextual and fluid, what might we refract, reflect, consider or ignore at different times and in different places? As active instruments of inquiry, how do researchers channel their own selves through a particular lens and to what extent does this need to be explicit or teased out in detail?
Some might argue that the researcher’s positionality be explored and made transparent. Others may criticize this as navel-gazing work which takes away from the pursuit of scientific Truth through more objective methods. As someone who embraces truths as plural, subjective and shifting, the notions of reflexivity, diffraction or the Fresnel-lensification of the researcher self and context can be a key to teasing out both the limitations and benefits of research.
Being an insider participant in my PhD research context meant that my embeddedness gave me an inside-outside view. I stood on both sides of the Looking-Glass. If I was a Fresnel lens instrument, I could be seen as having pointed in a particular direction, or perhaps in simultaneously multiple directions, collecting particular light in particular ways, and refracting it in ways influenced by my multiplicitous, liquid and etched-across-time self.
To what extent are we even important in our research? To what extent does our metaphor for looking or self or data matter? Mirror? Mirror of mirrors? Diffractor? Fresnel lens? Telescope? Microscope? Looking-Glass? Muddy puddle? Hole in the wall?
Life, what is it but a dream? ~ Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There
2008 Paris puddle, Jardin des Tuileries