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Book review of Qualitative Inquiry in Everyday Life. Working with Everyday Life materials, Svend Brinkmann

How many authors haven’t I read that write about qualitative research in a defensive, almost apologetic tone? Many, and to my relief Svend Brinkmann wasn’t one of them in his presentation of a complete toolbox for the researcher of everyday life. In our [campus]OrléoN philosophy learning to become a (better) researcher is captured in a constant active reminder of five questions:

1. what is available for you?
2. what do you want to achieve?
3. what can you do?
4. what do you do?
5. who are you?

I’ll discuss Brinkmann’s book answering these questions and show how his work is a valuable asset for everyday researchers.

What is available for the researcher of everyday life?
Brinkmann starts from an account of what “everyday life” is, which is notoriously difficult to define and for which he draws on classical works by Goffman, Lefebvre and de Certeau as much as from symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology which have advocated a focus on the mundane details of human interaction. As the outcome of a development in social sciences, nowadays “what seem to be the case is that ‘the social’ In broad terms is recast as everyday life in the social sciences” (p. 16). Although authors have provided lists of what everyday life is and what it’s not, Brinkmann concludes:

“Although it can be helpful to keep these distinctions in mind, I doubt that they exhaustively define or delineate our everyday lives. The difficulties of pinpointing everyday life are probably related to the fact that everyday life is our paramount reality, the life world (to speak with the phenomenologists), the ubiquitous interaction order (to speak with Goffman), or the immortal ordinary society (to speak with Garfinkel). Everyday life is everywhere, and we live through it like fish proverbially live in the water” (p. 17).

Therefore, he takes a pragmatic attitude and defines everyday life relative to the researcher and what mediates her activities and experiences:

“Everyday life objects are thus those that the researcher in question appropriates and uses in het daily living (e.g. consumer products, technologies, pieces of art), and everyday situations and events are those that the researcher experiences in her life (e.g. conversations, parties, work, rituals)” (p. 17).

His conception of the social world is that it’s inhabited by acting persons:

“Only persons act, but they could obviously not do so without discursive practices that render certain acts intelligible and thereby meaningful. And they could not do so without a range of enabling conditions that are material, such as brains, bodies end artefacts, and this whole network of discourses and materialities is, in principle, relevant when one engages in qualitative analyses of social processes” (p. 20).

And so, says Brinkmann, everyday life is a rich source of data for researchers. To actually research everyday life legitimately, he offers a theoretical frame based on the intellectual craftsmanship and the sociological imagination of Mills (“to grasp what is going on in the world, and to understand what is happening in themselves as minute points of the intersection of biography and history within society”) and on Maffesoli’s threefold adagio: the researcher is an active participant in the social life she researches, the research is focused on understanding the human experience, and the researcher displays conceptual audacity by making the mundane intellectually interesting and challenging. In the subsequent epistemology (what is knowledge and how is it obtained), knowing is an activity. Brinkmann frames his approach in philosophical anthropology, a discipline that wants to characterize human knowers from a pragmatic and hermeneutic point of view. In the pragmatism of Dewey and his colleagues, an ontology (what is the world and what is a human) is nothing more than a practical instrument for thinking. Every ontology that turns out fruitful for the collective actions of humans in building their social worlds, is valid and justified. Brinkmann pleas for a pragmatic pluralism, in which the social is perceived as experiences, discourses and objects, so that the full richness of everyday life can be captured and mapped. According to the hermeneutics of Heidegger and Gadamer, ontology is the characteristic of the entity that understands (Dasein). As a consequence, humans are histories and events and have existential as their ontological characteristics. This hermeneutic ontology is therefore narrative: human communities of interpreters constitute with our historical and narrative traditions the meanings of our self-interpretations. Again, social theories are mere instruments for humans, creatures that are affected by events, can understand their worlds, and have the ability to communicate with others. In pragmatism and hermeneutics, research begins when we end up in a situation in which our usual habits of seeing and understanding and handling fall short. Everyday life absorbs us and makes us unreflective, until the normal loses its meaning and we are stimulated to experiment and develop new understandings that can help us with new ways of handling. An important notion is that the world doesn’t happen to us. The ontology is one of an acting human (instead of caused behaviour). Everyday life thus doesn’t consist of data (“givens”), but of what we select from it (“takens”). Actions are meaningful if they are part of a broader, historically situated social practice.

What does the researcher of everyday life want to achieve?
The main question is: what can everyday life tell us about our social world? Brinkmann posits that a disciplined and theoretically informed awareness for what everyday life has to offer, leads to insightful analyses of both our personal and social lives if we satisfy three criteria. Truth is showing in an honest way that you have uncovered something from somewhere and how, that is, by specifying theoretical perspectives; situate the persons, episodes and objects you have researched; give examples that back up your conclusions; offer a coherent account of that which can be represented coherently; and create a story that resonates with the reader. Beauty is telling a story that moves the reader, so that it can make a difference. This means giving a lot of concrete details, including your feelings and doubts; tell complex stories in an honest, credible and vulnerable way; pay attention to human development; and present a continuous, non pro forma ethical consciousness. Good entails that you demonstrate in your research how we as participants in our community can act justly and that you involve your public. By practicing Maffesoli’s adagio,

“we would think of the everyday life researcher as a participant in social life, and as someone who addresses the human experience through audacious analyses. Social science as public philosophy is public in the sense that it is part of the ongoing discussion of the meaning and value of our common life, and, as such, it ideally engages the public” (p. 182).

As everyday life researcher you can contribute to the project “democracy”. This demands a phronetic stance (Flyvbjerg) in which you ask three value-laden questions: Where are we going? Is this desirable? What should be done? We act in the social here and now, but also always against the background of social practices with a history. When we study how actions are interwoven and ho wan individual acts is part of a historical practice, we do so to understand relations between meanings. How is a certain action meaningful for those involved? Under which circumstances is the deed done? How does it ensue actions and events? As a researcher you make visible and tangible what it means to be human. Brinkmann encourages us to understand the human experience from the inside. The most important challenge is to recognize the self-evident in which we are absorbed.

What can the researcher of everyday life do?
Brinkmann offers two strategies to recognize the self-evident in everyday life. The first is alienation. He calls the loss of meaning a breakdown. Sometimes a breakdown emerges out of everyday life without your intervention. Otherwise you can create a breakdown yourself by alienation and taking a different stance, for instance

  1. a phenomenological stance (make the obvious obvious): describe a phenomenon as if you experience for the first time or to someone who has never experienced it before.
  2. a critical stance (make the hidden obvious): look beyond the surface and demonstrate the working mechanisms underneath.
  3. a deconstructive stance (make the obvious dubious): show that meanings and understandings are unstable and ambivalent by presenting alternative versions of the truth.

The second strategy is abduction. With abduction you learn about an object through its effects. What makes the unexpected effect meaningful has to be related. In this jump the sociological imagination plays its part.

What does the researcher of everyday life do?
Brinkmann adheres to a craftsmanship pedagogy, in which one only learns a method by seeing possible results of one’s endeavours. Putting this into practice, he presents several examples of his own research in his own everyday life. His method for this is the consistent following of six steps:

  1. choose a topic: what interests you, worries you, confuses you and do you want to understand, so you can improve your actions?
  2. collect materials: this can be anything, from things you notice now up to things that are engraved in your memory.
  3. consult the literature: learn from the empirical analyses of others and sharpen your imagination and observations with theory.
  4. continue collecting materials: use what is at hand to clarify the situation and use theory to remain selective.
  5. do analytic writing: use theoretical concepts to unpack social situations, events and processes.
  6. publish your text: explain to others how you now understand things (differently) and possibly convince them that your understanding is helpful.

The key is to simultaneously observe in and write about everyday life and the more-embracing social world. In his examples he shows how he analyses his own breakdowns using theoretical concepts, for instance

  1. with a conversation with an old study friend who has joined a spiritual community he illustrates theory about the epistemic interview.
  2. a medialised confession by Bjarne Riis about his use of performance-enhancing drugs exemplifies how you can analyse mass media with positioning theory.
  3. the TV series “Paradise Hotel” gives rise to a discussion about popular culture using alienation techniques and postmodern theories.
  4. an analysis of the writings of Houellebecq demonstrates how literature can be seen as an entry to qualitative research of the social.

With these examples Brinkmann personifies the researcher of everyday life.

Who is the researcher of everyday life?
Not all social scientists will appreciate this book as much I do. There are researcher who, as the inheritants of Comte, have an ambition for knowledge of the social that will not be met by this book. That doesn’t matter as there are plenty of books for them. According to its cover, this book is intended for students and researchers who want to do qualitative research with little means. This sells the book short, I think. That it can be done with little means to me is rather a pleasant side effect (also for self-employed academics, by the way) than its main advantage. The frame Brinkmann offers suggests that this kind of research is valuable in itself and I agree. I can also recommend this book to external or part-time PhD candidates, who in their practice not seldom experience a breakdown in understanding that stimulates their research plans and progress. And yet, I do miss an important public. As I read the title, I imagined the book was meant for everyone who wanted to research everyday life. This turned out not to be the case, it was solely for the university researcher. This goes a bit against my grain, fan of a knowledge democracy in which the public is not only involved in the project of the researcher, but also initiates and carries out its own research, if necessary and desirable supported by a researcher. Now a monopoly on knowledge remains within university, even when that knowledge concerns everyday life. I would have truly applauded Brinkmann if he would have taken this extra step.

   Buy Qualitative Inquiry in Everyday Life, Svend Brinkmann, Los Angeles: Sage, 2012, 197 pages.
   ISBN 987-0-85702-476-3.