Lost voice(s)?

I was re-reading my MSc Dissertation yesterday, trying to get a handle on a paper I’m meant to be writing about the project I was involved in.

What follows is an extract from the final thesis explaining why I chose to write in the first person. I’ve hidden it under the ‘more’ below as it is a bit long…

I got a bit of a lump in my throat reading it, and I’m not sure why. I think I’m missing this side of academic research- a lot of what I’m doing is ‘hard science’, stuck firmly in the objective mould. I’m not sure how to find room for that very personal, highly theoretical and philosophical voice in my PhD. I’m not actively interpreting any archaeology, I’m not making inferences about people in the past from what they have left behind. There may be a tiny bit of room for that in the interpretation of the case study data, or the ground truthing work, but at the end of the day it isn’t my main aim.

I miss it! I feel at the moment that the work I’m doing does not have my voice, my identity within it. I know I need to fit the established paradigms to be accepted, and that I could take far more risks with my MSc than with my PhD, but it does not stop a creeping resentment building to this positivist world I have to inhabit…

Whilst archaeologists have been willing to recognise the importance of context in understanding the past (Hodder, 1995), they are often less explicitly willing to recognise their own standpoint or context and how it influences their practice. Harraway (1991, chapter 9.) in discussing the dominant Cartesian model of though and science in the West has pointed out that the outsiders viewpoint is often as valuable, or more valuable than the dominant one. This is largely because the dominant viewpoint at present is what many are coming to consider unsustainably positivist. An impossible, neutral God’s eye view of some kind of objective truth. In archaeology, we have struggled for some time with this, since the development of post-processual archaeology in the early 1990’s. Proponents of relativism have been accused of making it impossible to say anything meaningful about the past, as all interpretations become equally valid. I feel that the problem of the standpoint of the archaeologist is only really a problem if the standpoint goes unacknowledged. If the aims and views of the researcher are made clear, and they document every aspect of the decision making process (epistemic transparency), then they can say something useful about the past. Precisely because their influence on their conclusions has been made explicit, their research is useful to other people as they can see exactly how and why such conclusions have been drawn, rather than relying on some form of status or reliability quotient gleaned from knowing how ‘well regarded’ a particular thinker or school of thought is. I will expand on how this applied to my work in the section below on my reflexive approach. There is, in my opinion (and as has been demonstrated by Wylie (1992) amongst others), no such thing as an objective approach, and so not pretending to one should not invalidate my research…

Given the theoretical basis for my work and my aims that reach clearly beyond archaeological exploration into the political and discursive it would be erroneous at best and misleading at worst to attempt a neutral third person style and approach. As Hodder (1995) and others have so cogently argued, we all have our own standpoints, the questions we ask and the way we try to solve them are rooted in our own experience and enculturation.

I need, therefore, to make my own standpoint explicit. I was brought up in a feminist, left wing household that was strongly opposed to nuclear weapons and the Thatcher Government. I have very early memories of taking part in marches and demonstrations about diverse issues, including marching in support of CND. My mother was an organiser in our local area for CND and was heavily involved with organisations such as the National Childbirth Trust. She still has her ‘Spare Rib’ (a feminist journal) diary from the year I was born. My father was a card-carrying member of the British Communist party and left in disgust when they became the Democratic Left. My mother is named in Hansard, having been referred to as a ‘dangerous Marxist-Leninist radical feminist’ on the floor of the House of Commons during the Cleveland child-sex abuse crisis (both my parents were social workers in Cleveland in the 70’s and 80’s); my mother does not herself agree with any of those labels! So yes, I have a standpoint here. The title of this piece of work is a tongue-in-cheek reference to that fact.

I am politically active, though I do not support a particular party. I remain opposed to nuclear weapons of any sort. I am proud to call myself a feminist and I do not consider the struggle to be over by any means. I consider myself ‘queer’ in a number of respects.

I feel strongly that recognising this from the outset, letting it ‘out of the closet’ is preferable to not mentioning it at all and attempting what would obviously be impossible, a neutral voice. From the start of my involvement in the project, my viewpoint has coloured my choices. I was approached by Yvonne Marshall for two reasons, firstly, because the project needed a technically competent female surveyor (as the Peace Women were less happy with technical males), and because she knew I would be interested and committed to the projects goals, based on my background and personal interests. Indeed, my choice to become a technically competent field-working female archaeologist is grounded in my belief in equality and that patriarchal assumptions about ‘female roles’ need to be challenged. In archaeology, despite leaps and bounds towards equality, women still tend to end up in ‘female’ roles; lab based, drawing, pottery, small finds for example.

I do not think this admission detracts from the validity of the work I have done. It has been a strangely daunting prospect, as I am very aware of going against the norm, both in acknowledging my viewpoint so explicitly, and in adopting a first person voice for this piece of research. I hope that my use of the first person will remind both myself and the reader that all knowledge is situated and dependant to a degree on the person doing the knowing and the asking.

Haraway, D, J. 1991. Simians, cyborgs and women: the reinvention of nature. Free Association Books, London.

Hodder, I 1995. Theory and Practice in Archaeology. London, Routledge.

Wiley, A. 1992. The Interplay of Evidential Constraints and Political Interests: Recent Archaeological Research on Gender. American Antiquity 57 15-35

7 thoughts on “Lost voice(s)?

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  2. What an excellent expose on your personal academic writing style. I completely follow your strand of thoughts as they bare similarities to my own. When I started writing my own MA thesis I was stuck in the commonly accepted paradigma of writing scientific and neutral texts not written from the first person perspective.

    However, thanks to my thesis supervisor, Geert Lovink, I eventually included my own perspectives/experiences/voices etc. Every text is rooted in a personal context which in my opinion adds to the discourse of a certain topic. While it might feel awkward at first finding your own personal writing voice is key to writing a good thesis. Especially if it’s your phd and you will be busy for years!

    Good luck and thanks for the inspiring article.

  3. Hi Anne and thanks for commenting 🙂 It is nice to see some people from the ‘meadow’ coming over! This was taken from my MSc thesis; I was writing about the Archaeology of the womens peace camps at Greenham Common (a major British anti-nuclear protest)… It seemed impossible NOT to be personal in my approach… now though, I am researching geophysical investigation in bogs and wetlands: not much room for theory, let alone experience centred, first person written theory! I’m sure I’ll find a way though 🙂 Sounds like you have a great supervisor!

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