On treating data as a material and the resulting multiplicity

Via Justin Pickard, in a book called Imagining Classrooms by Vicki Macknight, a few interesting passages on the value of treating data as a material:

Remembering advice given in the qualitative research methods texts I had studied as an undergraduate, I made a set of file cards. Onto each, I stuck a picture drawn by a child in response to the task ‘a time you used your imagination’.

I then set about trying to make sense of these pictures, looking carefully and laying them out in piles and rows on my desk, and sometimes on my floor. In doing so, I was making patterns of similarity and difference. I was using these cards to transform a set of pictures drawn by a hundred different children, some of whom shared a classroom and others who would never meet, into categories of imagination that made sense in and as theories. I was hoping that through my actions the correct theory of what imagination is would emerge.

In fact it was theories – plural – that emerged. I could pile these cards in many ways, all of which made sense in terms of previous theoretical posi- tions and that seemed accurate in terms of classroom life. I noticed this as first one, then another, way of piling the cards made me feel discomforted. I did not wish to endorse some of these ways of piling nor the theories that they implied. I made one theory, then another. (p69-70)

But Macknight almost immediately presents this multiplicity of theory-building as problematic:

the problem with the ways I find to pile my data is not that they are bad representations of the world or of what goes on in the world. In fact, each seems correct in certain ways and is used to structure school life. However, each carries with it implications that are distasteful to me for ethical reasons. Each makes me discomforted when I think of what this would mean for particular children if applied back into classrooms as the single truth. So the problem with each way of piling my data is that as theories they would be bad interventions. They are embedded in, and would further embed in schools, a worrying politics. (p71)

By the end of the chapter, Macknight has resolved the problem with multiplicity by embracing it as a resource for thinking through how a particular phenomenon or situation emerges in practice.

Multiplicity, I have gone on to say, is not in itself a problem. Rather it is something we should think carefully about how to deal with. (p89)

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