Monday, 28 November 2011
Doing psychoanalytic research in organizations
The similarities of psychoananalysis with forensic investigations have long been noted. Sigmund Freud, like Sherlock Holmes, was an interpreter of symptoms; he was also an interpreter of dreams, of fantasies, someone preoccupied with the meaning of the trivial, the inexplicable, the irrational. Interpretation lies at the heart of psychoanalysis both as a research activity and as a clinical practice. Interpretation, as Ricoeur (Ricoeur, 1970) informs us, is the systematic exercise of suspicion. Our suspicion is, first, a suspicion over the truthfulness of each, second, a suspicion over the motives of the narrator, and thirdly over our own motives, as listeners and interpreters. Thus our suspicion extends to our own narratives, our own interpretations.
This then is the first particularity of doing research using psychoanalytic perspectives in and out of organizations. Instead of amassing data, we look for clues. The odd, the out of place, the single significant exception may provide far more insight than large volumes of uniform and unidirectional data. Of special interest to us is what may have been disturbed, concealed, tampered. As psychoanalytic researchers we are averse to instant conclusions. We are especially suspicious of 'innocent', straight-forward explanations, of undisturbed terrains, of dogs that do not bark.
This puts psychoanalytic research in opposition to the largest segment of researchers who use qualitative techniques, most of whom treat 'experience' as the final arbiter of truth. This includes most researchers coming from phenomenological, humanist or social constructionist traditions. Psychoanalytic researchers, on the other hand, mistrust experience, they mistrust verbatim reports and they especially mistrust early past experiences whose recollection serve as explanations of current troubles. Experience, we have learned, is tainted with desire, with fantasy, with resistance, and cannot be accepted at face value. This, of course, creates numerous moral, political and scientific dilemmas. On whose authority does the psychoanalytic researcher doubt the sincere testimony of his or her respondent? How can he or she doubt the heart-felt tears, the piercing anger, the rightful indignation? On whose authority does he or she sit listening attentively, while engaging in all kinds of speculation regarding the unconscious reality behind the lived experience? On whose authority can he or she claim to understand the narrator better than he or she understands himself or herself?
Unless psychoanalysis as exercise of suspicion, i.e. psychoanalysis as interpretation, is backed up by a sound body of understanding, an imperfect but correctable stock of concepts, theories and propositions, it lacks the moral and scientific authority to question experience. Only by maintaining its belief in the difference between truths and untruths, can psychoanalytic inquiry pursue its quest of truth in lies or fantasies. For there is no doubt, that psychoanalysis looks for the truth in lies. Instead of dismissing lies as willing falsehoods or malicious deceptions (which they can at times be), psychoanalysis engages with them at the levels of meaning and desire, i.e. the levels where lies are not cognitive untruths but true wish fulfilments.
The second thing to note about psychoanalytic research is that it is inquiry against resistance. All scientific inquiry involves resistance -- resistance to new ideas or to new ways of thinking. However, psychoanalytic inquiry works against additional resistances, which are invisible without the aid of the psychoanalytic stock of concepts and theories noted earlier. It is the psychoanalytic theory of resistance which raises psychoanalytic interpretation above the chatter of those who Sievers has appropriately referred to as merchandisers of meaning. Psychoanalysis does not seek to create attractive parcels of meaning, seductive but ultimately unfounded stories, to feed the fantasies of its constituents, but seeks to put its finger on the psychological truth, the true meaning of the phenomena it observes.
In this regard, psychoanalytic research could not be more dissimilar from postmodern research. In place of the postmodernist ironic detachment, psychoanalytic research tends to be very serious. While postmodern research assumes a stance of playful engagement with its subject matter, psychoanalytic research usually assumes the form of struggle against resistances, inner as well as outer. These resistances are a source of great strength for psychoanalytic inquiry, but they also have potentially disastrous consequences. The strength lies in the fact that in recognizing the aims of the resistance and the mechanisms through which it functions, the psychoanalytic researcher can make great strides in corroborating interpretations. The potential weakness has been well-rehearsed. It lies in the fact that all too often resistance to interpretation is mechanically taken to imply confirmation of the interpretation. Untold of damage has been done to psychoanalysis by the cliché that equates denial with truth. Furthermore, the psychoanalytic investigator is working against inner resistances -- for example, those stemming from attachments to particular ideas or theories or, even more alarmingly, those stemming from a personal stake in a particular tradition. It is not accidental that so many quarrels in psychoanalytic research end up ad hominem arguments. Even in this potential weakness, however, psychoanalytic research is keenly conscious of a problem of which many other traditions remain unconscious: the fact that as researchers we form strong emotional relations with our theories and those of others and that, at times, theories themselves become defenses against uncertainty and accompanying anxieties.
The crucial dilemma then facing psychoanalytic researchers is that of being truthful about their aims and methods, without fatally contaminating the phenomena which they study. In writing about the clinical practice of psychoanalysis, Freud wrote:
the relationship between analyst and patient is based on a love of truth, that is, on the acknowledgment of reality, and that precludes any kind of sham or deception. (Freud, 1937: 248)
In warning against premature interpretations, however, Freud acknowledged that truth must appear at the appropriate moment -- truth at the wrong moment can act as an occasion for falsehood, resistance and denial. Alternatively, falsehood at the appropriate can assume the appearance of truth, under the influence of suggestion.
The same dilemma characterizes psychoanalytic research into organizations. The researcher who goes to the field with a completely transparent brief about his or her intentions and interests is likely in the first place to be denied access. Even if access is granted, such an approach is likely either to bolster the resistances which inhibit the pursuit and acknowledgment of truth or to set in operation a suggestive chain of events, where the research is guaranteed to mirror the preconceived ideas of the researcher. Steering a path between suggestion and resistance requires the utmost skill on the part of the psychoanalytic researcher.
Yet another dilemma arises from the different interests of researcher and researched. The researcher is usually interested in the truth; the researched is often interested in solutions to problems. This creates serious, though by no means insuperable difficulties for the researcher. The same dilemma, after all, characterizes many other scientific enterprises. The engineer requires good-enough solutions which will work in practice, even if the physicist may not be able to understand exactly why or how they work. The physician will use a reliable form of treatment, even if the precise way it affects the body is not altogether clear. Psychoanalytic research in organizations, like all scientific research, is as much a craft and an art as it is an application of fixed principles or methods. Competent researchers must balance the need for truthfulness against other factors, pragmatic, theoretical and methodological. They may rely on hunches or intuitive impulses, they must be sensitive to unforeseen opportunities and prepared to deviate from their research plan when circumstances change. They must have a keen eye for detail without losing sight of their overall purpose. And they must be prepared to engage subjectively with their observations and data, trusting themselves to be able to make sense of their engagement at a later stage. They must be prepared to take wrong turnings and to develop theories and ideas which must be given up later. They must also be prepared to give up ideas, research material and earlier work, like artists who realize that some sketches must remain sketches which have to be destroyed. In all these ways, psychoanalytic research into organizations, like most research, is quite a time-consuming and even wasteful activity, one which does not easily tally with the pressures facing consultants.
Yet, the prospective psychoanalytic researcher into organizations should not despair in the face of these difficulties. Like all crafts, the craft of research is one that some people learn relatively rapidly, developing extensive competencies and skills, among which must be counted the economical use of resources. Others need longer periods of apprenticeship, while some may never actually master the craft. In a paradoxical way, it is possible for a scholar to be a very original thinker and theorist without being particularly good at field research. Even more paradoxically, some excellent theories, both in the natural and in the human sciences, can be based on flawed or problematic research material, just as some high quality research material may fail to provide any theoretical insights.
Psychoanalytic research into organizations, like all research, is a practice which is closer to an art or a craft than the practice of scientific theorizing. It cannot be reduced to a set of immutable rules of scientific method; instead, it is guided by a proliferation of practical rules of thumb. Part of the researcher's skill lies in knowing when it is worth taking a risk in departing from such guidelines and also knowing whether the risk has paid off. There are occasions when breaking a particular research guideline can offer unexpected insights.
There is one type of mistake that researchers must avoid at all costs, one type of rule which they must not break. This concerns the ethical requirements of doing research; no hoped for outcome justifies the breaking of undertakings which a researcher has given, the carrying out of research which will be harmful to those participating in it, or the dissemination of lies and distortions. Such practices, which all too frequently corrupt the practices of investigative journalists and reporters, can have absolutely devastating effect when indulged in by academic researchers. They certainly close the doors for future researchers and taint the reputation of the academic traditions and establishments to which researchers belong -- nothing can justify such a cost.
The final thing which psychoanalytic researchers into organizations must be prepared for is yet another quality of all research activity. They must be prepared to endure the anxiety and distress of not knowing, and not knowing whether they are on the path towards knowing. Acknowledging one's own confusion and puzzlement at different points of the research process can be more helpful than seeking comfort in existing answers and re-assuring platitudes. Researchers must be prepared to endure periods of uncertainty, periods of profound doubt, if they are to arrive at original and substantial conclusions. Being organized in recording one's materials, filing them and analysing them is an asset which can all too easily turn into a liability. The perfectly organized mind is unlikely to arrive at highly original ideas. By contrast, the alert mind, the mind which is prepared to improvise and change its mental and practical routines is more likely to arrive at original thinking and theoretical innovation. Above all, researchers must be willing to ask themselves questions: the hardest and most awkward questions -- those questions that even the most perceptive inquisitor, the most demanding examiner may fail to ask; but also, the easiest, most straight-forward questions which sometimes seem hardly worth asking.
Freud, S. 1937. Analysis terminable and interminable (Standard ed.). London: Hogarth Press.
Ricoeur, P. 1970. Freud and philosophy: An essay on interpretation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.