28 SES 05 B, Theory-Method Nexus: Exploring Bernstein’s concept of languages of description and their application to research
In his essay on ‘Research and Languages of Description’ (Bernstein, 2000, pp 131-144), Bernstein outlines a set of principles that he argues should drive the research process whether from a quantitative or qualitative perspective. He uses the concept of languages of description to show how theory-making evolves through close analysis of the distinctions, differences and contrasting positions identified in the empirical data. From a qualitative perspective, these are mapped into two distinct languages, operating at different levels of abstraction: L2, a language of enactment, and L1 a language of explanation (Moss, 2001). Bernstein comments
“the processes of constructing description are not discrete in time… but I believe we must struggle to keep L2 as free as possible [from L1] ” (Bernstein, 2000, p135)
This separation allows for the possibility of re-description and for the more abstract model of L1 to change and adapt in the light of what he describes as “the agency of enactments” (Ibid, p 136).
In relation to his own work, Bernstein observed: ‘sections of the theory (usually without strong principles of description) always preceded the research. … what bits of theory were developed was up to a point and, perhaps, very much the point, depended upon who knocked on the door with what problem’ (Bernstein, 2000: 121). This raises the issue of where and how Bernstein focused his own research efforts over time, and which elements of a complex and changing social landscape are worth paying attention to now.
In this research workshop, we open up for discussion three elements of Bernstein’s account of the theory-method relationship in research. First, the emphasis on the research problem, second, the importance of the theoretical ideas conjecturing about the elusive social real, and third the discursive gap between representations of the real in the model/theories and in the dynamics of the empirical real. We explore these issues with reference to how we read Bernstein’s theory and use it in our own research. What might a commitment to building languages of description mean for those engaged in mapping the social landscape in a period of rapid change? How does such a concept align with those scholars who see Bernstein’s sociological method as an open-ended problematic and inquiry, inseparably epistemological and ontological (see De Queiroz 2011, 57; Rochex, 2011)?
The research workshop will extend Bernstein’s work on research and languages of description through serious engagement with, amongst others, actor network theory and science and technology studies (Law, 2004), new feminist materialisms (Barad, 2007) and post-qualitative ideas (Lather, 2016). The questions we explore begin from a theoretical sensitivity to the inseparability of the ontological and epistemological. They entail a serious rethinking of the theory-method nexus, the entanglement of theory-method, researched-researcher, research artefacts and researched objects; and the mattering of such practices. Theory does not exist outside matter, outside the empirical real, but is integrally entangled in the production, performance of the world. Interpreted through this body of work, we consider whether the concept of languages of description provides a powerful set of tools for operationalising these ideas in and through the practicalities of research.
Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway. Qantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press. Bernstein, B. (2000) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity: Theory, Research, Critique, London: Taylor and Francis. De Queiroz, J.-M. (2011). The message the voice. In D. Frandji & P. Vitale (Eds.), Knowledge, Pedagogy and Society. International Perspectives on Basil Bernstein's sociology of education (pp. 49-61). Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge. Lather, P. (2016). (Re)Thinking Ontology in (Post)Qualitative Research. Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies, 1-7. doi:10.1177/1532708616634734 Law, J. (2004). After Method. Mess in social science research. London, New York: Routledge. Moss (2001) Bernstein's languages of description: Some generative principles, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 4:1, 17-19, DOI: 10.1080/13645570120714 Rochex, J.-Y. (2011). The work of Basil Bernstein. A non-"sociologistic" and therefore non-deterministic sociology. In D. Frandji & P. Vitale (Eds.), Knowledge, Pedagogy and Society. International Perspectives on Basil Bernstein's sociology of education (pp. 77-94). Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge.
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