As I was pondering potential advantages of critical suicidology over the non-critical (normal, usual) yesterday, I stopped to think. What does the attribute ‘critical’ offer? Why would ‘critical suicidology’ be better than the regular one? And it’s not only suicidology, it’s also pedagogy, ethnography, psychiatry, you name it, it’s also in the critical version. See Wikipedia’s take on it.
As I see it, there are two main aspects of ‘critical’. The first is challenge, the second is reflexiveness (or ‘reflexivity’).
Challenge. ‘Critical’ questions. It questions both the way knowledge is produced and the sources of the knowledge. A recent example of the former is the open letter, written by Trisha Greenhalgh, which I was privileged to be a signatory of. The letter challenges the way medical knowledge is produced and accepted to be produced. As with medicine, also psychology or, indeed, suicidology, are anchored predominantly in the positivist, quantitative paradigm. ‘Critical’ challenges the dominance of this paradigm, even though I am not entirely certain the letter was signed by representatives of ‘critical ‘disciplines (perhaps apart from me, after all I do Critical Discourse Studies – but it’s the soft version of CDA).
Reflexiveness. Reflexiveness is related. ‘Critical’ not only reflects on itself, but also encourages researchers to reflect on what they do and why, as well as who they are in the research process. About 10 years ago I interviewed men diagnosed with depression. As it turned out, all of them were not far away from me in terms of age or family status. In fact one of my interviewees explicitly constructed the interview as ‘two guys talking about difficult things’. Not only did he deprive me of my ‘transparent’ professorship, but also firmly put a gender/masculinity hat on me. I could not see the data as just ‘data’. To a considerable extent my data were a result of ‘two guys talking’. Ten years on, I am still not certain I fully appreciate it methodological cnsequences of this fact.
And so, as I reflect on and, perhaps more importantly, challenge the disciplinary mainstream, I start wondering about the extent the challenge makes sense. Before I offer my take on this, I’d like to quote from Graham Scambler’s blog (which I recommend to anyone wanting to gain a deeper/better understanding of the social sciences):
If it is the sociologist’s task to understand, explain and ‘expose’ ideology masquerading as science, how are we to distinguish sociology, qua science, and ideology? This is no easy question to answer in the twenty-first century’s postmodern or relativised culture, yet if asked I am still unfashionably inclined to defend the idea that sociology is scientific; so what do I mean by this?
This fragment inspired me to think about what exactly I do when I do ‘critical’. Let me put it like that: what are the challenging and reflecting for? Are they to offer a ‘brave new (disciplinary) world’, or are they perhaps to help achieve deeper understanding of whatever the object of the study is, perhaps in collaboration with the ‘non-critical’ people? For the more I think about the ‘non-critical’, the more I think of the great achievements they have had, and the more I think of the ‘critical’, the more I think of its desire to achieve dominance and push the current mainstream off the podium. And I would prefer to see collaboration between the two perspectives, however unlikely it is.
But before I end, I would like to propose a third, and in my view necessary characteristic of ‘critical’’. I think ‘critical’ must be on the margins, outside the mainstream, so it doesn’t sit comfortably and happily, putting more and more cushions under its bum. In my view ‘critical’ travels the disciplinary third class, because it won’t be let into standard. And even though third class is certainly not as comfortable, I think for the most part it’s actually more interesting!
But the fact that it is interesting, that it arose from challenge and sometimes indignation, doesn’t give ‘critical’ the licence to say anything. The challenge cannot be made for the sake of the challenge. I would even go as far as saying that the postulated change must be useful predominantly for those outside ‘critical’. Yes, it does raise the bar, but that’s life.