ISSN: 1705-6411
                                   
Volume 8, Number 1 (January 2011)

Thesis Deploying Baudrillard's Thought

Phenomenographic Hyperreality: Jean Baudrillard's Methodological Implications for Phenomenography

Steven Farry
(Master’s Thesis, School of Humanities, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia)

Conclusion And Bibliography

This thesis’s introduction cites Denzin: ‘we do not know how the meaning structures which are arising in the postmodern age find verification…how this information then enters and circulates within the real of the taken-for-granted’ (1986:202). The citation encapsulates much of the discussion that follows it. During the first chapter, the thesis provides an overview of the assumptions and processes according to which phenomenographic methodologies attempt to verify the meaning structures that arise from subjects’ empiric encounters. Reflexively examining the application of those assumptions and processes demonstrates that they create new meaning structures instead of verifying extant ones: as has been shown, new subject and object positions are established, between which new sets of relationships—meaning structures—are proposed. These elements are described as new because no instance of them may be found in the data from which they are constituted.

The logical and temporal problems that phenomenographic methodologies exhibit in their attempts to achieve an experiential focus would seem to affirm Denzin’s assessment that ‘we’ do not know how meaning structures are verified under contemporary conditions. They would also seem to match Baudrillard’s contention that sociological tools can never access the masses‘ understanding (1983b [1978]). An important difference between the two perspectives prefaces the arguments this thesis makes concerning phenomenographic methodologies’ focus and function. Baudrillard’s reference restricts itself to knowledge of the meaning structures that the masses exhibit. His subsequent work goes on to make bolder claims concerning the nature or ‘reality’ of contemporary empiric conditions, but, in this instance, Denzin’s claim, which concerns all meaning structures arising in the postmodern age, appears the more expansive.

The observation is relevant to phenomenographic methodologies’ inability to achieve an experiential focus and identify subjects’ ways of experiencing phenomena. The main contention advanced during this thesis is that phenomenographic methodologies generate simulations; however, an alternative interpretation, canvassed early in the second chapter, is that operators of phenomenographic methodologies construct their own understanding, their own meaning structures, in relation to the phenomena they wish to investigate. From this perspective, the possibility of identifying the way meaning structures are verified is achievable. As the thesis points out, observing phenomenographic methodologies’ operation and the presentation of their findings in accordance with academic or sociologic convention demonstrates how meaning structures are circulated, verified, and made ‘real’. While phenomenographic methodologies’ narration is unreliable—they are presented as tools for examining others’ experiences and meaning structures, when this is not the case—the revision of their focus and function proposed in this thesis may be argued to address Denzin’s concerns, albeit as a byproduct of the argument that phenomenographic methodologies achieve simulation.

Denzin’s reference to verification organises a significant aspect of this thesis’s extension and revision of phenomenographic methodologies and their function. Phenomenographic methodologies—indeed, most sociologic tools (Savage & Burrows 2007)—do not exhibit a predictive capacity. The phenomenographic literature accounts for this on the grounds that the methodologies aim to generate a record of all the ways something may be experienced rather than a set of causal relationships between extant subjects and objects (Marton & Booth 1997; åkerlind 2002). This contention, as Dahlin (2007) shows, is largely unsupportable. As I have suggested, it also problematises the subject’s role within the methodologies’ analysis. Exacerbating the lack of predictive capacity, which would potentially create an opportunity for external verification, is the absence of consensus within the phenomenographic literature upon appropriate validity measures. These issues problematise phenomenographic methodologies’ function and pragmatic value, creating the impetus for the revised role proposed in this thesis.

Rather than proposing a predictive framework or validity measure that could be said to verify phenomenographic methodologies’ results, the thesis demonstrates how the methodologies’ assumptions and processes prohibit both. It offers a structural account, exceeding the phenomenographic literature’s account of the issue, which relates difficulties in establishing validity to the methodologies’ interpretive nature (Marton 1981, 1986; Svennson & Theman, 1983; Entwistle 1997). The distinction between phenomenographic methodologies’ idealised subjects and panoptic objects and extant subjects and their direct objects is shown to confirm and justify Marton and Booth’s contention that determining whether subjects actually exhibit the ways of experiencing those methodologies identify exceeds their remit (1997:136). The thesis points out that contrasting the properties of the methodologies’ subject and object positions with those of extant subjects and objects destabilises the relationship between the two: given that their properties are demonstrably different, on what grounds may conclusions drawn from one set be argued to represent or be attributable to the other? This issue suggests that phenomenographic methodologies are unable to perform their alleged function and produce communicably or demonstrably valid results within or beyond the parameters of their operations.

To account for this, the methodologies’ assumptions and processes are juxtaposed with Baudrillard’s analytic concepts and reading of contemporary empiric conditions. This develops a new perspective from which to assess the methodologies’ function and relation to the empiric encounters they allegedly represent. In the first instance, this is achieved by characterising phenomenographic methodologies’ categories of description and outcome spaces as hyperreal. The thesis shows how phenomenographic methodologies achieve this condition by isolating their data from external referents and removing the capacity for calibration, negative instances, polarity, and rationality from their processes and results. This revises phenomenographic methodologies’ claims to being empirically based (Marton 1986, 2000; Sandberg 1997; Svensson 1997; åkerlind 2002) showing instead how they achieve Baudrillard’s definition of simulation: ‘the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal’ (1988a [1981]:166). Evidencing the hyperreal nature of phenomenographic methodologies’ categories of description and outcome spaces, and the simulatory effect of their assumptions and processes, is one of the thesis’s key contributions. It provides a clearer understanding of the methodologies’ results and validity, presaging the direction of the revisions proposed to their function.

Denzin’s reference to the ‘real of the taken-for-granted’ may be said to orient a complementary strand of the thesis’s efforts to extend and revise phenomenographic methodologies’ focus and function. Applying Baudrillard’s concepts and analytic strategies, the thesis draws attention to the empiric model that phenomenographic methodologies may be said to ‘take for granted’ as the basis of their analysis. In the same sense that Baudrillard’s “The system of objects” (1988b [1968]) challenges Marxist doctrine by showing how it cannot engage contemporary conditions of production and distribution, the thesis shows how phenomenographic methodologies’ analytic model, which identifies and attributes ways of experiencing a phenomenon based on an assumption that they are the result of a relationship between subject and object within a context, cannot adequately grasp and attribute the meaning structures arising under contemporary empiric conditions. As the thesis demonstrates, meaning may be attributed to an object by other elements within a context. It may also be expressed by subjects who may not have experienced—or be capable of experiencing—the object in that way. These issues problematise phenomenographic methodologies’ ability to delineate between the phenomena that subjects experience and the context in which meaning structures arise. The thesis draws particular attention to instances where agents may be shown to inculcate and attribute symbolic values to other phenomena within a context. The question raised is, on what grounds may it be said that a subject is experiencing one object or phenomena rather than another? The subsequent discussion supports the thesis’s contention that the parameters of phenomenographic methodologies’ panoptic objects are identified based upon researchers’ preconceived notions instead of an experiential focus. The point is also used to confirm the hyperreality of phenomenographic methodologies’ categories of description and outcome spaces, demonstrating how the symbolic values they incorporate exist independently of the empiric encounters that allegedly produce them. As the thesis illustrates, this creates the capacity for an absence of rationality within phenomenographic methodologies’ results.

The thesis uses Baudrillard’s insights to demonstrate how phenomenographic methodologies’ tendency to use subjects’ accounts of phenomena to access meaning structures creates the potential to develop analyses and attempted experiential foci using language that has no meaning. This contests the validity of a specific methodological practice—the use of ‘subjects’’ language in constructing categories of description—while querying whether, in reproducing meaningless language, phenomenographic methodologies may be argued to identify and verify exogenous meaning structures. Extending the previous paragraph’s attendance to the ‘real of the taken-for-granted’, this argument draws attention to the relationship between phenomenographic methodologies’ categories of description and outcome spaces and the empiric encounters they simulate.

Invoking Baudrillard’s reading of contemporary empiric conditions (1983d [1981], 1998b [1968]), the thesis develops the point by suggesting that phenomenographic methodologies’ simulations reproduce the meaninglessness of contemporary empiric encounters. Following Baudrillard’s analysis, this indicates that phenomenographic methodologies have collapsed into the social, manifesting rather than providing a means of grasping or observing contemporary empiric conditions. To support this argument, the thesis illustrates phenomenographic methodologies’ lack of critical distance, demonstrating how their assumptions and processes prohibit the meaning structures they identify from being verified within or between the methodologies. In this way, the methodologies’ findings are again shown to exhibit the characteristics of hyperreality: the absence of external referents, and a lack of capacity for calibration, negative instances, polarity, and rationality. This perspective complements the thesis’s proposal that phenomenographic methodologies be considered tools for facilitating simulations and understanding the conditions that encourage them to develop.

The identified lack of meaning and hyperreal characteristics of phenomenographic methodologies’ categories of description and outcome spaces is problematic in-so-far as it contests their original focus and function. The thesis offers one avenue for resolving the issue by invoking Baudrillard’s hypothesis that hyperreality is replacing reality (1983d [1981]). This revises phenomenographic methodologies’ empiric model, removing the structural possibility of identifying discrepancies between the methodologies’ simulations and the contemporary empiric encounters of which they aim to provide knowledge. In hyperreality, there are potentially no fixed meaning structures attached to empiric encounters, and a limited relationship between ‘real’ empiric encounters and those that occur under hyperreal conditions. This highlights the assumption according to which significance is attributed to the discrepancies between phenomenographic methodologies’ categories of description and outcome spaces and what are thought to be extant meaning structures: the expectation that subject-object relations under contemporary empiric conditions are or should exhibit a set of meaning structures that is replicable and verifiable. The links Marton draws between phenomenographic methodologies and variation theory, in which he suggests that subjects attend only to aspects of experience that exhibit the capacity to vary (Marton & Pang 2002; Marton, Runesson, & Tsui 2004), is a useful tool for elaborating this perspective’s implications. Positioning subjects in an empiric environment where meaning structures are uniformly variant removes the possibility of establishing aspects of reality that are constant. The variation in meaning structures’ variability,in other words,the potential for them to vary or not to vary, is removed. Following Marton’s premise, this suggests the meaning structures themselves exceed subjects’ capacity for attendance. Where all meaning structures are detached from external referents, there will be no expectation—or possibility—of establishing a finite and totalising record of subject-object relations. As a result, the possibility of phenomenographic methodologies’ original focus and function is removed. The basic assumption concerning meaning structures and their relation to empiric encounters is problematised.

The further problem this line of argument creates is that the meaninglessness Baudrillard diagnoses as the contemporary empiric condition’s dominant characteristic extends to phenomenographic methodologies. Having proposed that the methodologies confirm Baudrillard’s reading of contemporary empiric conditions and generate simulations that are independent of their external referents, is there a point to their persistence? Have they, in Baudrillard’s parlance, imploded? One answer is that locating phenomenographic methodologies within Baudrillard’s reading of contemporary empiric conditions serves to illustrate a quandary in his theorising and its application to sociologic tools. Rather than using Baudrillard’s work to extend understandings of phenomenographic methodologies, the reverse may be practiced: the methodologies’ suggested function is to extend understandings of Baudrillard’s work. From this perspective, documents such as this thesis perform dual roles:  advancing and evidencing phenomenographic methodologies’ revised function as well as advancing and evidencing Baudrillard’s theories.

The quandary that phenomenographic methodologies propose for Baudrillard’s theorising is linked to the broader question of their focus and function. In one sense, demonstrating the potential invalidity of phenomenographic methodologies’ results limits the proliferation of simulation and hyperreality. Following Butler’s reading (1999), in demonstrating the falsity of attempted representations and showing that they are simulations, ‘the real’ is defended because the erroneous assumption that it is being grasped and presented is removed. Maintaining a distinction between the methodologies’ results and reality prevents confusion between the map and its referents. At the same time, however, demonstrating that phenomenographic methodologies generate simulations asserts what Baudrillard terms the reality principle (1988a [1981]:171-2): highlighting false or flawed attempts at representation reinforces the belief that ‘reality’ exists, disguising the hyperreality of contemporary empiric conditions. Determining which of these possibilities to endorse would appear to hinge upon one’s assumptions about contemporary empiric conditions, assumptions that sociologic tools such as phenomenographic methodologies may have been expected to inform.

Without attempting to impose a conclusive reading of this issue—the indecidability of Baudrillard’s theories being part of their charm and, as shown in this discussion, their persistence-value—it may be noted that both perspectives retain a place for phenomenographic methodologies. Suggesting that phenomenographic methodologies are simulators assigns them a structural position within Baudrillard’s view of contemporary empiric conditions: they accelerate the proliferation of hyperreality, hastening the pace at which ‘the map’ detaches itself from reality. Observed as simulators, their role is to halt that proliferation. The nihilistic view that phenomenographic methodologies’ demonstrated inability to grasp extant subjects and objects renders them meaningless is accommodated by showing how evidencing false representation asserts the reality principle, disguising the hyperreal nature of contemporary empiric conditions and allowing those conditions to persist. At the same time, as manifestations of the social, phenomenographic methodologies help reveal some of the codes arising from or governing empiric encounters, even though their attachment to extant subjects and objects is transient. From each perspective, it may be argued that Baudrillard’s work facilitates phenomenographic methodologies’ extension, revision, and persistence. Contradicting assessments of his ‘nihilistic’ contribution, Baudrillard’s theorising contributes to an awareness of the context in which phenomenographic methodologies operate, to enhance the understanding that may be brought to bear upon the implications and applications of their methodological assumptions and processes, and to provide a vocabulary that can describe and help explain their results’ characteristics. Most importantly, engaging Baudrillard’s work helps phenomenographic methodologies shed light on empiric encounters by improving the awareness of meaning structures’ transience. This contradicts Denzin’s assertion that nothing is known of the meaning structures arising under contemporary empiric conditions. It presents an optimistic view of phenomenographic methodologies’, and Jean Baudrillard’s, future applications.

Steven Farry has lived and worked in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the United Kingdom and France. He is currently based in Wellington, Australia, where he is researching the simulation and the functions of food in indigenous life writing. The author expresses his gratitude to Dr. Ian Woodward (Principal Supervisor of this thesis)

stevenfarry@gmail.com

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