The Power Of Naming

wordsWhen I first learned about research, as a student of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics in the early 1980s, the people we collected data from were called ‘subjects’. They were subject to our research, and subjects of our research; we were (told we were) the objective neutral researchers with the power to collect and analyse data. That power came from knowing how to do those things: special, arcane knowledge available only to insiders, i.e. those with enough educational capital.

By the time I got back into research, around the turn of the century, researchers had begun to acknowledge that positivism might not be the only game in town. The terminology had moved on and ‘subjects’ were becoming more widely known as ‘participants’. We felt good about this: instead of subjecting people to our whims, we would let them join in with our research (up to a point, mostly defined by us). How kind.

I’m beginning to think it’s time for another shift. I’m enjoying the way some researchers are being creative here, such as Alistair Roy with his ‘tour guides’. However, while that term works well for Roy who conducts walking interviews with marginalised young men in cities, it’s not universally applicable. So I’m wondering about… contributors?

I also think it might be time to rethink ‘data’. The word is drawn from the Latin meaning ‘something given’. Yet more often data is something researchers take and keep. The ability to classify things as ‘data’ has enabled serious abuses, some of which are still ongoing today. For example, in her magisterial book An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz demonstrates that Euro-Western researchers retain the human remains and burial offerings of millions of Indigenous people by classifying them as ‘data’. For Indigenous peoples, these remains and offerings are sacred, yet Euro-Western researchers continue to ignore their requests for the return of their sacred objects, using ‘science’ as the reason. On this basis it might make sense to reword ‘data’ as ‘loot’ or ‘swag’.

Another option would be to refer to people who provide information for research as ‘people’ and to the information they provide as ‘information’. I’m in favour of this because it has a levelling quality, especially if we researchers also refer to ourselves as ‘people’. It saves us from the irregular verb effect: I am a researcher, you are a participant, they are users of research.

All this is still researcher-led, though, so potentially paternalistic (or, in my case, perhaps maternalistic?!). A further option could be to let people who contribute to research decide how to define both their roles and what they offer to the process.

Some readers may regard all this as quibbling over semantics. However, given the strength of the relationship between language and thought, it seems to me important to consider these issues. Names have power: power to identify and classify. When we name individuals, roles, groups, artefacts, we are saying something about how we see the world. As always we need to use this power with care.

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2 thoughts on “The Power Of Naming

  1. Very interesting and definitely worth opening up. I think we also need to recognise that we aren’t all equal or perhaps that we don’t all have the same interests in the research and sometimes that might be okay. We need to be respectful. And the history you briefly summarise here provides good reasons why others might not be respectful of scholars ways of creating and using knowledge (even when they do so in ways more respectful of others).

    The unspoken in all of this is the ways in which certain kinds of knowledge are socially and culturally valued over others and the stake some participants in the process have in those value differentials. Claiming that scientific knowledge is more valuable than sacred knowledge (for example) is about much more than just who gets to have those objects, which is why some people don’t want to return them. If you return the objects, what else will be questioned? I think that’s part of the point and something we should be doing. But that’s what’s at stake.

    Liked by 1 person

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