The Personal Is Empirical

Human beings are natural researchers: exploring, seeking and comparing data, testing, evaluating, drawing conclusions. We do this all our lives. One of our first research methods, when we are only a few months old, is to put everything in our mouths. By the time we are a few years old we are asking incessant questions. We are programmed to investigate. As we get older, our methods get more sophisticated – and if we train as a professional researcher, they become more systematic, too.

Do you know the roots of the word ‘empirical’? It is derived from the Greek word ‘empeirikos’, meaning ‘experienced’. It means something verifiable by experiment or experience. So, the personal is empirical.

Autoethnographers know this already. For a generation now autoethnographers have been ‘utilizing personal stories for scholarly purposes’ (Chang 2008:10). Some have put too much emphasis on the personal stories and not enough on the scholarly purposes, leading to accusations of self-indulgence, navel-gazing, and irrelevance. More, though, have worked to link their personal experience with other data and wider narratives, theory, evidence, policy, and practice, in a systematic and rigorous way.

Embodied researchers also know that the personal is empirical. They focus on the physical, sensory dimensions of experience, as part of the data they collect. This subverts the conventional view of scholarly work as entirely cerebral – or, as the embodied researchers would have it, ‘disembodied research’. Embodied research is also open to accusations of self-interest and irrelevance. Yet embodied researchers point out that no research can in fact be disembodied. Even sitting still and thinking is a physical activity; the brain with which you think forms part of your body.

Other researchers draw on the personal in other ways. In my work on creative research methods, I have been astonished by the number of people who combine their artistic skills, or their writing talents, or their aptitude for making, or their technological savvy, or some other personal attribute with their research. This usually results in enrichment and often innovation, yet even now working in these ways can feel like swimming against the tide. The way we try to contain knowledge in silos, and reify specialisation, is not the norm in human history. It is not long since nobody thought it strange for someone to be both weaver and astronomer, doctor and poet, musician and engineer. Why have we forgotten that ‘the more diverse someone’s knowledge, the more likely they are to be able to identify and implement creative solutions to problems’? (Kara 2020:11).

Musing on all of this, I came up with the phrase ‘the personal is empirical’. I tried it out on a group of students last month and it went down well. Then, like a good scholar, I checked to see whether anyone else had used the phrase already. It was used by one US academic, most recently around 15 years ago. She was a feminist too and I guess for her, as for me, the generation of this phrase was influenced by the old feminist mantra that ‘the personal is political’. Nobody owned that phrase, and nobody owns this one either – you’re free to use it if you wish.

In fact, it would be great if you did. Because we need more people to understand that ‘knowledge is worth having, no matter where it originates’ (Kara 2020:11) – whether that is in the body, or someone’s wider life experience, or in a test tube, or an encounter with a book, or a conversation, or an animated film. As a species, as inhabitants of planet Earth, we have a plethora of problems to solve. We cannot afford to reject knowledge, or create hierarchies of knowledge; we need to value everyone’s expertise. And their experience. And experiments, and evidence, and theories – the whole lot. In fact, it is all empirical, but nobody will argue if you talk about empirical experiments or empirical evidence. The personal is empirical? That’s more provocative. So take this toy I have given you, my dear ones; take it and play!

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