One of the real pleasures of my job is the chance to supervise students doing lengthy doctoral and masters theses. I have a number of students doing different project, and they seem like the epitome of the kind of close personal relationship at the heart of learning and teaching.
I had pause to reflect yesterday on an experience with one of my students who is looking at the way that biomedical discourses have come to dominate the way we think about cancer. He’s using the writings of Michel Foucault to guide his thinking and, having no real appreciation for Foucault, he’s made really good progress.
Throughout his project he’s grappled with his own belief that environmental and societal concerns (pollution, radiation, etc.) play an important role in cancer, but these discourses are suppressed by medicine, which is more concerned with medical causes and remedies.
We had some early discussions around his desire to do a Foucauldian study because I was convinced for a long time that critical theory approaches might suit him better, but he insisted that he wanted to work with Foucault.
For those unfamiliar with Foucault, one of the distinguishing features of this approach is that it questions the nature of truth and asks how the things we currently believe in became historically possible. It assumes that all truth is subjective and the product of competing discourses.
This presents a real challenge for a lot of health professionals, who are trained to think about things like ‘the body’ objectively as ‘fact,’ and the idea that it might be socially constructed causes many people consternation.
Notwithstanding all of that, it became clear yesterday that my student thought it might be possible to hold on to his own beliefs about the environmental and social causes of cancer and use Foucault to interrogate those powerful discourses he didn’t much like. He wanted to ‘bracket’ off – to use the proper term – his own experiences and interrogate the discourses as a discrete body of data separate from his own beliefs.
There are many things wrong with this, but the most pressing problem right now is that he is not interrogating his own ‘truths’ with the same precepts that he’s using to attack others’ truths. In effect, he is using Foucault as a methodology to critically analyse other people’s beliefs whilst excluding his own.
This only really became clear in our supervision session yesterday, and pointed to a problem that we now need to address. He needs to embrace Foucault fully: not only as a methodology to guide his interrogation of the problem field, but fundamentally as a challenge to how he thinks about truth, knowledge and the power that comes with it.
Thinking philosophically is something that is quite new to health professionals, and only a handful of physiotherapists have successfully managed it in their own researches to date. It is not easy, and many are defaulting to the much easier task of descriptive and thematic qualitative analysis. Some would argue that this is justified in certain circumstances. I confess I often struggle with this view.
Rarely does qualitative research tell you things that you didn’t already know, and much of that results from the lack of deep engagement with philosophical ideas that can really lift the data from the mundane and obvious.
Philosophy is often a hard road to take, but the benefits of learning to think ‘otherwise’ can be transformative, not only for the way we think, but also how we might influence the things that matter most to us.