We can break down postmodernism into three overlapping areas: the Information Age (the technological force behind changing economies and society), Post-Fordism (changing relations within economies and society) and Postmodernism itself leading on to the linguistic relativity of poststructuralism (the shift in culture ) (Kumar, 1995). Postmodernism is hotly contested as to whether it is a sea change in economic, social and cultural life or merely an extension of what has been developing within late capitalism. What I want to present is arguments assuming postmodernism as they impinge upon doing research. The presentaton is somewhat theoretical but may provide some background context to research today.
The Information Age is important because it affects social consciousness - the way we understand what we do and perceive who we are.
The power of live television, the internet and instant affordable personal world wide communication produces a built in contradiction between the global and the local. So does global stock market trading with its erratic highs and lows and misvaluations of companies - where no company can be national anymore. Everything is transnational but everything is also regional. Whilst the Information Age is global in reach it is also so plural and diverse and accessible that it allows every local extremity and prejudice its own media output.
At one time mass communication was delivered from a few centres to the mass of the people producing shared experiences. It gave rise to strong authorial journalism. Now research should be better grounded than even good authorial journalism. However, in the age of multiple sources and many receivers of data of all different kinds, and the ability to do everything live, we experience a cacophony of images, sounds and impressions. So everything becomes surface appearance. Research is the opposite of this, but also research is carried out within this environment and studies this environment. Advertising, especially niche advertising, is one example of the postmodern Information Age. So is branding. So is the Internet. What makes it postmodern is that you cannot assume any neutrality in the information given. All is advertising or branding or marketing or pleading a case of one form or another. There is no truth out there, just one private statement outputted against another. This is why the Information Age is local as well as global, and it's a minefield of difficulties for research.
Because the whole notion of research is an Enlightenment concept. It comes diretctly from the Age of Reason, where it was thought that freedom and liberty were the means to the truth. It sure was liberation from the supernatural and dogmatic and given, and it was essentially humanist and progressive. But now things are so plural and so accessible, that as we have more and more information, so much more of it seems degraded. And that's a problem for research.
"Taylorism", or the scientific control of labour, was a management approach which suggested that greater efficiency resulted from simplifying economic tasks - that the application of intelligence should be removed from the lower orders of the economic process. In the Information Age, that is rejected. In the Information age we all become knowledgable specialists. There is indeed a new emphasis on specialisation - but diverse and thinking. Researchers are themselves intelligent workers, and it is attractive on a CV to potential employers because it involves planning, strategies, decision making, failures, successes, sticking at it, making contacts and a high degree of personal autonomy. This is what independent learning is all about. A critique of the learning process must surely relate this process of research planning to doing better jobs and careers.
The second related area is Post-Fordism. Fordism means mass market mass industry of a few sightly diversified homogeneous products. The car industry is the prime example, and it meant the application of planning within large scale capitalism. In the late 80's however, in Italy in particular (Kumar, 1995), there arose a third way in between underdevelopment in the south and the first way of Fordism. The third way involved highly responsive, highly specialised, small firms sometimes serving and sometimes undermining the big firms. The structure was more evolutionary and haphazard than the similar hierarchical features of the Japanese hierarchical economy. During the 80's, and as a way of removing union power, this post-Fordism grew around the West. It happened through privatisations, through breaking up large firms often by the large firms themselves, of decentralising management within large firms, and by forcing competition into what were thought to be natural monopolies like the utilities. An important feature of post-Fordism is "just in time" delivery of supplies, keeping every business on its toes.
The research implications are therefore away from mass observation and large scale statistical analysis towards smaller scale study. Think about the demise of the working class where the working class is now becoming more middle class, whatever that means. We can make no assumptions about a common culture among the working class now because there isn't one any more (which is not to say there isn't low pay - there is: there just isn't a mass army of more or less similar factory employees, more or less similar sets of typists, etc. etc..). Even where there are large industrial production lines, there are now teams of workers empowered to make decisions. So research has to get in among the detail - and we can make few mass assumptions any more.
The third area is postmodernism itself, by a narrower definition meaning culture and language which leads on to a term "poststructuralism". We might say that culture derives from an economic and technological base - like Marxists and economic liberals have said - and if we do thentoday the mass forces are clearly breaking down. The Enlightenment and the Age of Reason produced modernity. Modernity was optimistic and sure of its humanistic and libertarian base. It helped research because it produced well grounded, repeatable, functional, rational, working facts. Social facts were common facts. Yet in a sense the move away from dogma founded on God to human reason always was going to lead to relativity of all knowledge, especially in a highly plural and diverse yet communicating world. We become highly conscious of paradigm shifts (Thomas Kuhn) where one working hypothesis of how things are replaces another and we began to think well if that way of understanding the world was perhaps wrong then what about this way of understanding the world. And in fact, in postmodernism, several hypotheses run at the same time. We seem lost without any grand metanarrative of how the world is. We have several hypotheses and many narratives describing the world we inhabit. how does the researcher get around that?
This, of course, undermines the basis of research with its Enlightenment base. We realise that we understand the world through hypotheses as much as through facts - in fact we cannot understand facts without putting them into hypotheses. So it is hypotheses that matter. But there are so many, both through time and now, and so many problems of understanding what is reality, that we even question language itself. Language pours out from so many places with so many meanings that some adopt what is called a poststructural view even of language. Language is a stream of signifiers that once were grounded in the signified that they pointed to - and now language itself relativises and deconstructs because its signifiers no longer point to something solid and reliable. Much postmodernism today in intellectual circles is about the deconstructing meaning.
The implications for research are this. The role of interpreter becomes more important - the role of the writer, in other words, is crucial. This is because postructuralism has made us all aware that researchers are not simply reporters but constructors of the social areas they research. When you write research you are creating meaning: adding to not just reporting about the social world. Some would even go on to equate doing research and writing fiction. And it may even be argued that there can be no quality control because one social construction through writing and language is as good as any other. But I wouldn't bank on anyone marking your work to hold this opinion.
So by this argument, therefore, doing research is to produce a social world, and therefore there is a demand for a more literary style. You are a detective in a detective story, and the hypothesis is what you are trying to solve. Solve, that is, within the pages of the story you are yourselves writing.
This also affects doing a literary review. The literature is not the whole fountain of knowledge achieved - it is actually a selective cultural product shaped by social and economic forces. It is worthy of its own research. Indeed, literature is called secondary research. But you realise that "literature" is a tradition, not knowledge as such, at least according to postmodernism. Just as there are literary genres, so "the literature" is also like a genre or collection of genres. You can even argue it is close to fiction - because the literature presents a story or series of stories about reality. We cannot know reality, only the stories that are presented by us. We are locked into and never escape from the world of stories we call reality. When you do research, you add is one more story to the pile.
So here you have my interpretation, my construction, of postmodernism as it impinges on doing research. Research now is by a skilled intelligent interpreter of what has been done before and what is new, and every piece of research is one more telling of the story, hopefully with a little extra to add.
However, not everyone agrees with postmodernism, and so I wouldn't try to get away with writing a piece of fiction and hope it counts as research! It just suggests that research and fiction describe the social world and are not so far apart. Everything is a narrative.Adrian Worsfold
Kumar (1995), From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society: New Theories of the Contemporary World, Oxford: Blackwell.