My intellectual approach focuses on strains in the mental life of modern society, with particular relation to our current environment. My method tries to re-present in any study a trajectory that discloses how the desire to resolve such tensions produces extremist responses and the need for dialogue in different situations. Any study exposes the topic as the locus of a discourse and of a situation of action.
This approach originated in the 1960s at Columbia University where my colleague Professor Peter McHugh and I created an intellectual bond that influenced a community of scholars--consisting of students and other colleagues--to pursue a number of studies committed to a method of reflexive social analysis. At the time, Reflexive Analysis (interdisciplinary and unorthodox for conventional Sociology) challenged both positivist social inquiry and reactions that were limited by the passive idea of the hermeneutic circle as an obstacle to inquiry. We viewed circularity as a research opportunity that forced members of society to attempt to solve it as a problem in ways that required them to expose their values in working out intended solutions. From that point as junior Professors at Columbia University, McHugh and I further developed Reflexive Analysis in Canada at York University where we continued our joint research with many students and colleagues. Over the years we continued refining this approach and used it to frame research on the problem of ambiguity, first, as it seems to appear as indeterminate meaning that exceeds any concrete designation--observable but unspoken in any discourse--and second, as a resource for our analyses of specific problems, each topic revealed to us as embedded in a system of assumptions seemingly unnoticed, unspoken and untheorized by participants.
This research continues to envision a path for educating young people by preparing them to pursue meaning through dialogue between equals. This approach starts by treating all ideas--such as democracy, justice, the city, God, sociology, insanity, health--as two-sided, registered both in the limits of commonplace talk and in its reflective potential, always creating an ongoing tension between these two sides for any idea as parts of its notion and in any case, as an opportunity for inquiry and research.
Reflexive Analysis frames this procedure of dialectical interpretation as a way of renovating what is called qualitative research and its focus on case studies. In classes and workshops we typically begin by discussing selections from our research, both published and unpublished, that illustrate the method in practice. Based upon this kind of preparation, participants are expected to learn to use and apply such methods and theories in creating their own research and to review and evaluate the research of others. On this basis they are invited to frame a qualitative case study related to their own current work, research, or history.
In writing and research and in interactions such as workshops, I try to inject the spirit of dialectical interpretation into qualitative research by encouraging participants (and readers) to focus on tensions and contradictions in verbal and written materials in order to explore and begin to describe the values that are in play. I help students, faculty and colleagues design research that first recovers unstated and implicit arguments from speeches and texts over best ways of resolving matters of fact as parts of a discourse oriented to specific problems. This method of Reflexive Analysis developed with colleagues over the years, attempts to translate such debates into conversational data for the inquirer to analyze through particular methods by showing how the ‘debate’ makes reference to a common problem that is unspoken. In contrast to typical qualitative research that focuses on eliciting speech and opinions that can be characterized, tabulated, and converted into themes, these analysis uses its methods to go “beyond” these surfaces of speech in ways specifically attuned to subjective and qualitative registers that are often held in abeyance. This method begins to identify provocative elements integral and intangible in the most innocuous kinds of speech and actions in order to create research situations where such provocations can be used to stimulate conversation that becomes data for the analysis of beliefs related to many issues.
Specifically, since an essential part of the heritage of our society is the movement and rule of market value and the fluctuation of appraisals in the self-worth of people, and in extreme and volatile expressions of hatred, accusation, and rancor, these feelings are both important 'objects' for inquiry and also, for understanding its relevance for a socially oriented psychiatric approach to everyday life. I have illustrated this method in writings and research in many studies on absolutism in everyday life, on malice, animus and the emotions in relation to the problem of self-worth and its management. In response to the tendency of our societies to produce inevitable frustration, acting-out and calls for healing and reconciliation, my research discloses its potential as an implicit art of healing in this current intellectual and moral landscape, an art that is grounded in my experience in clinics of Social Psychology at the University of Chicago, in Psychiatric research at Roosevelt Hospital in New York with Columbia University, and in the department of Psychiatry at Harvard University. This background orients my current emphasis on the implications of Reflexive Analysis as a framework that I employ in a range of settings with individuals and groups.