The researcher as subject

Take great care when answering questions about your academic interests in online surveys, William Keenan warns

November 13, 2008

I have become a research subject. The other week, I typed my name into an innocuous-looking box within an electronic survey seeking information about academic research interests.

The box in question simply said: "Name". I thought it was a good chance to share areas of research interest, but on clicking the "Save" button, I accidentally became a research interest.

It turns out it was the "subject" name they were after, not my own. Alas, there I now was, positioned alongside more conventional spheres of academic specialisation - sociology of religion, cultural theory, social change, and so on. I had become ensconced among the familiar research and teaching areas as designated by the textbooks and subject journals. What a strange metamorphosis for a modest academic. Had global academic laurels been "dumbed down", too?

The anomaly of finding myself re-described as a "subject area" carried horrendous potential to mark me out as monomaniacal with high egoistical preoccupation. I, William Keenan, was now frozen in cyberspace alongside such spheres of research endeavour as Palaeolithic burial sites, stem cells and exclaustrated nuns.

This was not the sort of professional celebrity I had quietly worked for in a career dedicated to unobtrusive research methods, humility before the factual evidence, depersonalisation in the pursuit of objective truth, and all the other sacred ideals of sound social scientific research.

I worried that my peers would have a field day applying to me the latest, unyielding, cold instrumentation of close scrutiny of the human research subject. Would I survive intact? The hunter had become the hunted.

In my new incarnation, I rapidly became a named research interest of other respondents to the electronic trawl for information about the interests of the cutting-edge research community. I had inadvertently been cut-and-pasted into obscure research agendas. On the net, I was now public research property.

Who knows what "William Keenan" might become in the hands of the legions of research subject-hungry grant seekers? Would I recognise myself in all this academic labour by postmodernists, phenomenologists and revisionists? Colleagues around the country - and potentially, the globe - had incorporated me-as-subdiscipline into their own research-interest listings.

There I was sitting on equal terms as an object of inquiry among a motley crew of research subjects, including Socrates, Vlad the Impaler and, a personal favourite, Pele. We research subjects have to take the good with the bad. It's all part of the deal.

Who knows, there may be academic autograph hunters, Facebook groupies, league table aficionados, and assorted eBay-miners of my trash-can detritus to face as part of my new-found research subject public role. I will just have to adapt to it. Lottery winners, soccer stars and disgraced vicars do.

On the downside, though, is the strain on the research subject as "knowledgeable actor" - the participant observer observed in participation. In this state of unending reflexivity, there is no let-up in the round of knowing that you are being known about.

Beyond a certain limit, however, it threatens to become a prison without walls, a Kafka-esque world where the boundaries of self-knowledge are dissolved to reveal that most vulnerable of creatures, the naked self.

Besides the angst inherent in the self as research subject syndrome (SARSS) (let's give this potentially widespread fate an appropriately scientific-sounding acronym), there is also the challenge of second-guessing the motives and behaviours of social actors encountered by the self as research subject (SARS) in everyday interaction settings.

Is the hairdresser really a PhD student with a special interest in "you" as a whole? Is the stranger in the lift reading the Racing Post just another contract researcher following you around in various disguises?

Call me ambitious or paranoid, but is there not some risk that I may become an undergraduate module: "William Keenan: A Life For Others"? Or, worse, be transfigured into that ultimate academic accolade, a research "unit of assessment"? Mind what you save.

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