Developing An I-Thou Research Stance
by Clyde Smith (1996)
Presented at the 29th Annual Conference
of the Congress on Research in Dance (November 1996)
My presentation today considers both how I developed what I term an I-thou research stance and how this stance is relevant to researchers across paradigms. This whole project began with a student’s account of a Pentecostal prayer service involving movement activities which she termed “ritual dance.” I found this account so interesting that I interviewed her in order to understand the larger context of her experience. At that time I was unable to pursue this work further, however this material became part of an interdisciplinary pilot project of sorts, focused on trance possession states in Pentecostal Christianity. In the course of this activity, I developed a clarified understanding of a research stance which involves a bridging of the researcher’s objectivity and the subjectivity of those researched. I will explain this stance more fully as my presentation unfolds. For this conference I proposed the story of how I arrived at such a perspective and that paper is included in the conference proceedings. However, I find it necessary today to expand on my story to explain not only my own experience but its relevance to those who take different approaches to research, including traditional scientific approaches.
This project began in the spring of 1995 in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was completing a Masters degree in Dance Studies and teaching Dance Appreciation to undergraduates. As one of their assignments, I required my students to write about their own dance experiences. Each semester my class would include a handful of students who surprised me with the insight revealed in their discussions of these experiences. One such student turned in a three page paper which startled me. It concerned a late night prayer session with a small group of college students in which the participants prayerful activities manifested themselves physically in energetic clapping, jumping, hopping and other whole body actions which continued over a two hour period.
Cindy, a name the student chose for this study, was bright and attentive. She smiled a lot in strong contrast to the deadened faces of many of her peers. Cindy revealed her conservative Christian values with her comments about social issues raised in class. Occasionally we would have brief conversations outside of class, often arguing back and forth in a friendly manner over some current event evoked by the world of dance, AIDS being a particularly volatile source of discussion.
At first, I simply enjoyed talking with Cindy and was intrigued with the notion that I could dialogue with a fairly conservative Christian. Cindy’s paper was the turning point in our relationship. Well written for a paper of this sort, she described a phenomenon with which I was unfamiliar. I knew of various manifestations of possession by the Holy Spirit, from glossolalia in the Pentecostal Holiness churches of my mother’s youth to the physical embodiment of Spirit in southern African American churches. I knew of snake handling, strychnine drinking and convulsive behavior. But Cindy described an extended period of movement activity different from these manifestations. After discussing the matter with Cindy, I kept a copy of her paper and we scheduled an interview. What follows is a section of Cindy’s paper.
As I walked into the sanctuary I was filled with hesitation, confusion and expectancy. The entire day had been telling me that tonight would be a bit different. The lights were dim and the large cathedral ceiling made the room feel empty. A cross hung on the wall directly in front of me and the serenity of the room began to put me at peace. My friend C. and I had walked into an unfamiliar church with my brother, who had been a member there for awhile. He introduced us to his five friends who had stopped praying in their circle when we approached. For a minute we greeted each other and then we stood in a circle again and began praying. After a few minutes we finished and began sharing what God was saying to some of us. One of the guys walked to the back and turned on some praise music. The first song was very slow and each of us went to areas around the sanctuary and prayed alone. But it seemed as if God placed the desire to break out in dance to each of us simultaneously. I could feel the energy bubbling up inside me, but I hesitated. I felt the bubble move up my chest and I wanted to yell, again I hesitated, something was keeping me from releasing everything from the deepest part of my body. Then one of the girls called everyone back together. We discussed how each of us had felt during that day and that something was going to happen tonight. We also all felt there was a wall blocking us from totally releasing ourselves. One person confessed a sin and then we prayed for one another. After that we joined hands determined to fight Satan all night if we had to. This time we entered into spiritual battle and within a few seconds all of us started yelling and singing and dancing before the Lord. Unspeakable joy was flowing through me and for the first time I did not care what I looked like or sounded like to anyone else. My hands were clapping with all my soul being poured into it, my feet were jumping up and down, and sometimes hopping twice on one foot while kicking the other out in front of me. When I did open my eyes everyone’s face was covered with a huge smile just like mine. We were all spread out around the room. Some were running around the outside of the pews, in the aisles, and before the altar. Rhythm, beat and style were of no concern to anyone. When you dance before the Lord it is with your heart not your body. Your actions are simply a vessel which allows the Holy Spirit to flow through you. His presence allows the body to release the most incredible sense of joy, happiness, and freedom. I loved every minute of it! Sometimes my “hyperness” accompanied the music and sometimes I was dancing to a much faster beat. Sometimes I stretched out my arms and spun around and other times I clapped my hands and ran around in a small circle. Throughout the night I had to take time to just stand, jump in place, as well as, stop altogether and catch my breath. But the music was not important. God simply moved through the room letting His Holy Spirit design a unique dance for each of us.
Cindy went on to consider the personal and social implications of her experience. Later, during our interview, Cindy elaborated on this story with a discussion of her previous student life, her conversion experience and her life since. The interview setting allowed both our agendas to emerge as Cindy witnessed to me, by sharing her experience of Christ, while I gathered research material.
Although I could not pass up the opportunity to interview Cindy regarding her experiences, I was unable to pursue this project any further at that time. Her writing and our discussion later became part of a paper I wrote for Ericka Bourguignon, the renowned anthropologist, whose work includes the study of altered states of consciousness such as Cindy describes. My attempt to develop an interdisciplinary pilot study regarding possession by The Holy Spirit in the Pentecostal Church combined Cindy’s story and interview, brief fieldwork at a church in Columbus, Ohio and an initial survey of literature and visual documentation. Though I learned much from my work with Bourguignon, it was a related discovery which is important to my discussion today.
In the course of my work I found an article by Henning Eichberg which helped put my activities in perspective. Eichberg, a German sociologist based in Denmark, is a leading proponent of the Scandinavian sociology of body culture. He proposes a reorientation for researchers from both rigidly objective and purely subjective approaches to an I-thou perspective. Drawing on the work of Martin Buber, he states, “Buber showed that the categories
of ‘it’ and ‘I’ are not at all sufficient to describe the human existence . . . they have to be related to a third dimension, the dimension of ‘thou.'” (104) Eichberg’s reading of Buber suggests that research can be a bridge between the objectivity of the researcher and the subjectivity of those researched through an I-thou dialogue. I realized that the core of my work with Cindy was about that exchange across difference and how it may occur without dissolving those boundaries which seem necessary in such an exchange.
If you’re not already familiar with Martin Buber’s concept of I and thou or the work of Henning Eichberg, a bit more explanation is in order. Both Buber and Eichberg do much more with these ideas but I will clarify things in terms of my concept of research. An I-it research stance would assume an insurmountable boundary between the researcher and those researched. Furthermore, the researcher’s I views those he or she researches as objects, or the its of the relationship. Such a relationship is potentially abusive and of course we are all familiar with examples of abusive extremes of 20th century science. A transformation to research an I-thou relationship does not assume the dissolution of all boundaries. But it does assume, as a minimum, that the researcher approaches the researched from a position of compassion and understanding. Such an approach requires the researcher to take full account of those he or she researches and calls for a stance of dialogue between researcher and those researched.
In my own story this idea is not that difficult to grasp. I was in dialogue with Cindy and my work grew out of that. Later, as I grappled with various bodies of literature related to Pentecostal Christianity and altered states of consciousness, I found that I could not simply turn Cindy into an object whose experiences could be rationalized through medicoscientific terminology or historical analysis. Certainly these other approaches illuminated my exchange with Cindy, but at the core of this project is her story and the dialogue which ensued.
More difficult to grasp may be the relevance of an I-thou research stance to those doing more traditional scientific research. A recent anthology entitled Reinventing Biology (1995), edited by biologists Linda Burke and Ruth Hubbard, takes up the closely related question of what would happen
if scientific objectivity were defined not as an attitude of separation and detachment between scientific actors and the passive objects they manipulate but as a cooperative venture in which scientists and their research subjects are partners. (ix)
Such a redefinition of scientific objectivity is crucial to rethinking science for, as the editors stress,
Separating ourselves from the individuals studied has been central to the belief in scientific methods and in the validity and predictability of the claims made. Yet it has often led to inhumanity, for what is human or humane about an interaction that denies one actor agency while giving power to the other? (1)
These critiques put forth the possibility of scientific research as an entry into an I-thou relationship. And so we find that such concerns are bridging disciplines often considered to be rigidly separate.
I am drawn to such perspectives on research in part due to my own underlying values of dialogue and connection as ways of understanding the world. Though not fully articulated when I began my work with Cindy, this recognition returns me to that time of dialogue and concurrent discussions with Susan Stinson, my teacher when I was a student here at UNC-G. Dr. Stinson introduced me to qualitative research as a field of activity in which I did not have to leave my personal values behind. When I later stumbled upon Eichberg’s discussion of Buber it seemed oddly familiar and I remembered that Dr. Stinson had introduced me to Buber while studying curriculum theory. In preparing this brief account, I returned to her dissertation which compares research to making art in that it brings an understanding of the relationship between the individual and something out there. And with relationship comes responsibility–the responsibility to live our lives in a way that acknowledges the relationships. (1984, 26-7)
Dr. Stinson states that her “interest in the concept of relationship” (11) drew her to Martin Buber. However this interest was inspired by her work with curriculum theorist James Macdonald and his “two fundamental value questions”
“‘What is the meaning of human life?’
‘How shall we live together?'” (11)
I believe these questions are crucial to all of us as researchers whether quantitative or qualitative, positivist or postpositivist. For me such questions lead to an I-thou approach to research which can bridge difference through relationship.
Before my project with Cindy, I focused on researching people who shared my values and with whom I already had an I-thou relationship. In talking with Cindy, I began to find a way of communicating with someone quite different from me. I began to enact an I-thou stance more fully as a researcher and I recognized that it was possible to find common ground between divergent belief systems. However, I could not accomplish this feat alone. To truly bridge our differences, Cindy had to participate in this move away from I-it relationships, which she did from the beginning. While it is true that I have the last word because I am the writer, nonetheless this power is tempered by my commitment to the relationships which made this work possible.
Yet as researchers we are not always so fortunate as to be able to work with someone like Cindy. Perhaps we are studying people we don’t like whose way of being in the world we find objectionable or worse. Or we are studying large populations and relying on quantitative data for much of our work. Perhaps we are simply trying to understand more about physiological processes in some specific area of dance activity. There are many possibilities for research which do not obviously lend themselves to an I-thou research stance.
But what I am proposing is not a specific methodology nor a specific research paradigm. Rather I am proposing, with many others, that in all our research endeavors we take an I-thou approach to research, an approach which can be understood as a moral or ethical stance. And in so doing, we will find that not only must we pay attention to our own attitudes but that such a stance will inevitably impact upon our methodologies and inform our paradigms in ways which begin to address at least one of James MacDonald’s questions,
“How shall we live together?”
Birke, Lynda and Ruth Hubbard, eds. Reinventing Biology: Respect for Life and the Creation of Knowledge. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
Eichberg, Henning. “The Narrative, The Situational, The Biographical: Scandinavian Sociology of Body Culture Trying a Third Way.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 29, 1, (1994): 99-113.
Keller, Evelyn Fox. (1985). Reflections on Gender and Science. New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1985.
Stinson, Susan. “Reflections and Visions: A Hermeneutic Study of Dangers and Possibilities in Dance Education.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, 1984.