Experience, expression, and meaning making
I’m finding myself in a bit of a challenging position right now. I don’t know if it is a funk – or just kind of stuck. Typically, when this happens I go for a nice long hike and sort it out while I walk and commune with nature. However, after recent toe surgery (which is healing nicely), I cannot yet walk – and so, I’m going to try to express some of my thoughts in writing.
One of my research questions is “What was my lived experience as a breast cancer blogger?” I realize that even with my narrative chapter – written in the form of blog posts from my time in treatment for breast cancer, I’m not really answering the question. In part, I don’t talk to the blogging aspect of the question at all, but also, how can one express lived experience? I think I have asked an unanswerable question – which is written a little in academic-ese – as the term “lived experience” is something meaningful to academics and signifies that what I’m answering is an ethnography.
In the book Networked Cancer: Affect, Narrative, and Measurement (Stage, 2017), the author asks “Should [illness] narratives be understood as expressing life with an illness”? The question here is that of expression rather than experience. Narratives are necessarily only part of the story. Some narrative embellish, while others gloss over. There is always a reason or purpose behind the narrative. The narrative can never be the experience. In that way, I’m not asked “What was my lived experience”, so much is “how might my breast cancer treatment experience be expressed as a blog-formatted narrative?” That, indeed, is the question that chapter 4 of my dissertation answers. Maybe, part of my challenge is that I’m struggling with a nebulous question, which then makes it more difficult to defend the answer.
The next part of my dissertation looks at what knowledges I shared on my blog, looking at the question “What knowledges did I share through blogging about my breast cancer experience?” My blog itself (https://bcbecky.com) is the data source (not to be confused with the blog-formatted narrative). More specifically, I’m using the blog posts from June 14, 2014 through February 3, 2015 – all 237 of them! as data. I’m looking at what types of things I shared on the blog – what things that could be considered forms of knowledge. Now, one could devolve very quickly into a philosophical question of – what is knowledge – which frankly, would cause me to have my eyes gloss over and make me question why I’m doing this whole PhD thing anyways – but to get it back on track, I asked myself the question – “what types of things did I share on my blog?”, leaving the definition of “thing” rather loose – looking more for patterns than anything else.
This is how I came to the major categories in my theme research – which I then looked at each theme in more depth and drilled down again – looking at subthemes.
The problem I’m challenged with now, is looking at the data and analyzing it as if I were not the person who lived the expressed experience in the first place. I listen to other’s comments on some of my posts and am fascinated by how much they see in my posts – but then I realize what they are seeing is not what I was expressing – nor does it have any meaning for me. It is an attempt at making meaning from the text that is written, when what I’m trying to do is make meaning out of the experience I lived – and I’m not sure those two things align – maybe they do – maybe, I’ll think though it and push through the resistance I’m feeling, and it will all click together – it has happened before!
The sentence that really sticks out is this “it is an attempt at making meaning from the text, rather than making meaning from the experience“. Perhaps, I’m coming back to an impossible question – just like it is impossible to answer “what is my lived-experience”, it may also be impossible for me to make meaning from the text – frankly, I always hated that part of English class, where we attempted to analyze novels and such – attempting to derive some deep meaning from a written text, when each person interprets the text differently (and I didn’t ever really clue in that the goal in school was to figure out what the teacher interpreted from the text, because it was never really my interpretation that was being solicited – but that is an aside).
The question I have now to answer is, where it is that I’m trying to find meaning in this process? My supervisors tell me that I have to not just present the data/results, I also need to explain what those results mean to me – I need to describe the meaning. It is OK for others to see meaning in my text that is different than the meaning I see. When I doubt myself, it is often because I am doubting that I can ever see the same meaning as someone else is seeing – but I am realizing as I type, that I do not need to see the same meaning. That doubt (and impostor syndrome) comes from misunderstanding – it comes from a voice in the back of my head that is telling me that I’m missing the meaning that others see, and that somehow, the meaning that I see is less worthy / less valuable than the meaning that others see – when really, the goal is not to find “the meaning the teacher wants me to find” like back in high school, but rather to find my own meaning in the data. I need to ask what does this data mean to me, and then explain what that meaning is and why I find it meaning that – I don’t need to be deheartened because I don’t see the meaning that others see.
Now, I just need to figure out – what is my meaning – when I find themes and subthemes, I need to ask the question – what does this theme mean to me? Not what does this theme mean in general. However, I need to write it as if I’m answering the question “what does this mean (in general)” – because I’m writing the results of something that is supposed to be some form of “this is what I found, this is what it means” … and the formalized research report format leaves out the “to me” in the way it is written (and hence leads people to believe the data is less biased then it really is) … but that is another issue … so my next step is asking, what does this mean … and being OK if it means less or different things to me then it does to others who are reading my dissertation … because, the goal is my meaning making …