By Héloïse Berkowitz, CNRS TSM Research,


How to jointly develop scientific knowledge from data collect made through group, event-based research methodologies like OWEE (Open-Walked Event-based Experiments)? In OWEE, ‘field work’ moves beyond both observations or action-research approaches by integrating several new elements of data collect: being in a group, walking, and exploring a spatially and temporally bounded event or happening (De Vaujany & Vitaud, 2017). But we still struggle to find ways to produce innovative collective knowledge that may leverage on such group ethnographic work. Surrealism, 20th century art movement, could offer fruitful solutions to collectively create knowledge from these group event-based data collects.

Surrealism: back to the future

Surrealism is an activity, rather than a doctrine (Clifford, 1981). In 1924 Breton’s manifesto, the word surrealism describes a “psychic automatism” aiming to explore the deep, true functioning of thoughts, whether this may be through writing, speaking, painting, etc. The objective is not so much to produce anything but to achieve a more profound understanding of the world through experimenting with our sub consciousness, dreams, etc. Surrealist techniques indeed seek to let the flow of thoughts wash unobstructed, without any control of rationality, logic, and without any moral or esthetic concern. Breton first version of his manifesto will impact production processes of most art forms (literary, plastic) at that time.

Clifford (1981) argues that ethnography and surrealism fit well together. Ethnography indeed constitutes an attempt to disrupt the way we see, understand and represent conventional objects, identities, practices and socio-materiality. Surrealism offers rich venues for that. Three surrealist writing techniques – exquisite corpse, automatic writing and “meta-textual” collage – may favor collective creativity and reconstruct the reel through pure psychic automatism, associations of ideas and absurd. These tasks have in common to seek to decouple realities, by fragmenting objects, bringing together weird items or ideas into a surprising juxtaposition that provokes reflection. It is the embodiment of surrealist – extraordinary – realities that these esthetic activities perform.

Using surrealist techniques in contemporary ethnographies could involve constituting a surrealist writing group after a collective ethnographic experiment like OWEE. But this may require specific protocols to ensure that actors can fruitfully interact and produce a deep understanding of reality, although that understanding may seem absurd.

Rules of the activity

It is important to clarify and make explicit common objectives and rules. What is the concrete output? What are we working on? Which rules are we using for the exquisite corpse? It could be an addition of one word or of a full sentence for instance. This may vary depending on the group’s characteristics or the activity’s duration. An exquisite corpse usually functions like this: each person adds a word following a given structure Noun>adjective>verb>direct complement>adjective. Repeat. This allows a more curious collection of ideas. For automatic writing, the rule is to write down whatever comes to mind, without editing, and without repressing ideas or trying to organize them. The idea would be to focus on a topic of the OWEE (for instance, entrepreneurs’ comparative philosophies on a given day). Meta-textual collage could be thought of as a shuffling of printscreens of tweets or facebook posts (see picture 1).

Image Héloise.jpg

Picture 1: Meta-textual collage

Challenges of using surrealist techniques in OWEE

Using surrealist techniques have the potential to enrich contemporary ethnographies like OWEE by helping researchers build a collective understanding of the world they have physically explored as a group. This collective, deep understanding of an expanded reality takes the form of an assemblage that may constitute, in a certain manner, the end product of the collective research. Yet many questions arise regarding the organization or the use of the end-product. For instance, regarding the facilitator, how many of them are needed, one per group, less? How to deliver to the group? Through a presentation? Through a collective reading? Then, analyzing these textual and visual products constitute another king of challenge. This step could and maybe should be carried out afterwards in a smaller set of people. In addition, there is an issue of storage and property rights, all the more relevant nowadays with the RGPD legislation. But finally, the most challenging barrier to the use of surrealism is probably the reluctance to accept and embrace absurdity, the unexpected but also the contradiction and the unmapped territory of giving control of rationality, in scientific production processes in management sciences.


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