21 Jul

Geographical Review Preview: Deep Listening: Practicing Intellectual Humility in Geographic Fieldwork

By: Natalie Koch

What is the main purpose of your study? 
This article explores the idea of “deep listening” as a methodological tack and mindset to guide geographic fieldwork, rooted in intellectual humility. Deep listening involves a critical reflexivity about our subject positions as researchers, as well as a suspicion of metanarratives that prevail in the media and academic debates, and a willingness to question our complicity in reproducing those narratives through our choice of research topics and methods. I argue that deep listening can be understood as a way to practice intellectual humility – which involves accepting that we could be incorrect at many levels, whether theoretical, factual, emotional, social, cultural, or political, and seeking out opportunities to change our mind.

What are the practical, day to day, implications of your study? 

I consistently tell my students that what I love most about fieldwork – in places quite different from the United States and with individuals having backgrounds quite distinct from most Americans – is that
every single day I change my mind and often many times in the course of a day. This article considers the idea of “deep listening” as an exercise in intellectual humility, built upon an ethic of openness to changing one’s mind. Humility is rarely put on a pedestal in academia, especially since scholars are readily consumed by its foundational cult of expertise. Indeed, changing your mind is not easy and can sometimes be quite embarrassing. But if scholars are to reject cults, dogmatism, and closure in “doing” fieldwork today, this requires that we constantly hold up a mirror. We must constantly and humbly question our own truth claims – consistently asking something as simple as, “can it be that I am wrong?” – and in so doing, develop a habit of accepting that we could be incorrect at many levels, be they theoretical, factual, emotional, social, cultural, or political.

How does your study relate to other work on the subject?
In the research methods literature, feminist and many other critical scholars have long emphasized that that questions of speaking are inherently linked with questions of listening. This article highlights listening because practicing humility and openness requires listening closely and in diverse ways in fieldwork, as human geographers seek out dialogue with research informants, partners, and collaborators. Many of us – in academia and beyond – are today surrounded by such “thin” listening that it were rarely assess the breadth and depth of its scope. At different stages in the research cycle, the calendar year, and more broadly, in our careers, we are all able to listen and attend to research-related themes in multiple ways. We listen to our peers and students in the classroom, at conferences, in faculty meetings, and informal conversations throughout the day. We listen to our families and friends, the news media, our diverse entertainment and educational sources. Often – and perhaps most of the time – we are mere consumers of the spoken or written word, listening without the chance of speaking back.

Sometimes we listen with great care or passion, and other times, passively, or even dismissively. Given this diverse array of listening practices, this article asks, how might geographers conceptualize deep listening as a research methodology or ethic? Is there something different about the listening we do on a day-to-day basis versus our focused listening “in the field” or related to our research topics?

What are two or three interesting findings that come from your study? 

Scholars do not always ascribe an intellectual value to daily listening practices. But by exploring how we might listen in multiple ways, across multiple spatialities, temporalities, and communities may be one modest way to conceptualize intellectual humility and work against the masculinist and imperialist impulses of extractivist research, and toward the realm of mutual understanding and surprise. 

Deep listening may be one way to conceptualize an ethic of openness and intellectual humility in geographic research and to resist the widespread academic proclivity for mastery and immunity from criticism. And while it is easy to profess a commitment to being open to surprise, new ideas, and challenging one’s preconceived notions, it is much harder to put this into practice. I offer three reflections on actually practicing deep listening – practices that I most aspire to in doing fieldwork:

Practice empathy. Empathy is often assumed to be equated with sympathizing with the other perspective, but it simply involves trying to see the world from another person’s perspective, cognitively, emotively, or otherwise.

Listen deliberately. It is increasingly rare for scholars, just as with any other ordinary people, to listen deliberately in our daily lives. Various media forms are designed to splinter our attention and, in turn, promote the kind of “thin” listening I noted above. Each of us may find a way to resist this, such as simply not engaging with certain platforms, confining our digital lives to certain hours of the day, or taking a more proactive approach to carve out time to let one’s mind wander and promote spontaneous listening and thinking. If we come to value – and indeed, seek out – opportunities to be proven wrong, we are in a better position to listen beyond prevailing metanarratives.

Refuse the border policing of what “is” and “isn’t” research. Intellectual humility comes from being as open to new ideas as possible, and learning to embrace the awkwardness of being proven wrong. But we first must be exposed to new ideas – itself a task that requires expanding our listening practices into realms that may themselves be unfamiliar, uncertain, and uncomfortable. For some, this may mean traveling far from home, but it need not be so dramatic: it could simply begin with resisting the urge to police the boundaries between what “is” and “isn’t” research. An ethic of humility and openness of deep listening means keeping our ears open to new ideas or from fields or sources outside our defined research topic, as insights so frequently come through chance encounters and unexpected corners.

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Click here to read the abstract of this article.