I know This Much is True

30 Sep

Science requires an engagement with the world, a live encounter between the knower and the known.
Parker J. Palmer

kitchentales“How can one know anything about one’s fellow man, if not speaking to him?” Asks the researcher of his colleague in Kitchen Stories/Salmer fra Kjøkkenet, a Norwegian movie about a Swedish research company’s attempt to optimize kitchen usage by sending over a team of Swedish researchers to study the habits of Norwegian single men. In particular, it is the story of one researcher, Folke, and his subject, Isak, and their engagement with one another during the research. Folke, in keeping with the positivists’ paradigm, is a neutral observer whose sole role is to collect data in a non-judgmental manner free of personal bias, opinion, or curiosity. Perched up high on his umpire chair, in a strategic spot in the kitchen, Folke, assumes that role as he silently monitors and carefully records Isak’s movements.

As the story unfolds, we witness human spirit soaring through as both the researcher and his subject, the observer and the observed, cause one another to change, and emerge with a new knowing that transforms them both. Through a tender friendship, Folke’s observations lose their neutral stance, to take on a deep empathy for his fellow human and Isak’s initial mistrust and abhorrence toward the presence of this man in his kitchen shift to curiosity and even a desire to be involved and supportive. What began as neutrality and observation in a kitchen is no longer confined to the kitchen as the two men gain deeper understanding of each other.

The movie depicts the researcher who dubs himself into believing that one can be separate from one’s subject and can learn all he needs to learn about the subject by simply observing it. This is parallel to Parker Palmer’s main ideas in his article on The Violence of Our knowledge: Toward a SpiritualMOT1.550.eenie_ity in Higher Education in which he points out that in our pursuit of objectivism, analytic, and experimentalism, we have lost what it is to truly know. In Palmer’s view, true higher learning involves a “healthy dance between the objective and the subjective, between the analytic and the integrative, between the experimental and what (he) will call the subjective.” He goes on to say that knowledge is not neutral. We, as a society, want to believe it is, and we attach it to facts and figures, but it is what we do with these facts and figures that proves that knowledge is far from being either neutral or objective. Palmer also writes that knowing – in this example the knowing is through research – is transformational, reciprocal, personal, and communal. This is well illustrated in Kitchen Tales in that the observer also becomes the observed – Isak, the subject, stops using his kitchen and observes Folke, the researcher, through a hole in the ceiling – and in the way that both the researcher and the subject transform one another. As the movie develops, we are witness to the development of a friendship between the two men that although had started out painkeep-calm-because-we-all-know-the-truthfully (Isak wouldn’t even answer the door,) becomes the focal point of the movie with the research activities being merely the means by which this relationship started and developed.

As I watched the movie, what became clear to me in that moment is how research across cultures and international borders is neither innocent nor simple. It has effects and consequences, it supports certain truths and denies others, it carries with it personal and social values, it affects and transforms… – but that will have to be a topic for another time and day.