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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Introducing Bricolage and My History as a Bricoleur

Originally I had intended to write a theoretical dissertation using a hermeneutic method, but apparently Hermes had other plans and has ended up tricking me. The method I finally wound up using is much more complex than I could have ever imagined at the beginning—it just kept getting “curiouser and curiouser.” For I found myself embroiled in another method, one that combines hermeneutics, heuristics, and phenomenology, and one that has Hermes written all over it. But before we begin, I will describe how I got to this way of doing a dissertation.

A picture of Alice is falling down the rabbit hole, from Disney’s film version of Alice in Wonderland (Geronimi & Jackson, 1951, motion picture), hangs on the wall above my computer. It is the same picture that has found its way to the base of the splash page on the web site. In the picture, Alice is between worlds, in liminal space. Could she be imagining the whole thing? Is it all just one big reverie? And how did she get there in the first place? Lewis Carroll’s (1975) story begins:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice “without pictures or conversations?” So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid). (pp. 23-24)

Just then, Alice spots a white rabbit, follows it down the rabbit hole and her adventures begin. That is how she got there, but what about me? As a child, I listened to this chapter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, told by Cyril Ritchard (Carroll, 1957) on my record player over and over again. Staring at this picture day in and day out made me think that perhaps I needed a methodology for approaching the liminal land of play that would include both pictures, conversations, and reverie. It was only later that I realized that I had been connected with Alice from my beginnings as well, since my first toy was a white plastic rabbit, wearing a waistcoat. My white rabbit is the icon for the Welcome section and it, too, can be seen on the splash page of the web site, laying on my baby blanket, holding the “Click Me First” sign.

Denzin and Lincoln (2000) used the term bricoleur to describe the modern day qualitative researcher. Schwandt (2001) notes that Denzin and Lincoln felt that the term qualitative research and qualitative researcher inadequately described the manifold identity and practice of the qualitative researcher, who, since the era of blurred genres in the 1970s must now use multiple methodologies, and borrow from many disciplines.

Schwandt, quoting Denzin and Lincoln, further explicates that bricoleur must be:

“adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks ranging from interviewing to observing, to interpreting personal and historical documents, to intensive self-reflection and introspection . . . [and one who] reads widely and is knowledgeable about the many interpretive paradigms . . . that can be brought to a particular problem” (Denzin and Lincoln, 1994, p. 2). As a bricoleur, the qualitative researcher is capable of donning multiple identities—researcher, scientist, artist, critic, and performer—and engaging in different kinds of bricolage that consist of particular configurations of (or ways of relating) various fragments of inherited methodologies, methods, empirical materials, perspectives, understandings, ways of presentation, situated responsiveness, and so on to a coherent, reasoned approach to a research situation and problem.… what the bricoleur produces is bricolage—a kind of pieced together (in contrast to algorithmically guided) but structured solution to a problem. (Schwandt, 2001, pp. 20-21)

Victor Turner called play “the supreme bricoleur” (Turner, 1988, p. 168), so it seems only natural to use a bricolage method to study play. And because bricolage, like the mythical thinking to which it is compared (Lévi-Strauss, 1962/1966), to paraphrase E. Nelson (2002), “is not only what we see, but how we see” (p. 30), we will be returning to bricolage repeatedly, not only as a metaphor for the method but in the body of the dissertation as well. Marshall McLuhan, himself a bricoleur, is famous for saying “the medium is the message.” A recent book about McLuhan is entitled The Method is the Message (Grosswiler, 1998); “the method is the message” is also true of bricolage and so we will keep returning to bricolage from many different angles and at many different times. Like Neo in The Matrix (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999, motion picture), let’s take the red pill and, “I'll show you how far down this rabbit hole goes.”

The methodology, imaginal bricolage, that I have chosen for my dissertation turns out to have chosen me. It has been my research method unconsciously since I began Pacifica and essentially reflects my way of doing things and approaching life. As a child I would do many things at once: while playing a record, I would be dancing, doing a jigsaw puzzle, coloring a picture, all the while dressed up in my mom’s old clothes and wearing high heels. In my life, to this point, I have been a jack-of-all-trades. I began as a psychology major but ended up with a bachelor’s degree in finance and then a law degree, only now getting back to psychology. I have been a purchasing and accounting person, an importer-entrepreneur, a management consultant, a lawyer, and a graduate student. I am thus, by nature, a bricoleur. For me, Rilke’s (1924/1992a) poem “A Walk,” expresses how I have come to consciously realize bricolage’s haunting presence:

My eyes already touch the sunny hill, / going far ahead of the road I have begun. / So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;it has its inner light, even from a distance—

and changes us, even if we do not reach it, / into something else, which, hardly sensing it, / we already are; / a gesture waves us on, answering our own wave . . . / but what we feel is the wind at our faces. (p. 423)

But I am getting ahead of myself. Goodchild (2003, lecture) notes that a method is merely a way, a process, a path to follow. In an effort to make sense of this methodology, because, after all, I do want to get somewhere, I first need a map of where I am going. The Cheshire Cat advised Alice:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where –” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that," said the Cat, “if only you walk long enough.” (Carroll, 1975, pp. 87-88)

The “somewhere” I want to get to is to create a bricolage, while at the same time describing it, and then, later, examine the implications of bricolage on play. Denzin and Lincoln (1994) elegantly describe bricolage:

The product of the bricoleur’s labor is a bricolage, a complex, dense, reflexive collage-like creation that represents the researcher’s images, understandings, and interpretations of the world or phenomenon under analysis. This bricoleur will . . . connect the parts to the whole, stressing the meaningful relationships that operate in the situations and social worlds studied. (p. 3)

Here is my proposal for getting there: It is best to start at the very beginning—according to some, “a very good place to start” (Wise, 1965, motion picture)—with the origins of bricolage, both etymologically and historically. After lingering a while at bricolage’s beginnings I will go on to see what bricolage has been up to lately. In visiting various bricoleurs at work, or at play, I will briefly note what they bring to the bricolage. Then I will bounce back to Lévi-Strauss’s (1962/1966) description of the bricoleur’s practice, which alludes to the different research methods that are incorporated into the bricolage. An brief interlude will ensue, providing a whimsical look at what might appear to be written in Jung’s stone, “bricologically speaking,” about method. Next I will explore methodological implications of bricolage—what it reveals and conceals and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of bricolage. Finally, in the extra method excursion sections, I will explore the tri-via-l matters of hermeneutics, heuristics and phenomenology.


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