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A substantial group of Fielding alumni and students had a strong presence at this year’s European Sociological Association (ESA) Conference on qualitative research and technologies in Krakow, Poland.

Organized and led by faculty member Valerie Bentz, this group was the largest US contingent at the September, 2016, ESA conference. Their contributions included a pre-conference workshop along with nine individual presentations and a keynote address by Dr. Bentz on the transformative potential of combining phenomenology and somatics in conducting qualitative research in complex social systems. Participation in this conference served as a focal point for the relevance of the new Fielding concentration in Somatics, Phenomenology, and Communicative Leadership (SPCL) in scholarship and practice around complex social issues. It also highlighted the mission of Fielding’s School of Leadership Studies.

L-R: Casandra Lindell, Vincenzo Giorgino, Valerie Bentz

L-R: Casandra Lindell, Vincenzo Giorgino, Valerie Bentz

The pre-conference session led by Dr. Bentz, titled “Phenomenological Methods: Essence and Lifeworld Based Evidence,” offered an argument for the acceptance of phenomenological research as clinical evidence in the diagnosis and treatment of trauma and other mental health conditions. A companion evening session built on this theme.

Organized by the Fielding European Cluster, the session titled “Trauma Recovery: Insights from Contemplative Inquiry, Somatics, Phenomenology, and the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) Theory,” added other perspectives from the human sciences and forms of inquiry into, and analysis of, direct experience. This session led with the provocative statement that “trauma from war, natural disasters, immigration, and disease is pervasive, and it appears that the more facts and information we have about these issues, the more challenging it is for humans individually and collectively to find solutions.” Discussion revolved around stories of traumatic experience shared by participants, and identifying and applying holistic approaches to understanding that can help to get to the human meaning underlying the proliferation of empirical facts and data around these events.

Sergej Van Middendorp, PhD, the co-organizer of the European Cluster, saw this event as a significant milestone in the evolution in Fielding’s European presence. “When I first came to Fielding in 2008, it felt like coming home. And since, I have worked with different colleagues to bring the spirit of Fielding to Europe,” he said, “At many occasions, we have succeeded in doing so, but never more than in our joint presence at the ESA conference in Cracow. It was as if the repeated efforts of doing so have built on each other and culminated in beautiful, multi-modal blend of scholarship and practice of being together.”

krakow1The keynote address by Dr. Valerie Bentz titled: “Who Is the Researcher? Soma, Contemplation, and Lifeworld in ‘Digitneyland’” offered an overview of the potential transformative impact of somatic phenomenology as an approach to understanding human experience through collaborative endeavors. Combining learnings from recent advances in neuroscience, social theory, and somatics, Dr. Bentz offered an update in the practice of phenomenological research, describing the emerging role of the researcher as more of a co-inquirer. She suggested that, “Instead of interviewing subjects to gather data, somatic phenomenologists establish ‘we-relationships’ with ‘friends’ who with equal power and self-awareness, and lacking hidden agendas, seek truth.”

She further articulated the need for competence of researchers in leading collaborative social change ins four essential areas: knowing from within, as opposed to knowing from an external perspective; engaging more complex forms of being through social construction theories; recognizing and changing unwanted repetitive patterns; and co-creating better social worlds by creating space for collaborative action for change, in dialogue around differences and strengths.

From left, student and board member Carolyn Elliott and student Ayumi Nishi listen as alumnus Barton Buechner presents.

Individual presentations by Fielding alumni and students carried this theme forward. Workshops presented were:

  • “Contemplative Research as Therapy: A Phenomenologically-Informed Social Constructionist Approach to Understanding and Addressing Moral Injuries in Online Conversations” by Barton Buechner, PhD
  • “Designing for Consciousness: Towards a Theory of Environmental Design Adopting Neurophenomenology as Methodology” by Christopher Mare, PhD
  • “Recognition and Ricoeur” by Suzanne Begin, MA, PhD Candidate
  • “The Shadow Side of Qualitative Research: When a Researcher Experiences Secondary Psychological Trauma” by Rebecca Stafford, PhD
  • “Past Reality Integration as Contemplative Inquiry to Uncover, Improvise, and (Re)Embody the Metaphors Hidden in the Soma-System Continuum” by Sergej van Middendorp, PhD
  • “Exploring the Work of Classical Musicians: Use of Video and Stimulated Recall” by Dorianne Cotter-Lockard, PhD, Fellow, Fielding Institute for Social Innovation
  • “The Use of Qualitative Data Analysis Software (NVivo): Studying the Challenges of Young Adults with ADHD in the Workplace” by Barbara A. Mather, PhD, Past Fellow, Fielding Institute for Social Innovation
  • “Dance as Epistemology: Embodied Knowledge and Social Change through Communal Dance” by Evelyn Torton Beck, PhD, Fellow, Creative Longevity and Aging
  • “Heideggerian Hermeneutic Phenomenological Methodology: Introduction to a Research Methodology Rooted in Heideggerian Philosophy” by Ayumi Nishii, PhD Candidate

These diverse presentations highlight the potential for the interdisciplinary approach of the SPCL concentration to address complex social issues in a more context-sensitive way than many traditional forms of empirical research.

Barton Buechner, who teaches subjects of research methods and morality, ethics, and social justice in the military psychology program at Adler University, sees the emergence of this concentration at Fielding as particularly useful for research and practice in support of combat veterans. “Historically, veterans have had some difficulty communicating the complexity of their lived experience of combat with others, as their embodied responses have been transformed, which may create conflict in other contexts and surroundings,” he said. “We are introducing the concepts of somatic phenomenology into our courses, along with the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) theory of social construction in communication, and our students appear to be resonating with them.”

In addition to those presenting their work, the Fielding contingent included Casandra Lindell, Alyea Sandovar, and Carolyn Elliott, who also serves as a member of Fielding’s Board of Directors. “There is an incredible energy in this city,” observed Carolyn. “It seems like there are forces of both past and future converging here.”

The conference keynote also served as a springboard for the upcoming release of the new Fielding Graduate University press compilation titled Contemplative Research: Caring for Self, Being, and Lifeworld. The volume was co-edited by Valerie Bentz and Vincenzo Giorgino, with Casandra Lindell as coordinating editor. It includes contributions by several Fielding alumni along with other international scholars that explore contemporary topics around self, mind, culture, and society in a new way that goes beyond traditional methods of research to consider the investigation of emerging forms of being.

Dr. Bentz commented that this volume is both unique and timely: “We are excited to bring together excellent contemplative scholarship from the US and Europe,” she said, adding that “with the complex problems we are dealing with today, including inequality and climate change, it is important to engage these in a way that considers the connectedness of all things, and integrates the deep personal knowing and reflective insights of the researchers.”

The International Summit on Qualitative Research was sponsored by the European Sociological Association (ESA), in cooperation with the Lodz University and Jagellonian University in Poland, and was supported by the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences, the Swiss Sociological Association, and the Polish Academy of Sciences.