The investment in an observable is a deliberate effort to get beyond a Western, empirical and positivist approach to knowledge production. In this case the goal is to get beyond the confines of “data.” “Data,” much like “evidence,” are nothing more than cultural tools that have come to be taken for granted operating as they do as discourses in service of Western ways of knowing. Jorge González reminds us that the etymology of data, from the Latin datum meaning what is given, underscores how its very construction both reflects and advances hegemonic processes. González warns that hierarchical, elitist approaches to knowledge production begin with a rush to gather “data” without acknowledging the role of “dominant authorizing agents” in determining what will or will not be accepted as “evidence.” More importantly, “data” as an established discourse can also serve dominant interests in the manner that it constructs, and as a consequence narrates, individuals or communities objectified through research. James Scheurich challenges “postpositivist” researchers who “see nothing unnatural or socially constructed about what comes to be labeled or identified as a social problem.” Too often researchers view social problems as a disease assuming that research will lead to the necessary or appropriate treatment in the form of a policy solution. As a critical alternative, Scheurich proposes a policy archaeology to “investigate the constitutive grid of conditions, assumptions, forces which make the emergence of a social problem, and its strands and traces, possible ‑to investigate how a social problem becomes visible as a social problem.” “Policy archeaology,” according to Scheurich, “suggests that there is a grid of social regularities that constitutes what becomes socially visible as a social problem and what becomes socially visible as a range of credible policy solutions.” Drawing from Foucault's notion of archaeology, Scheurich encourages researchers to begin with the “complex group of relations” that operate as a “constitutive grid,” or “rules of formation,” that inform how and why researchers name certain realities as problems.
As an alternative to “data” González proposes “observables.” Unlike “data,” an observable is a cultural tool, or technique, to make explicit how an observer interacts with information co-generated between both the observer and the observed. Beyond just interrogating how certain concepts work discursively, i.e. “data,” “evidence,” an observable highlights how information coming from an object informs or in some ways determines the situated production of meaning. In this regard, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela insist that the researcher must embrace a “constant awareness that the phenomenon of knowing cannot be taken as though there were ‘facts’ or objects out there that we grasp and store in our head.” Any object that is observed must be “validated in a special way by the human structure, which makes possible ‘the thing’ that arises in the description.” Thus, according to Maturana and Varela, “every act of knowing brings forth a world.” The activity of the observed can be varied but includes explicitly or implicitly managing the observer. Thus, at an epistemological level all knowledge is always co-generated. Our task is to make explicit the different moments and possibilities of co-production while at the same time encouraging a more deliberate collective process to produce new, strategic knowledges. Well constructed observables can serve as a complete system of information that can be expanded and put to other uses. Any given “emergent knowledge community” necessarily invents or constructs new observables appropriate to their investigative agendas determined by the specific contexts from which they emerge, i.e. contexts of struggle.
Francisco Varela, “Whence Perceptual Meaning? A Cartography of Current Ideas” in Francisco Varela and Jean-Pierre Dupuy, eds., Understanding Origins: Contemporary Views on the Origin of Life, Mind, and Society (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1992): 235-263;
Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana, The Tree of Knowledge (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1987).