Mixed Realities and the Spirit of Place: An Overview of an Integral Research Project in Aotearoa/New Zealand

By: Maggie Buxton


Smartphones, tablets and the hordes of apps created for them, make it possible for us to carry our worlds around with us with increasing ease. As we travel from place to place we can connect (or disconnect) our friends in multiple formats, do our business or procrastinate about our business by playing mindless games.  However as we move from location to location, the way we encounter these ‘places’ may be shifting.


My integral PhD research project explores the notion of ‘place’ and place-based practice in the context of the development of mixed-reality, geo-locative mobile applications and devices. These technologies allow us to see a ‘layer’ of digital information on the world through a mobile device. You can view constellations; identify who around you is on Twitter or who has visited a local bar; you can read or hear information about plant or animal life; you can even experience a variety of local histories and stories…and all of this material can be pinpointed to within a few feet of a particular place.


The invisible web of information previously held separate locations (municipal archives; local museums; tribal oral histories) can now be brought together and overlaid on the environment to which it relates. It is now possible for alternate ‘realities’ (indigenous and immigrant; colonised and coloniser), to be directly juxtaposed through the portal of the mobile device.


How does this impact place based practitioners - particularly those practitioners working within ‘alternate’ realities from mainstream discourse (indigenous groups; spiritual practitioners)? What are the possibilities for (and issues with) using these technologies to engage more deeply with the spirit of a place? These are key questions in my on-going place based research project which is being undertaken within Colab, the interdisciplinary research centre at AUT University, Auckland NZ. I am not able to answer these now, but I would like to say a little about the research process and why I came to choose an Integral approach.


Why Integral Research?

It was clear from the beginning that due to the interdisciplinary nature of ‘place’ research, and the mix of realities (ontological and epistemological) present in the content, some form of mixed methods approach was needed. I had been studying Integral Theory for a number of years and could see that the methodologically pluralistic framework would intersect well with the different research threads that would need to be followed and the ontological frames of reference involved.


 As Esbjörn-Hargens & Wilber noted (2006), no one method totally discloses reality but contributes some truth and some useful perspective as part of a whole. This seemed particularly true in the context of my research where I could see my (first person) subjective experiences and reflections (based on experiences, experiments and explorations); other peoples’ inter-subjective (second person) points of view, and objective (third person) materials (statistics; third party research; scientific data) all being relevant in forming a larger, holistic picture. Remember that my research engages with ontological frameworks (indigenous or otherwise) which allow for ‘spirit’ and other-dimensional activity to be much more tangible than that which is ‘allowed’ in mainstream academia.


Issues and Opportunities

It is clear so far (two years into my full-time research) that there are a number of opportunities and issues with using an integrally based research approach.


Integral Methodogical Pluralism may be an opportunity to creatively fulfil a need for researchers in NZ to adhere to the principles underpinning the Treaty of Waitangi - the founding document of Maori and European relations. The principles of the Treaty include the concepts of ‘partnership’, ‘participation’ and ‘protection’, and these are seen as critical component of any official (and, ideally, unofficial) dealings between the races. All higher research institutions within NZ use the key principles of the Treaty to ensure that any research process involving Maori participants (or, indeed, any participants) has integrity. IMP allows for each perspective on an issue to be valid within its own framework - this was appealing in the spirit of allowing the realities of different groups to sit alongside each other rather than be colonised by the other.  That said, there may be issues with the linear nature of Wilber’s developmental levels/lines which can be interpreted as viewing certain kinds of indigenous thinking as seemingly less developed or less ‘modern’ than other frameworks. I hope to explore this further as the research develops.


Another issue that has come up over and over again is the lack of exposure of Integral Research within academic communities.  The research is relatively new to NZ research practice, even though the respective methods used for capturing data are well known. In order to pass different internal review processes Integral Theory had to be described as simply as possible and stripped of jargon that reviewers found off-putting. There was also a need to demonstrate that there was a group of individuals engaging in this form of research, independent from Ken Wilber. 


The emerging nature of the research is both an opportunity and a challenge. As a new research area, Integral Methodological Pluralism seems able to be interpreted in a number of ways – some of which were highly comprehensive in nature and would involve large teams of experienced researchers to fully realize. With the generous assistance of Nick Hedlund-de Witt and Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, I worked to come up with a simple, workable framework which moved beyond the traditional qualitative/quantitative divide, which allowed for at least one aspect of each of the four quadrants to be represented, and which ensured that the highly reflexive nature of the framework was adhered to with integrity. It was particularly helpful to have Hedlund’s (2010) article, which presented a continuum of Integral Research. This meant that strict adherence to a stark jungle gym of levels and lines could be softened while still maintaining a degree of rigour.


What’s next?

I am still in the process of gathering data, but hope to hand in my PhD at the end of 2013.  I have a strategy in place for weaving the data together in a non-linear fashion, and presenting it in creative ways that express the nature of the technology I am working with as fully as possible. So far, I am enjoying the freedom that the Integral Research Framework gives me to explore the holistic, multidimensional nature of place-based research and practice. I will share details of my process and findings as I go forward, but have enjoyed the multi-layered process of engaging in Integral Research thus far.


Recommended Resources

·      Braud, W., & Anderson, R. (1998). Transpersonal Research Methods for the Social Sciences. Thousand Oaks, C.A.: Sage Publications.

·      Esbjorn-Hargens, S. (2006). Integral Research:A Multi-Method Approach to Investigating Phenomena. Constructivism in the Human Sciences, II(1), 79-107.

·      Esbjörn-Hargens, S., & Wilber, K. (2006). Toward a Comprehensive Integration of Science and Religion: A Post Metaphysical Approach. In P. Clayton (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (pp. 523-546). Oxford, U.K: Oxford     University Press.

·      Greene, J. C. (2007). Mixed Methods in Social Inquiry. San Fransisco CA: Jossey Bass.

·      Hedlund, N. H. (2010). Integrally Researching Integral Research: Enactive Perspectives on the Future of the Field. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 5(2), 1-30.

·      Robbert, A. Horizons of Place: Methods, Objects and Ecologies. Retrieved from http://knowledge-ecology.com/horizons-of-place-review-of-place-based-res...

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