I recently had a revelation about research methodology.
In my Intercultural Communication class, a presenter showed a picture of a moment in a baseball game. The conversation that followed was about baseball and about Little League. It missed the point.
Look around you. You are flooded with visual data. Open your ears. You are flooded with auditory data. Open your senses. What are you touching? Do you smell anything? The world is full of sensory data, so much data, in fact, that we could never take it all in.
This is where attention come in. Focus. Foreground. We quickly filter out sounds to focus on, points in the visual field that are the most meaningful at any given moment. In this way, we are efficient and capable. But we are not researchers.
To conduct research is to focus on a moment in time, an interaction, a photograph, etc. and look more deeply at it. Research begins with careful observation. Research includes deconstructing an element into its constituent pieces and thinking carefully about those pieces.
What does a linguist do? A linguist takes the time to look at language and unpack it to reconstitute its context, creation and motivation. Linguistics is asking ‘what is happening?’ ‘what tools are being used’ and ‘what is being accomplished?’ Linguistics is taking the time to look more closely at the elements of the picture and not restrict oneself to the natural foreground.
Laypeople talk about the content of language. People talk about the boy in the picture who is jumping for joy. Researchers look at the trajectory of the eyes in the crowd to see where people are focusing their attention. They notice the fence between the audience and the players and the way people interact with it. They notice the baseball on the ground. They notice the sunshine and the clothing that the people are wearing. They can uncover the deeper story of what was happening in that moment, instead of surmising about the apparent focus.
These are the skills we are learning.