Time for some Research Zen

As the new semester kicks into gear and work deadlines loom, I find myself ready for a moment of research zen.

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Let’s take a minute to stand in a stream and think about the water. Feel the flow of the water over your feet and by your calves. Feel the pull of constant motion. Feel yourself sink against the current, rooting deeper to keep steady. Breathe the clean outdoor air. Observe the clouds and watch the way the sky reflects in the water in the stream. The stream is not constant. The water passing now is not the water that passed when you started, and the water that passes when you leave will be still different. And yet we call this a stream.

As I observe sources of social media, thinking about sampling, I’m faced with some of the same questions that the stream gives rise to. Although I would define my sources consistently from day to day, their content shifts constantly. The stream is not constant, but rather constantly forming and reforming at my feet.

For a moment, I saw the tide of social media start to turn in favor of taxi drivers. In that moment, I felt both a strong sense of relief from the negativity and a need to revisit my research methods. Today I see that the stream has again turned against the drivers. I could ignore the momentary shift, or I could use this as a moment to again revisit the wisdom of sampling.

If I sample the river at a given point, what should I collect and what does it represent? How, when the water is constantly moving around me, can I represent what I observe within a sample? Could my sampling ever represent a single point in the stream, the stream as a whole, or streams in general? Or will it always be moments in the life of a stream?

In the words of Henry Miller, “The world is not to be put in order. The world is in order. It is for us to put ourselves in unison with this order.” In order to understand this stream, I need to understand what lies beneath it, what gives it its shape and flow, and how it works within its ecosystem.

The ecosystem of public opinion around the taxi system in DC is not one that can be understood purely online. When I see the reflection of clouds on the stream, I need to find the sky. When I see phrases repeated over and over, I need to understand where they come from and how they came to be repeated. In the words of Blaise Pascal “contradiction is not a sign of falsity, nor the lack of contradiction a sign of truth.” No elements in this ecosystem exist independent of context. Each element has its base.

Good research involves a good deal of reflection. It involves digging in against currents and close observation. It involves finding a moment of stillness in the flow of the stream.

Breathe in. Observe carefully. Breathe out. Repeat, continue, focus, research.

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