The data Rorschach test, or what does your research say about you?

Sure, there is a certain abundance of personality tests: inkblot tests, standardized cognitive tests, magazine quizzes, etc. that we could participate in. But researchers participate in Rorschach tests of our own every day. There are a series of questions we ask as part of the research process, like:

What data do we want to collect or use? (What information is valuable to us? What do we call data?)

What format are we most comfortable with it in? (How clean does it have to be? How much error are we comfortable with? Does it have to resemble a spreadsheet? How will we reflect sources and transformations? What can we equate?)

What kind of analyses do we want to conduct? (This is usually a great time for our preexisting assumptions about our data to rear their heads. How often do we start by wondering if we can confirm our biases with data?!)

What results do we choose to report? To whom? How will we frame them?

If nothing else, our choices regarding our data reflect many of our values as well as our professional and academic experiences. If you’ve ever sat in on a research meeting, you know that “you want to do WHAT with which data?!” feeling that comes when someone suggests something that you had never considered.

Our choices also speak to the research methods that we are most comfortable with. Last night I attended a meetup event about Natural Language Processing, and it quickly became clear that the mathematician felt most comfortable when the data was transformed into numbers, the linguist felt most comfortable when the data was transformed into words and lexical units, and the programmer was most comfortable focusing on the program used to analyze the data. These three researchers confronted similar tasks, but their three different methods that will yield very different results.

As humans, we have a tendency to make assumptions about the people around us, either by assuming that they are very different or very much the same. Those of you who have seen or experienced a marriage or serious long-term partnership up close are probably familiar with the surprised feeling we get when we realize that one partner thinks differently about something that we had always assumed they would not differ on. I remember, for example, that small feeling that my world was upside down just a little bit when I opened a drawer in the kitchen and saw spoons and forks together in the utensil organizer. It had simply never occurred to me that anyone would mix the two, especially not my own husband!

My main point here is not about my husband’s organizational philosophy. It’s about the different perspectives inherently tied up in the research process. It can be hard to step outside our own perspective enough to see what pieces of ourselves we’ve imposed on our research. But that awareness is an important element in the quality control process. Once we can see what we’ve done, we can think much more carefully about the strengths and weaknesses of our process. If you believe there is only one way, it may be time to take a step back and gain a wider perspective.

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