I’m reading a book that I like to call “post-apocalyptic research methodology.” It’s ‘After Method: Mess in Social Science Research’ by John Law. At this point the book reads like a novel. I can’t quite imagine where he’ll take his premise, but I’m searching for clues and turning pages. In the meantime, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about failure, honesty, uncertainty and humility in research.
How is the current research environment like a utopian society?
The research process is often idealized in public spaces. Whether the goal of the researcher is to publish a paper based on their research, present to an audience of colleagues or stakeholders about their research, or market the product of their research, all researchers have a vested interest in the smoothness of the research process. We expect to approach a topic, perform a series of time-tested methods or develop innovative new methods with strong historical traditions, apply these methods as neatly as possible, and end up with a series of strong themes that describe the majority of our data. However, in Law’s words “Parts of the world are caught in our ethnographies, our histories and our statistics. But other parts are not, and if they are then this is because they have been distorted into clarity.” (p. 2) We think of methods as a neutral middle step and not a political process, and this way of thinking allows us to focus on reliability and validity as surface measures and not inherent questions. “Method, as we usually imagine it, is a system for offering more or less bankable guarantees.” (p. 9)
Law points out that research methods are, in practice, very limited in the social sciences “talk of method still tends to summon up a relatively limited repertoire of responses.” (p. 3) Law also points out that every research method is inherently political. Every research method involves a way of seeing or a way of looking at the data, and that perspective maps onto the findings it yields. Different perspectives yield different findings, whether they are subtly or dramatically different. Law’s central assertion is that methods don’t just describe social realities but also help to create them. Recognizing the footprint of our own methods is a step toward better understanding our data and results.
In practice, the results that we focus on are largely true. They describe a large portion of the data, ascribing the rest of the data to noise or natural variation. When more of our data is described in our results, we feel more confident about our data and our analysis.
Law argues that this smoothed version of reality is far enough from the natural world that it should perk our ears. Research works to create a world that is simple and falls into place neatly and resembles nothing we know, “’research methods’ passed down to us after a century of social science tend to work on the assumption that the world is properly to be understood as a set of fairly specific, determinate, and more or less identifiable processes.” (p. 5) He suggests instead that we should recognize the parts that don’t fit, the areas of uncertainty or chaos, and the areas where our methods fail. “While standard methods are often extremely good at what they do, they are badly adapted to the study of the ephemeral, the indefinite and the irregular.” (p. 4). “Regularities and standardizations are incredibly powerful tools, but they set limits.” (p. 6)
Is the Utopia starting to fall apart?
The current research environment is a bit different from that of the past. More people are able to publish research at any stage without peer review using media like blogs. Researchers are able to discuss their research while it is in progress using social media like Twitter. There is more room to fail publicly than there ever has been before, and this allows for public acknowledgment of some of the difficulties and challenges that researcher’s face.
Building from ashes
Law briefly introduces his vision on p. 11 “My hope is that we can learn to live in a way that is less dependent on the automatic. To live more in and through slow method, or vulnerable method, or quiet method. Multiple method. Modest method. Uncertain method. Diverse method.”
Many modern discussions of about management talk about the value of failure as an innovative tool. Some of the newer quality control measures in aviation and medicine hinge on the recognition of failure and the retooling necessary to prevent or limit the recurrences of specific types of events. The theory behind these measures is that failure is normal and natural, and we could never predict the many ways in which failure could happen. So, instead of exclusively trying to predict or prohibit failure, failures should be embraced as opportunities to learn.
Here we can ask: what can researchers learn from the failures of the methods?
The first lesson to accompany any failure is humility. Recognizing our mistakes entails recognizing areas where we fell short, where our efforts were not enough. Acknowledging that our research training cannot be universal, that applying research methods isn’t always straightforward and simple, and that we cannot be everything to everyone could be an important stage of professional development.
How could research methodology develop differently if it were to embrace the uncertain, the chaotic and the places where we fall short?
Another question: What opportunities to researchers have to be publicly humble? How can those spaces become places to learn and to innovate?
Note: This blog post is dedicated to Dr Jeffrey Keefer @ NYU, who introduced me to this very cool book and has done some great work to bring researchers together
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“Utopia,” I like it. I would have described the disconnect between messy reality and polished research findings as a front stage/back stage split à la Goffman, but maybe it’s really more like H. G. Wells’ Eloi and Morlocks: beauty built on an ugly foundation.
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