Thinking about research

Whenever we tackle something new we always draw on experiences that might be close to it or rely on mindsets we have built to help us make sense of things. Everyone who undertakes a research degree brings to that task a notion of what doing research is like. There are a set of important ideas associated with these notions that might at first not seem to be that important.

Before we open some of those up, it's worth drawing attention to some ideas that might gently disrupt your research mindset.

There is an old saying that goes something like this,

If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be research.

This is more eloquently explored in a lovely paper written in the sciences1. Martin Schwartz traces his sense of feeling stupid as he pursues a PhD in Microbiology. A couple of quotes to convey his argument:

I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn’t know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn’t have the answer, nobody did. That’s when it hit me: nobody did. That’s why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve.

and he develops the lovely notion of productive stupidity2,

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right.

Recently Stuart Firestein has published an excellent little book3 on ignorance. The opening of the book is an almost word for word version of a TED talk he gave on the subject. Well worth the effort.

Sadly, much of the current practices in schools and Education prize right answers. The important point here is to understand that research is not about right answers but about asking better questions.

It may seem odd to be lauding the value of making mistakes but this is at the heart of it all. If you don't make mistakes how can you learn anything? One of the contributors to this site is something of a fan of what might be called the Peter Palchinsky principles4.

So, failure (in moderation) is not only good but more or less essential to your learning to become a researcher in Education.

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Some of the other things to mull about go to the heart of doing research in any field, but particularly in the social sciences. These include:

  • Ontology, asking questions about what is the nature of the social reality we are examining
  • Epistemology, asking questions about what we can know and how we can know it
  • Theory, thinking about how we make sense of what we are studying.
  • Methodology, the logic of how to go about acquiring the knowledge that exists
  • Methods, the means by which we collect data
  • Data sources, the stuff generate when we do research.

There is an excellent paper (Grix, 20025) that examines the relationships between these important notions and doing research in the social sciences and from which this account, in part, draws. There is an image on Prezi that attempts to capture the logic of the various elements of doing research in the social sciences.

This can all be a little overwhelming. A bit of humour can offer a little light relief. Humour, as Len Fisher argues6 is not just good fun (in science) but also often a key element in opening up new ideas. All too often the Social Sciences tend to ape a dull, monotonous notion of science plodding steadily along following the scientific method. Science has much to offer, but this caricature of how science works is not one of them.

The other important point to keep in mind when you are reading about different methods and theories and such is that they all had beginnings, i.e. someone invented/developed them. Tracing back to the origins of ideas is always a valuable way to get a better handle on them.

It is a question that can even be asked of a site like this.

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