Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Social Research

So it’s been a somewhat gruelling couple of weeks, getting everything together for the two methods courses I’m covering this term. The undergraduate course, since it’s new and we were designing it from scratch, took the lion’s share of the time – although it was nice to be able to work alongside the ultra-competent (and ubiquitously sardonic) L Magee in pulling everything together.

The course is large enough, and massive lecture halls scarce enough, that we have to deliver two different iterations of the lecture – so we had one go at the lecture Monday morning, and will get another try on Friday. Most of the first lecture, necessarily, dealt with housekeeping and course mechanics. I’m currently trying to gather my thoughts from the lecture on Monday – I always learn something about the tacit logic of my own stuff, when I present it – there were elements of the tacit logic underlying the structure of the lecture, elements of grasping why I wanted to organise my bits the way I did, that I sort of “got” only when listening to myself give the lecture… We’ll see if this improves the reiteration of the lecture to be delivered on Friday.

I thought I’d post a few notes here on the lecture and course concepts – with the caveat that I’m always a bit cringe-y when I expose pedagogical material publicly. There’s a strong exhortative dimension to teaching – things get simplified, not simply or straightforwardly to make them easier to learn, but with the goal of trying to rouse something, trying to pass along a certain contagion about why this stuff can actually be exciting (er… realising that what I’m about to write may not… er… have that effect on terribly many people – I don’t claim to be a rousing lecturer – quite the contrary (really strongly the contrary) – my skills lie much more in leading discussions – but there is still an element, in lecturing, of wanting to communicate affect, and not simply content, of wanting to share, somehow, that the very abstract sort of material that I generally teach, can be deeply meaningful in its strange way – and something about what I do, to try to communicate this, never seems to me to translate well when I write about what I did – instead, what comes through is the simplicity of the content, all the ways I would qualify it, all the ways I disagree with it… And yet… There’s a reason that stuff gets left out of the lecture in the first place… A reason that doesn’t prevent me from being fairly self-conscious about reproducing lecture concepts outside the shelter of the lecture hall…)

The course is titled “Social Research: Qualitative”, and the structure of classes here gives you twelve weeks to somehow meet whatever expectations such a title engenders. Last year, the staff member who took this course decided that twelve weeks simply wasn’t enough to give a meaningful introduction to something as broad as “social research” and so decided to drill closely down into one research method (discourse analysis), to try to give the students some in-depth experience with mastering a particular method, from which they could hopefully extrapolate when orienting themselves to other methods in the future. In earlier years, the course has been taught with a heavy NVivo focus, with all the students doing the same research project – again with the thought that students could extrapolate their experience with that project, into other sorts of research they might conduct in the future.

We’re equally dismayed, I suspect, by the jarring disjoint between the expansive course title, and what can reasonably be covered in twelve weeks in an introductory methods class for second-year undergraduates. Something – lots and lots of somethings – have to “go”, to make the course possible.

We’ve channelled our dismay, however, in a slightly different direction: while it is certainly true that any individual student is going to do some specific form of research project, and neglect others, we’ve decided not to pre-dictate either the method or the project itself. There will no doubt be plenty of project-deflection over the term, as students choose topics that are too vast – or illegal, dangerous, or inappropriate in other ways… ;-P But in principle we’ve left it to the students what they want to study, substantively, and how they intend to study it. Although we will do a bit with “method” in the “to do” list sense in this course, we’ve decided instead to focus on the most basic elements of the research design process – becoming curious about something, asking a question, looking around to see whether anyone else has ever asked something similar, trying to figure out what you need to do, to answer the question you’ve asked, and then being accountable for your question, what you’ve done to answer it, and the answer you’ve put forward, in a public sphere.

This approach means that we can’t dictate method, because we’re telling the students in a very strong way that their method has to derive in some quasi-logical way from their question. And we can’t dictate question because… well… we’re telling students that research is about straddling that strange space between personal curiosity and public accountability – and it’s a bit out of place to tell other people what they ought to be curious about… ;-P

So we bookended this first lecture with two videos, designed to mark out two possible extremes in conceptions of social research. After some brief transitional comments, we opened with the first six minutes of this video of the Milgram experiments:

What the students saw, was a man in a white lab coat take an authoritative role in a highly artificial experimental setting, where the stated purpose of the exercise was to test a hypothesis in carefully controlled circumstances. I did warn the students there was more to this experiment that met the eye (we’ll return to this video again later in the course) – but the parting image they were left with was of what looked to be a research subject with a heart condition, strapped to a chair, awaiting progressively nastier electric shocks if he failed in a memorisation task… (They laughed… Hmmm… I responded by telling them we would trial this method in their tutorials…)

So this is one extreme – not, in this case, for the distressing nature of the experiment, but for the highly artificial, controlled, hypothesis-testing orientation of the study. The video with which we ended the session was this one, on Sudhir Venkatesh’s anthropological work on a Chicago gang (the embedded video below is only an excerpt – the full program is here):

Venkatesh’s piece was chosen for a sort of maximal contrast to the fragment of the Milgram video that we showed: a research scenario in which the field strikes back, takes its researcher captive in the most literal possible sense, rejects the researcher’s “expert” knowledge, and tells the researcher how to conduct the (radically uncontrolled) study.

We will do other things with these and other video materials through the course but, for purposes of this introductory lecture, the point was simply to mark out two extreme points, suggest that there is a continuum of possibilities between them – and that all of this, the whole continuum, could be defended as some form of “social research”. A continuum of social research along which the students would have some opportunity to begin situating themselves in the course of the term.

In terms of other content, this blurb from the course guide gives the gist of how we are approaching the course:

Many people, when they think about research, think of something done in a special sort of place, like a laboratory, a library, or a “field site”, by a special sort of person, like an academic expert who has spent years acquiring a vast specialist knowledge of what they are studying, and on a special sort of topic, which is important enough to count as a “research question”. Thought of this way, research can seem a bit intimidating and removed from our other concerns: we can struggle to think of ourselves as being the kind of people who might do research – surely we aren’t qualified or we don’t “know enough”? We can struggle to imagine what research might look like, if carried out in the sorts of settings where we spend our personal and professional time – surely research doesn’t tackle the sorts of experiences we have in our everyday lives? We can doubt whether our questions and concerns are “important” enough to count as research questions – surely research investigates something more removed from our everyday experiences or personal passions?

While it is very common to think of research as this kind of specialised, rarefied expert activity, this image of research is highly misleading. Research, at its most basic, involves cultivating the very opposite of expertise: it entails a process of opening ourselves to what we don’t know – of taking seriously our own curiosity and desire to learn more – of asking questions. Because research crystallises around a question, the research process is driven precisely by our lack of expertise – by what we need to learn. In the research process, we all position ourselves as explorers and investigators, rather than as people who already possess some kind of mastery over our subject matter. Because research operates in this space of exploration and uncertainty – because it takes the form of quest to learn something new – it is impossible to have all the skills and knowledge you will need for the research process, before you undertake the research itself.

While some of us may have a bit more practical experience with research than others, all of us have some experience with the core skills required for the research process: we have all been curious, asked questions, set about finding answers, and debated with other people about each step in this process. On one level, then, we are all “researchers” in at least an informal sense. At the same time, no specific research project – formal or informal – begins with a special creature called a “researcher” who already possesses all the skills and knowledge required to carry out a research project, before they start asking questions and working out how to answer them. Researchers are created, not born. And what creates them is nothing more than the process of actually doing research. You become a researcher: you do this by carrying out research. All the skills that research requires, and all the things you need to know to do research successfully, are learned through the research process itself.

This doesn’t mean that formal study is not essential to the research process: it is. It means that this formal study more closely resembles the process of apprenticing in a craft, than it does the process of committing to memory some fixed body of information. Research is a practical activity – an art, albeit one undertaken with a scientific spirit. Every question, every method, every researcher brings something subtly different to the research process – meaning that research is never learned ​abstractly, as a skill that could be pursued separately from its various practical applications. Instead, your research question is what drives your formal study, providing a meaningful context within which you can work out what sorts of formal knowledge and skills you need to have, why you need to have them, and how you can learn them most efficiently. Your research question therefore grounds other sorts of study you undertake – which is why we will start this course, not with an abstract set of knowledge or skills we think you need to memorise, but with activities that will help you work out a research question that can organise the rest of your work in this course.

From this starting point, we will then guide you as you undertake a quick apprenticeship in the major stages of the research process. There are of course many different types of research. The research carried out by a journalist, an activist, a market researcher, a government, or an academic researcher will differ in significant ways, for example, due to the different end goals and audiences for the research. Nevertheless, certain elements are common to any sort of research process. Those common elements will provide the focus of our work in this course.


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