The tricky thing about truth...

After last week’s class, and our discussion on whether there is any definable, quantifiable truth, I found myself looking at the readings from Knight and Luker with a more careful eye. It seems as if Luker and Knight are proposing the same type of thesis: certain research methods are not well suited for social science research (Luker) and in turn, small scale research projects (Knight). It all comes back to that idea of truth - can you really discover universal truths when you’re researching society, especially if you’re only able to produce a small-scale case study? Probably not.

Ultimately, it seems as if the only fact we have about truth is that it is a very multifaceted beast. Social science researchers are able to acknowledge this fact by developing well-thought out frameworks that display how their findings can be used to make connections outside of the small area of interest they’re focused on. Luker and Knight both characterize this as usefulness or the ability to make generalizations from social science and small study research. So while you might be deeply interested in the information gathering habits of first year undergraduate students at UofT, if your study doesn’t help your audience gain insight into their own population of first year students - you’re probably not using a very effective framework.

I felt that Knight really drove home this point with the story about forlorn Pattie. She worked really hard and dug down into her area of interest and produced some very detail-oriented work. But her research wasn’t useful outside of her own understanding because it didn't fit within a greater research narrative. I really think Pattie would have benefited from a review of Luker’s quick and dirty guide to “researching smarter, not harder.” If she’d examined literature in the field she was interested in before delving into her research question with her blinders on she might have realized that the end goal of researching is not only to explore something personally interesting, but to also contribute to the greater discussion surrounding a topic.

In a way, I feel a bit like Pattie. I have a million different ideas floating around in my head. Some seem really interesting and useful to me, but at the same time are they actually able to contribute to a greater discussion? I suppose the only way to truly find this out is to engage in some “Harvarding” of the literature surrounding my current area of interest. Stay tuned for an update :)

-Stephanie Quail


mwells said...

Truth was much easier to define before I got into the humanities and social sciences. When I was doing my history degree, I learned that there is basically an existential crisis in the field. Postmodern historians don't trust any of the documents they work with as being reflective of any kind of absolute truth. That makes it kind of hard to actually practice history, which is meant to present a truthful portrait of the past. Basically it seems like a lot of them press on for the tenureship and research grants that academia offers, hoping that nobody will notice that they don't believe in the basic tenets of their discipline.

I do believe that small-scale research can have a wider applicability, though. I think we have to remember that, even if our work doesn't perfectly reflect some universal truth, it will still leave an impression on those who read about it. Such impressions might resonate with other knowledge these readers already possess, and might provide them with insights that we never would have even imagined...maybe? Perhaps I'm just trying to stay optimistic. Not an easy task in today's academic climate.

- Matt

Sara M. Grimes said...

It really drives home the importance of the literature review - it's not just about proving you've done readings or situating your work, it's also such a key component of putting together a good project (research question, design, etc.) in the first place.

Heather said...

I like, and share, Matt’s optimism here. Even though someone’s small-scale research may not fully expose a universal truth, it will (hopefully) get discussion going about a particular topic, or possible trend within a discipline. Luker’s research ideas in Chapter 5, in particular the daisy diagram, can really help a budding researcher begin to discover a new topic of research that is slightly different than what else is being spoken about, and give insight on most/least effective research methods to use (i.e.–is case study research the best option?). In taking part in smaller research projects, another researcher may think about their own future topic differently. Kind of like a ripple effect. It may not change the world’s truths, but gets conversation going.

Personally, I found this ‘daisy’ exercise to be the most useful of all so far in trying to get to some research-able idea or question. But before beginning my small-scale research, I must ask myself Knight’s insightful questions, “So what? Who cares?” I don’t want to be a Pattie.

Amy. said...

I may digress a little bit here, but the ‘Pattie’ scenario has certainly resonated with me. Having written a thesis during the 4th year of my undergrad, I've gone through the trials and tribulations of conducting and writing a review of literature, followed by the composition of a final project.

After reading chapters 4 and 5 of 'Salsa Dancing,' I've been able to reflect on my research processes and have been able to identify some key mistakes that I've made. Luker and Knight both have their own ways of describing the elements of their proposed effective research processes, and having done so myself, I’m impressed with how both authors have precisely identified numerous successful measures for ensuring research success from the starting point onward. Most importantly, I agree that a researcher’s ability to adequately frame his or her own research question is essential to leading the review of literature in the right direction. It also helps to ensure that one’s research contributes to something greater than personal interest, as Stephanie noted.

Perhaps, before we begin to aim to resolve the ‘truth’ pertaining to a particular research question, we must remind ourselves that we are capable of contributing to the understanding of any number of truths – but one (or close to one) must be chosen if we intend to create well structured, well-informed, and thorough research. A somewhat structured approach (with feedback and reiteration, too) to our research might be the solution to isolating one idea from the other million in our head.

Ramona said...

I wanted to add to Amy’s discussion about the different types of truth that research studies uncover, particularily "social truth". During last week’s lecture on the different social science paradigms, the criticisms that centred on ethnographic research methods was that it relied on a subjective approach and that it lacked the “hard science” of the older scientific methods.If it is true that the way a researcher arrives at a particular claim is dependent on the research methods that are used, then certain aspects of “social truth” can only be gleaned through an interpretive research approach like ethnography.

It would be difficult to make a purely scientific (i.e. objective) claim about social phenomena that is subjectively experienced (i.e. feelings and judgments) because of the scientific methodology’s tendency to be deterministic about its societal claims. Some communities of practice would argue that you cannot answer a social inquiry using an objective approach. For example,in Knight’s discussion about the research standpoint of critical theorists and feminists, it is made clear that the aim of their research is inherently “incompatible” with the principles of objectivity.


Devon said...

At the risk of sounding way dumber than anyone else on this blog so far I'm not even that worried about the truth in my research, I'm still too busy scrambling around trying to work out how one goes about taking fifteen thousand free floating ideas and forcing them into a study that's feasible, let alone truthful.
I suspect Pattie went through this too.

But as much as I'm struggling with the feasibility, I'm also worried that if I set out with the idea that my study will have some kind of truth about it I'll end up with a pretentious first year undergrad Shakespeare paper (I'm an English major and was taught to fear broad statements about truth) that will posit a great idea that'll somehow get lost in the attempt to make it "truth"

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