"Bumping up a level" in generality. Yes? Maybe?

I found that Luker's writings on generalization and "synecdoche" really stood out for me this week.  I'm always so torn on this issue of relevance with respect to research.  On the one hand, I am a big believer in the idea that all research should, in some way or another, suggest that there are larger implications to the conclusions that are found beyond the specific focus of the work.  On the other hand, I'm not certain that that is possible in all cases, or that it even should be possible in certain instances.  I come from a discipline where a lot of people study specific medieval manuscripts for years on end.  Should their findings be somehow "useful" to society as a whole?

On this point, then, I found Luker's suggestion to try to "bump" your conclusions up one level in generality to be very interesting.  As an exercise, I thought of a potentially important research discovery that was also extremely specific, to see if Luker's advice would work.  I come from a History background, so I thought of an example from that discipline: specifically, let's say that someone could definitively prove that Napoleon was poisoned to death by arsenic (this is actually a theory that a lot of people buy into, but there's no smoking gun case).

Okay, so at first glimpse, this seems like a reasonably important finding.  But how important is it?  It's something you can talk about at cocktail parties, I suppose (why does everything come back to cocktail parties?).  But how is it useful beyond that?  Well, I can try to bump up a level, as Luker suggests.  I suppose this incident shows how  powerful people are always vulnerable to their enemies, though there are many modern examples that already demonstrate this.  If the British were implicated (also part of the theory), this case might show how foreign powers can influence events well outside their borders.  You might even be able to use this to show how a reasonably democratic power could topple an oligarch.  Or how dictatorship so often ends in failure.

These are only ideas off the top of my head, but I think I understand where Luker is going with this.  You can't say that your findings "prove" something beyond what you research, but you can make reasonable links with larger issues.  Hmm.

- Matt


Devon said...

I like your example and totally understand. I minored in classics, so I'm full of fairly useless facts like Caligula was the 3rd Roman emperor and was named after the word for "little boots" and Alexander the Great burnt down one of the richest palaces in the world when he was drunk.
But aside from these kind of non-influential pieces of data, the process of gathering them and organizing them really builds an image of a society or time period and that is actually useful. We can look at Alexander the Great's erratic behaviour and draw parallels to current leaders (Then hide all the matches).
All information at the very least feeds into this giant pool of knowledge that eventually shows us something.

Stephanie Lauren said...

I suppose from the perspective of the social sciences, we're trying to examine the "here and now" of something in order to make a difference in a current issue. But I still think that examining history is important. It shows us patterns of power, social relations, and a million other things.

Finding out what these patterns are is really important in my opinion, as most current issues have historical underpinnings. Understanding the history of an issue can help us make a connection to the larger picture and maybe make a difference in a current problem.

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