Arts and Crafts

We’re starting our “Craft of Research” colloquium on Thursday. I thought I’d take few minutes to reflect on what we mean by that.

Research is, famously, framed by theory and grounded in method. Simplifying somewhat, we can say there is there is a way of seeing things and way of doing them that is specific to every discipline. (Or there may be be several ways. Some disciplines draw on several theories and mix their methods.) When we reflect on our theories, when we theorize about theory, let’s say, we call this “meta-theory”, which is often a matter of looking at our “foundations”, suggesting an almost metaphysical pursuit. Likewise, I would like to call our attempts to “get to the bottom” of our methodologies an exercise in “inframethodology”, a gesture at what lies under our methods.

Just as meta-theory is not “theoretical” in the same sense that the theories that frame the actual research we do are theoretical, infra-methdology is not “methodological” in the sense of prescribing correct ways of, say, collecting data and analyzing it. What I’m interested in is the “craftsmanship” that is implicit in our work, the “art” of it even. I’m trying to understand, in particular, what the difference between careful and careless work in a specific discipline amounts to.

Much of what I’m after can be seen in the writing we do. Do we read others carefully and report their findings accurately? Do we take careful notes while reading? How do we construct an accurate and informative reference? In the natural sciences, I’d be interested in how we keep order in the lab and our test tubes clean. In the social sciences, there are questions about how we treat the people we study, our ethics.

Finally, there’s the whole mess of issues related to time management and the avoidance of stress. Many years ago I hit on the idea that as intellectual workers it is our duty not to engage in “soul-destroying labor”. We have to keep our minds healthy since it is our minds that we contribute to the community. This, again, means establishing some sort of workable order in our working lives. All this, I sort under the label “infra-methodology” and I’m looking forward to discussing them on Thursday, and many Thursdays to come.

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