One of the basic requirements for research in the humanities and social sciences is that the researcher must take a position. Well not any old position, but one in relation to the practice of research. This is often thought of as a philosophical task.
Many doctoral researchers find this difficult. They arm-wrestle with the various philosophical ‘labels’ and sometimes lose sight of the basic questions that are at stake in making choices about the various philosophical traditions.
So what better way to start to get to grips with these knotty philosophical issues than with a good metaphor?
Noel Gough, now at Latrobe University in Melbourne, likes to use the metaphor of detection in order to help this thinking about the nature of research and researching. He suggests that in order to contemplate the kind of research we want to do, we might draw on the resources of crime fiction and think of ourselves as detectives.
Let’s imagine that we are Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is the detached and objective researcher. He looks for clues and evidence – these exist independently in the external environment. His goal is to ‘find’ sufficient ‘facts’ that will support or disprove his working hypothesis. Holmes always uses deductive logic interspersed with forensic activity in order to rationally and scientifically demonstrate the truth. We can think of Holmes as a positivist, or perhaps a post-positivist.
Miss Marple represents the interpretive turn. She is the classic ethnographer, always hanging around, observing carefully, engaging in apparently trivial conversations which come to have deeper meanings afterwards as she thinks about them. She quite often eavesdrops on other people’s conversations. Most people think Miss Marple is harmless and do not see that she has been watching and judging all along. Miss Marple uses a classic grounded theory inductive approach to accumulate ‘facts’ and get to the ‘truth’.
Gough points to other trends in detective fiction that follow on from these two classic texts. These, he suggests, are not too dissimilar from philosophical changes in research thinking and practices and they can help us think about them.
For example, Dashiel Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe are far from detached observers – they are usually deeply involved as actors, rather than spectators, in the crimes that they seek to resolve. They tell their stories in the first person and cannot remove themselves from the events that transpire.
Then there are the feminist detectives – such as V I Warshawski, developed by Sarah Paretsky– who offer profoundly gendered readings of the social world and the events that are under investigation. Solving the crime very often relies on their intuition, their emotional involvement, their capacities to forge empathetic relationships and their loathing of abuse and violence against the weak and abused.
But wait, there’s more… There are also collaborative detective teams, or perhaps we should call this distributed and interdisciplinary detective work/practice…. writers such as Val McDermid and Ian Rankin still have a singular detective hero or anti-hero, there are a host of other services and people to provide support. There has also been a place-based turn in detective fiction, with Scandinavian and Scottish noir for example showing that local, specific expertise is often critical to the successful conclusion of a case. The campus crime novel is also redolent of ‘insider’ research, with all of the advantages and disadvantages that this brings. Some detectives now even have to work in profoundly performative audit oriented situations, where budgets and nit-picking superiors always threaten to restrict what can be done…
And of course, there are the postmodern detectives. Umberto Eco’s William of Baskerville finds that the application of reason and logic gets him nowhere. He literally gets lost in a labyrinth of competing narratives, and stumbles accidentally onto an answer. His conjectures about truth and the nature of the crime, like his practices, Gough suggests, are more rhizomatic than linear.
So why not give the Gough detective metaphor activity a go? Even if you are philosophically confident and comfortable, it’s still fun to do. (Whenever I do this, I can quite often see myself as a Miss Marple, although sometimes I feel more like Inspector Clouseau, stumbling about and being a bit comical. Every now and then I think of Skippy the bush kangaroo whose major role in solving crimes was to always know when to run for help!)
If we imagine ourselves as detectives and our research as detective work, we can think about what logics they are using and how these play out in relation to our proposed research. Using a detective metaphor might help us to answer questions such as:
… what is there to know about the world? what does it mean to ‘know’? who knows what and on what basis? how reliable is this knowledge ? how is knowledge transmitted to whom? what is the relationship between the knower and the unknown? is there a single answer to be found or many?
We may end up, of course, doing as Noel Gough suggests, and deciding that un-detection is the way to go rather than searching for evidence and clues.
Read Noel’s far more elegant explication of detection and undetection in;
Gough, Noel (2010) The truth is not out there: Becoming undetective in social and educational enquiry. In Walker, M and Thomson, P. The Routledge Doctoral Supervisor’s Companion. pp 231-246 London: Routledge.