Thursday, June 9, 2011

Conducting Research

A year ago, I received the Middle Kingdom's Order of the Silver Oak award which is given for beginner level skill in a science. My science was research- specifically the research I've done into women's period headwear, but I consider research in general to be my interest in the Society. Not too long ago, I sat in at a round table discussion on research at an event, and though it wasn't as lively as I think the moderators hoped it would be, it did raise a question I'd like to answer here. In the process of answering this question, I'd like to share with you my personal research perspective as well.

Q: How do you get to that point when you take all the "on paper" research you've done and turn it into action?

A: While it is true that research usually begins "on paper" or with your face planted in a book or two on the subject, the true value of research is that it brings about a scientific process that, in one way or another, requires experiment. That's why many branches of the SCA consider research to be a science instead of an art. Experiment doesn't always have to be a messy process (though it certainly can be in some cases, such as period cooking). Experiment in this case means something a bit more cerebral- finding a hypothesis and proving or negating it.

If you've truly been doing research, even just the "on paper" kind, you've probably already formulated at least one hypothesis. The trick is to recognize it. Fundamentally, you need to think about everything you've learned thus far in terms of provability (or at least acceptable theory). The best example I can give, which most SCA researchers will run across, is proving or disproving a statement made by someone else (scholar, historian, re-creator, me, etc.) that you've accepted as a workable hypothesis. For instance, perhaps you read somewhere, "Medieval sumptuary laws prohibited the wearing of cloth of gold by all but the royal family." This is a pretty reasonable statement, and seems to be a workable hypothesis. For all intents and purposes, you believe it. But what's the source for this statement? Did it come with a footnote or citation? How did the author of this statement arrive at it? If you can ask these questions about your hypothesis, and realize you don't have an answer to any one of them, your real research is at the starting gate.

In some cases, such as the example above, a hypothesis may be provable simply through more reading. In such instances, your reading would start to narrow in on primary or extant sources. (If it doesn't, you're not doing real research- you're just hobby reading.) You're not necessarily experimenting in this proving method, but you are employing a scientific processes nonetheless. You're locating at least one primary source for the hypothesis and verifying that it supports it.

In most cases, though, a more traditional form of experiment is required. Let's say you've formulated a hypothesis on your own, through reading and observation of primary artwork and extant examples, that goes something like: "The set-in sleeve as we recreate it today uses a greater curve amplitude than those used in during the 14th and 15th century." You've established your sources- many primary and a few others from scholarly publications, but actually proving it requires action. You must make a set in sleeve using the shallower curve your hypothesis suggests, and prove that it matches your primary sources.

If you've been doing research- true, hypothesis formulating research- and you haven't experienced a natural reaction to go into action, there's one of three things going on. 1) You're lazy; 2) You're not serious about your hypothesis; or 3) You're afraid of being proven wrong. All three of these are unpleasant, but are a reality. It can be hard to admit when you're being lazy, but if you've been making statements and perpetuating them without proving them simply because the proving process requires more effort than you want to invest, you've definitely taken a turn down the lazy path. I think it's safe to say that most people who haven't hit the action stage don't fit this category, but it's a very easy one to fall into, even if just for a short time.

The second inaction category, not being serious, is also easy to fall into, especially in a re-creation group like the SCA. Groups with a casual attitude about authenticity almost seem to encourage taking a non-serious approach to researching your topic of interest. That's not to say that good, quality, hypothesis proving research isn't recognized and rewarded. More to the point is that side-steps to your research that fit the general (or "popular") mentality are usually well-received if not well-researched. An example of this is: Your hypothesis has suggested that Norsemen used half-round cloth banners for the "heraldic" display of their time, but the popular thought among the Norse persona in your Kingdom is that the quarter-round banner is correct, so, because you're not serious about your hypothesis, you make a quarter-round banner instead.

The last one is probably the most populous, but not everyone has the same reason for being afraid of being proven wrong. Some people don't want to be proven wrong out of an overblown sense of ego. Those people are probably not reading this blog. They've formulated their hypothesis and they're running with it, unproven, because they decided that it works for them and there's no point in changing. These people are most likely falling in one or both of the other categories as well. The other people in this category, however, have more innocent reasons to be afraid. I find myself in this category every time I'm ready to prove my hypothesis with a piece of very expensive material. I don't want to be proven wrong because I don't want my money (and to a lesser extent, time) go to waste. It certainly does take a major amount of suck-it-up gusto to get out of this, but if you're not lazy and you're serious about your research, you'll do it. Another way to be in this category is simply out of a fear of embarrassment. No one likes to admit that they were wrong, and some people can take having to do so very much to heart. They best thing I can say to those people is this: if you've done all the work up to this point, and the only thing standing between you and proving you hypothesis is your inaction, have confidence in your research thus far. Explore all the other avenues you can (have you found primary sources that back you up?). If you have a body of research to support you, you lessen the chances that your hypothesis is a dud. Not only that, but all failure is an opportunity to learn- take what you can from your experiment and formulate a new hypothesis.

The bottom line, and the short answer to the question, is this: Research requires action, namely through experimentation. If you're not turning "on paper" research into action, either you haven't formulated any hypothesis to work from yet, or you've fallen victim to one of the three inaction categories above.

I know this was kind of a serious one, thanks for sticking with me to the end!

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