Monday, 1 June 2009

Research

The process of research is a strange one in its way, and one that I thought I'd share. We all know how we think it ought to go. You have an idea you want to test. You work out what evidence you'll need. You either locate or generate that evidence. You work out whether you were right. You write the whole thing up and get on with your life.

The thing is, while that was a pleasant flashback to some of my school science lessons, it's not an entirely accurate description of historical reseach, and may not even apply to other things. For one thing, it's far too neat, like following a well designed recipe. The real thing is more like making the recipe up as you go, changing it from a pie to a cake to a sort of strange biscuity thing as the mix of ingredients changes.

There aren't neat steps. There's a beginning phase, where you try to define an area of research along with some possible questions. There's an end phase, where you do nothing but polish what you've written. In between though, you mix in bursts of research and writing, tease ideas out, change your mind completely when a piece of evidence you hadn't previously seen shows up, and generally try to impose meaningful order on the chaos.

Somewhere in all this, rather like big things with too many teeth, ideas start to emerge. I'd normally laugh at that choice of word. The idea of letting ideas emerge from the evidence is something that belongs to the likes of Elton and Acton, both long dead. But there are moments when you look down at something you've written, think "actually that's a really good idea" and end up with it running as a main theme. What you start off researching ends up being something very different from what you finally produce.

For me it was some stuff about institutional identity, institutional survival, convergence, re-organisation, that sort of thing. What started out as simple institutional history is now more about groups of organisations and the way their identities get affected by the world around them. It wasn't remotely what I intended to write, but it is more interesting. Who knows what shape my research will be tomorrow?

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