Secondary research

A little while ago, I joined a mailing list for user experience folks who were interested in understanding how various anthropological and sociological theory might impact their work. I haven’t had as much time to devote to it as I would have liked; in particular, I didn’t have time to do the first assignment, which was to read and comment on the “Thick Description” essay from Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures. I finally got a chance to catch up on the mailing list today, though, reading through what several other people had thought of the essay. And that was strangely satisfying, which intrigued me, so I’m writing a blog post.

For most scientists, the idea of doing “secondary” research is anathema. The culture of science encourages scientists to run their own experiments (primary research), rather than depending on the research of others. This is why the methods and interpretations sections of scientific papers are so critical; they provide other scientists with the information needed to independently reproduce the results. The idea of somebody calling themselves a scientist who does not perform any research themselves, but merely reads and comments on the research of others, is almost nonsensical. Isaac Asimov satirizes this in one of the Foundation books with a character who spends all of his time in libraries looking up the results of experiments rather than doing experiments himself.

The same is true in the humanities. It is necessary to read all of the primary texts yourself, so that you can develop your own interpretation. You have to read other interpretations as well to inform you of the other research that has gone before, but it is important to return to the primary text when doing your own research.

And yet I rarely feel compelled to read primary texts myself. For me, the digested version that others give me is often enough. This may be just because I am lazy and don’t want to do the work of interpreting the text myself. But even when I have read the primary text, I love hearing what other people have gotten out of it. I love hearing their interpretation, what nuggets stuck with them, what viewpoints they derived from reading it. It’s the same instinct that makes the first question we ask each other when we leave a movie theater, “So, what did you think?” The answers are often surprisingly varied.

I think what I find interesting about it is that it provides insight into the reader, not the text. The text doesn’t change. And yet people derive all sorts of interpretations from it (witness Shakespeare or Buffy). It can be a particularly effective way of learning about other people, as they may reveal parts of their philosophy or history that they would never reveal openly. Plus, by making me think about alternative interpretations, it forces me to acknowledge the different ways in which people perceive the world. And that is a topic that continues to fascinate me.

The other reason I came up with for why secondary research could be important is that the perception of an object is often far more important than the object itself. Image is reality, as is often quipped. Reading a primary text and coming up with my own interpretation of it is not necessarily useful outside of academia, where original work is rewarded. Instead, being able to relate to the text in the same way as other people is key.

If I want to be part of a community, I have to subscribe to the same interpretations of the world, use the same jargon to describe it, etc. Part of the reason that communities develop their own jargon and language is to separate themselves from the mainstream, to provide a way to identify members, but I suspect that it also reinforces a certain viewpoint on the world. The language we use influences how we think, as Lakoff describes. By creating a new jargon/language, the community completes the indoctrination of new members by locking in a certain viewpoint. We can see this in the college kids who have just read Ayn Rand for the first time who see everything in objectivist terms, or in the grad student in critical theory who deconstructs everything they encounter. It’s the hammer and nail phenomenon again.

I’ve wandered pretty far afield from my original point, as usual. But I think it might be interesting to view secondary research not as a derogatory task for those who are too lazy to do their own research (e.g. reading the Cliff Notes version), but as primary research in its own right, into the culture and interpretations of the primary research communities. Or maybe I’m just lazy.

P.S. I need to come up with a more descriptive category than “people” for thoughts on social theory type stuff. Any suggestions?

P.P.S. Sorry for the posting drought. Craziness at work and in the social world. I was hanging out with friends every night last week, including hosting a movie night on Monday, seeing Giant Tuesday again and checking out the Korova Milk Bar, taking advantage of the solstice on Wednesday to play ultimate late into the evening, seeing a Bollywood superhero movie on Thursday, having a friend crash at my place on Friday after missing a connection at JFK due to thunderstorms, and taking in a jazz set at the Village Vanguard on Saturday. Busy busy week. Maybe this week will be lighter. Ha.

P.P.P.S. Damn, I wish I had more time/energy/brainpower. There are several posts backlogged. I know I always say this. But it’s true! I want to do one about Latour’s idea that the specific always stands in for the universal in culture, another one about taking Latour’s ideas about the “reassembling the social” and applying it to what a good manager does, a post on using the idea of “filling in the blanks” in marketing, a post on how to improve informal learning inspired by a John Seely Brown talk, a post on the deficiencies of unconscious thought as illustrated by a Science article, etc. Plus backlogged book reviews. Sheesh. I need to take a week’s vacation at some point and do nothing but blog to catch up, I think.

3 thoughts on “Secondary research

  1. I think the difference is that meta-analysis (based on a 10-second glance at that page) is a way of increasing statistics, but still designed to answer the fundamental underlying question of drug efficacy (or whatever). So it’s still gathering more scientific information itself in some sense.

    The point I was trying to make applies more to humanities, in the sense that primary research means going back to the original text, whereas I was thinking about ignoring the original text and just observing people’s interpretations of the text. It would be as if the meta-analysis threw out all of the original data, and just analyzed the ways in which the original data was referenced. Or something like that.

  2. My grandmother, a social worker, always said that studying sociology was useless, instead one should just read literature for insight into people. Which fits in somewhat tangentially to what you are saying.

    Also, you are lazy.

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