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18 June 2007


Dwight Hines

The entire question of how to formulate a question, a good question, is far from trivial. I was just reading Dorothy Sayers, who wrote about something quite similar to your topic of research question (she would say problem) or method (she would say solution) being the driving force. If I understand her correctly, she is saying that for Empiricists to make progress and to enjoy themselves, we will have to become more like up poets.

“. . . , that the words “problem” and “solution” as commonly used, belong to the analytic approach to phenomena, and not to the creative. Though it has become a commonplace of platform rhetoric that we can “solve our problems” only by dealing with them “in a creative way,” those phrases betray, either that the speaker has repeated a popular cliche without bothering to think what it means, or that he is quite ignorant of the nature of creativeness.

“From our brief study of the human maker’s way of creation, it should be fairly clear that the creator does not set out from a set of data, and proceed, like a crossword solver or a student of elementary algebra, to deduce from them a result which shall be final, predictable, complete and the only one possible. The concept of “problem and solution” is as meaningless, applied to the act of creation, as it is when applied to the act of procreation. To add John to Mary in a procreative process dos not produce a “solution” of John’s and Mary’s combined problem, it produces George or Susan, who (in addition to being a complicating factor in the life of his or her parents) possesses an independent personality with an entirely new set of problems. Even if, in the manner of the sentimental novel of the ‘nineties, we allow the touch of baby hands to loosen some of the knots into which John and Mary have tied themselves, the “solution” (meaning George or Susan) is not the only one possible, nor it is final, predictable, or complete.

“Again, there is no strictly mathematical or detective-story sense in which it can be said that the works of a poet are the “solution” of the age in which he lived; indeed, it is seldom at all clear which of these two factors is the result of the other. Much breath and ink are continually expended in the effort to find out, under the impression that this also is a “problem” awaiting a final, predictable, complete and sole possible “solution.” The most one can say is that between the poet and his age there is an intimate connection of mutual influence, highly complex and various, and working in all directions of time and space.

“Yet the common man, obsessed by the practice of a mathematical and scientific period, is nevertheless obscurely aware that that enigmatic figure, the creative artist, possesses some power of interpretation which he has not, some access to the hidden things behind that baffling curtain of phenomena which he cannot penetrate. Sometimes he resents this, as men do often resent an inexplicable and incommunicable superiority. Sometimes he dismisses it: “He is a dreamer, let us leave him. Pass.” But at other times — especially when the disharmonies of contemporary existence force themselves on his attention with an urgency that cannot be ignored, he will lay hold of the artist and demand to be let into his secret. “Here, you!" he will cry, you have some trick, some pass-word, some magic formula that unlocks the puzzle of the universe. Apply it for us. Give us the solution to the problems of civilization.”

“This, though excusable, is scarcely fair, since the artist does not see life as a problem to be solved, but as a medium for creation. He is asked to settle the common man’s affairs for him; but he is well aware that creation settles nothing. The thing that is settled is finished and dead, and his concern is not with death but with life: “that ye may have life and have more abundantly.” True, the artist can, out of his own experience, tell the common man a great deal about the fulfillment of man’s nature in living; but he can produce only the most unsatisfactory kind of reply if he is persistently asked the wrong question. And, as I have (perhaps somewhat heatedly) maintained in my preface, an incapacity for asking the right question has grown, in our time and country, to the proportions of an endemic disease.“
Pp. 186-188.

“All human achievements ‘can’ be looked on as problems solved — particularly in retrospect, because, if the work has been well done, the result will then appear inevitable. It seems as though ‘this’ was the only “right” way, predestined and inevitable from the start. So it is the “right” way, in the sense that it is the way which agrees with the maker’s Father-Idea. But there was no inevitability about the idea itself.

“It is here that we begin to see how the careless use of the words “problem” and “solution” can betray us into habits of thought that are not merely inadequate but false. It leads us to consider all vital activities in terms of a particular ‘kind’ of problem, namely the kind we associated with elementary mathematics and detective fiction. These latter are “problems” which really can be “solved” in a very strict and limited sense, and I think the words “problem” and “solution” should be reserved for these special cases. Applied indiscriminately, they are fast becoming a deadly danger. They falsify our apprehension of life as disastrously as they falsify our apprehension of art. . . . “

“There are four characteristics of the mathematical or detective problem which are absent from the “life-problem”; but because we are accustomed to find them in the one, we look for them in the other, and experience a sense of frustration and resentment when we do not find them.

“ 1. The detective problem is always soluble.” . . . . p. 194

“ 2. The detective problem is completely soluble.” . . . p. 197

“ 3. The detective problem is solved in the same terms in which it is set.” . . . p. 202

“ 4. The detective problem is finite. “ . . . p. 204.

Dorothy Sayers, “Mind of the Maker”, 1941. Harcourt, Brace. New York.

Gary Rosin

I agree that the research should drive the methodology. (That being said, I know of successful non-empirical scholars who apply the same bag-of-tricks to the current paper.)

The argument that the research may require techniques the author does not have seems a good argument for co-authorship. Co-authorship is common in the social sciences, so it is not necessarily a danger for a junior social sciences scholar.

But the same does not hold true for the junior legal scholar. It's bad enough that empirical work is not yet reached the level of acceptance as some of the other "law and" approaches. But with an empirical heavy-lifter, how do you persuade a tenure committee as to the value of your own contributions to the article?

Joe Doherty

I don't think there is a single dimension; it's not foxes and hedgehogs or some in-between hybrid. That brings to mind the "get a bigger hammer" theory of problem-solving. In my experience the process is a synthesis in which evolving expertise in a subject area leads to the conclusion that traditional methods cannot answer obvious and interesting questions. So we go off and acquire new methods to answer those questions (like social network analysis), and in learning those new methods we open ourselves to other subject areas in which these tools are appropriate. And possibly we become experts in those fields, too.

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