On the obviousness of research.
It is a complaint often seen in the comments below newspaper articles, that quite a bit of research seems “obvious” to the layman. The big mystery for many an article reader, is why the research was supported or even conducted in the first place.
Ainan, too, has noticed this. Presently, he has been tasked, in his English class (as part of his American Degree Programme), to write an essay on gender inequality. I was pleased to hear that he had been asked to do this, for it invited him to consider matters which he might not normally do. It would be a chance for him to expand his view of the world in a new way. Yet, when he did as he had been asked, and started to read a wide range of academic articles, on gender inequality, he became exasperated. “What is the point of these articles?”, he said, in irritation. “They don’t say anything I don’t already know!”
Ainan was experiencing “the obviousness of research”. He was right. So many of these articles, though dressed in academic language, said no more than what a layman might assume to be so, off the top of their head. Ainan felt that he wasn’t learning anything by reading these articles, for their conclusions were just too obvious.
I didn’t want Ainan to lose faith in the task he had been set, so I explained to him why it was still helpful to read the articles.
“In academic writing, you have to support what you say, with references to articles that are based on research of the topic. This is to show that what you say has backing. So, even though you know it already, and it is nothing new to you, using the articles for reference, will give credibility to your statements.”
“Yes,” he said, in a manner which implied “no!”, “but, each article refers to others and those refer to others and so on, until far back, there is the first article, which cannot refer to anything: so that has no support at all.”
I smiled to myself, though not to him, on hearing that. Ainan was discerning a logical flaw in the whole of academe – or at least what seemed like one.
“Yes, Ainan, but that first article will be based on research of the topic. There will be some study, or calculation or something, to support its statements, even if there is no prior article in its field.”
He seemed neither convinced nor impressed. I could almost see in his eyes, the imagined infinitely receding column of academic articles, ultimately suspended over nothing and supported by nothing, since the first one floated, unsupported in mid-air. That was Ainan’s vision – and in a way, he was right, because the first of any field cannot make references in its own field, though it might call upon others. The first academic article of all, of course, would have no prior articles to refer to, in any field – so Ainan’s insight had merit. Ultimately, the system of academic reference cannot go back forever. At some point, there are unreferenced articles. It was sharp of Ainan to see through this and see the basic assumption of academia – that everything is supported by something else. Ultimately, of course, that cannot be.
I am pleased that Ainan is writing papers on topics outside his natural interests. It should give him the chance to grow in new ways. Yet, I see, that doesn’t stop him questioning the very nature of the enterprise...but then that is good too, in fact, in many ways, that is the best part of it – that he should not accept what he has been asked to do, without question. He is thinking for himself and that is the best sign of all.
Now, however, that he has pointed out the basic problem with academic referencing, I can’t quite consider it in the same way at all. That image of a vast pillar of articles, floating unsupported in the air, keeps coming to mind. Trust Ainan to cast an old idea, in a new light.
Posted by Valentine Cawley
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