Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Research Is Not Just for Academics

In a previous post I directed your attention to some articles, books and links that I found useful when I was writing my dissertation.  My university did a great job showing me where to look and how to use what I found.  I also had unlimited access to journal articles - something I am going to miss a lot because they are pricey if you have to purchase them yourself.

However, if you have internet access and some curiosity no reason you can't do your own research into a topic. Why rely on the fact-checkers, the media, forums, and your closest friends for all your information?  Well, time is one factor but if you have enough time to express strongly worded opinions on-line then I'd say you have the time to take a closer look at what you are arguing for or against.  You might find evidence that you're onto something (and isn't that a kick?) or you may find that you're full of it (which is, indeed, an ego-buster).

Here are a few ways to get started that don't cost much and won't be too time-consuming:

Take it from the top:  This is a variation on what my thesis advisor tells her students.  Let's say you have some strong opinions about migration in Asia.  The big topic here is international migration. Start with the big picture.  How many migrants in the world?   The United Nations has a report about it. Read 11 pages and you'll get the trends and the numbers.   On page 2 you will learn that: "Europe and Asia combined hosted nearly two thirds of all international migrants worldwide in 2015, with 76 million international migrants living in Europe and 75 million in Asia. Northern America hosted the third largest number of international migrants in 2013 (54 million)..."    What percentage of the world's population is on the move?  3.3%   Yes, that's right, 96+% of the people on this planet don't migrate.  Now isn't that interesting?  

And then just work your way down to the level about which you have an opinion.  The information is usually just a search or two away.  As I showed in my previous post, Japan has some kick-ass statistics going back to the 19th century.   

Theories:  We all have our own personal opinions about why this or that is happening in the world.  Some people have spent time developing theories about them and other people spend their time agreeing with or refuting them.  What you will probably find if you do some reading it that your independent opinion already fits into someone's theoretical framework.  Have a look at this article by D. S. Massey, J. Arango, G. Hugo, A. Kouaouci, A. Pellegrino and J. E. Taylor.  It's a nice summary of international migration theories.

Don't think of theories as the last word.  Think of them more as a framework created by knowledgeable people who have taken the time to delve deep into a subject.  It is a lens through which you can look at something that interests you.  In one of my papers I used migration systems theory to look at centuries of migration between Canada and France. 

Opinions:  Yes, I think it's important to look at what people who are not academics or policy makers  are saying about a topic.  Forget the individual posts that make you cringe or piss you off.  Look at the conversations and how people react.    Some researchers use a technique called Critical Discourse Analysis to analyze Internet forums, media and other on-line conversations. Many a MA or PhD thesis or even just term papers use it.  For all the debate over Internet privacy, a lot of people drop their filters on-line and let us all know what they really think.  Again, the individual here is less relevant than the conversation itself and  academics everywhere thank them all for their contributions. 

Google Scholar:  Google has a special section  called Google Scholar for people doing research.  It's free and you can do a lot with it:  research an author or a topic or build a library of articles and citations.  If you look up D. Massey (the first author of the article I cited) you will see that he has been cited about 67,000 times.  If you click on one of his articles, look for the "Cited by" link and you'll get a list of the articles that used him as a source.  Very useful.  Try this with any source or author and see what you get.

Widespread Internet access has really lowered the barriers to doing research.  It's not everything if you are going to write a complex paper with an original argument for a Board of Examiners.  But, you can still go a lot farther, faster, than I could when I was getting my BA back in the Dark Ages. 

There is almost too much information out there.  The trick is to be able to critically evaluate what you read, and having the ability to check your ego at the door and prepare yourself for anything.  I still love what the late great Christopher Hitchens had to say about this:

  • "How do I know that I know this, except that I’ve always been taught this and never heard anything else?  It’s always worth establishing first principles. It’s always worth saying, what would you do if you met a Flat Earth Society member? Come to think of it, how can I prove the earth is round? Am I sure about the theory of evolution? I know it’s supposed to be true. Here’s someone who says there’s no such thing, it’s all intelligent design. How sure am I of my own views? Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus, and the feeling that whatever you think you’re bound to be okay, because you’re in the safely moral majority."

9 comments:

Gilbert said...

Good antidote to prejudice and unfounded ranting. Very useful Victoria. Thank you. You have probably seen it, but an interesting book which I am now reading - when I have time - is "The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone"
by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach. There was an overview in the Financial Times of several books dealing with the general subject of having unfounded strong opinions and not being curious enough to explore.
https://www.ft.com/content/af607256-0f1b-11e7-a88c-50ba212dce4d
Gilbert (Reid), Toronto, Canada

Andrew said...

Nice! Good to be more mindful of one's assumptions and automatic thinking.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Gilbert, Thank *you* for your comment and for what sounds like some good reads. I will pick up The Knowledge Illusion. And if you have any more recommendations, I would love to have them. I confess that I don't understand people who aren't curious. It would be good to understand better why they aren't.

Andrew, One of the reasons I enjoyed grad school so much was being around people who regularly challenged each other in a thoughtful way. I really miss that. And I really miss the constant reminders to examine my own biases and to try and put them aside. I am crossing my fingers about my MA because if it goes well then I really want to do a PhD.

Inaka Nezumi said...

Looking at Massey et al., the thing that jumps out at me is that the theories they summarize are almost entirely based on economics. There does not seem to be much recognition that there can be other motives for migration besides economic ones -- such as your adviser and you have looked at.

An interesting data source has come out recently:
http://www.moj.go.jp/content/001221782.pdf

This is a government-sponsored survey on discrimination as reported by foreigners in Japan. It is actually quite excellent, and interesting. Don't know if an English translation is planned -- let me know if you want help interpreting parts of it.

For example, page 25 shows experiences of being denied housing, broken down by nationality. No clear correlation with race (to the extent that nationality can serve as a proxy), though the worst off seem to be Chinese nationals, and the best off UK, but the next best off are South Koreans, and Americans are in the middle of the pack.

Page 26 shows clear correlation with time in country, dropping off as people have been here longer (and are perhaps more likely to own their own places, and not be looking to rent anymore?).

Page 23 shows breakdowns by language ability. Very fluent people have somewhat less problems than those that are merely functionally fluent, but still have significant problems. Interestingly, people with almost no Japanese ability report almost no discrimination -- one wonders if they are perhaps simply unaware?

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Nezumi-san, Oh yeah, Many of the older theories are indeed about economics. Sometimes they are useful, sometimes not so much. I used one called Dual Labor Market Theory in my dissertation and in the context of Anglophones in Japan, I thought it worked. Some of the newer theories are network theory and transnationalism. I used one called migration systems theory which I really like because it looks at both the sending and receiving countries and how links are formed between the two and how people move along with the links. Is it just by chance that there are a lot of Americans in Japan? Highly unlikely. More likely is that there is a system here where people are just one of the many things that go back and forth. Oddly enough war is one way migration systems can be formed. I really want to write a post or paper about it. THE book I would recommend if you want a thorough look at the theories is The Age of Migration (fifth edition) by Castles, Haas and Miller. Cited a lot, and everybody in the field knows it. No Kindle version, alas. The paperback version though is affordable.

That survey is something I just have to read. Tell you what, I am going to ask someone I know who is a translator to do the translation into English. A way to send some work (and cash) his way.

Inaka Nezumi said...

Looking again, I see that the page 26 plot is based on people who were searching for housing in the past 5 years, so my thought that the drop off with time in country could be due to people not needing to look for housing any more was wrong. Instead, some kind of effect of acculturation may be at work?

Looking more closely at Page 23, I think they accidentally binned that graph along the wrong axis. They are showing the distributions of language abilities among those denied housing, rather than showing the distribution of housing denials as a function of language ability, which would be the more interesting thing to look at, and what I assume they were trying to measure. What they show is not really instructive without knowing what fraction of people at each language ability level were actually looking for housing. Might be worth writing the committee members and asking about the binning on that chart...

It might also be worth finding out whether an official translation is planned. Could save some effort and money. They might well want to do so for use at international conferences, for example.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Nezumi-san, It's also worth looking at how the questions were worded. And were they open or multiple choice. Aso was the language ability self-reported. I realized after I started looking at my data that I should have asked about literacy, for example. A lost opportunity....

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Here is a comment that came to me via email from Iris over at Iris Sans Frontieres. It's too long to fit in one comment so with her permission I am breaking it up into several paragraphs. Here it is Part I:

"You ask -- How does one prove beliefs about reality to someone who doesn't already share your beliefs and information. I've been in this situation fairly often. I wrote about one situation that happened in Mogadiscio in 1964. Honestly. This is from my book -- --
One argument I thought I had lost irretrievably. I was aware of the Indian men’s traditional thinking but had underestimated just how thoroughly traditional it was. They firmly believed that the sun and stars and the planets, which they could name, revolved around the earth. My attempts to persuade them otherwise were useless. I had only my faith in astronomy to counter their arguments. I could sketch a rough picture of the earth and other planets circling the sun, but I could think of no indisputable evidence to persuade them that my view of reality was the true one.
In an earlier argument about the nature of our earth, my view had prevailed. This was a discussion about whether the earth is round or flat. In an Arabic book that their religious leader, the Sayyid, had read to them the earth was described as flat but the men had never heard of anyone falling off. They traveled frequently to Aden, the British port in Yemen, to purchase goods they sold wholesale or in their shops, and they occasionally flew to Nairobi or Karachi. They knew that Somalis went to Italy and foreigners from everywhere were coming to Mogadiscio. The earth seemed to have no end. As we sat in conversation over tea and biscuits, I told them I recalled reading that when one looks out over the ocean and watches a ship approaching from the horizon, the top of the ship comes first into view and then the lower parts, as if the ship were rising toward you. If the earth were flat the entire ship would be visible from the first sighting. They took note and said they would observe for themselves how a ship appears as it approaches from the horizon. They later confirmed that what I had said was true. Clear reasoning and empirical evidence convinced them, after all, that the earth is round.
For our argument about the sun and stars and planets, I had no such proof, and the Indian men had all the information they thought they needed. Everyone they knew pictured a stationary earth with the sun and moon and stars in motion around it. When they told the Sayyid in the mosque about our discussion he read them eloquent poetic verses from the Koran about the earth and the sun and moon and stars and seven heavens in harmony. I had no knowledge that could counter poetry with science."

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Part II "I tried for weeks to think of a proof and had given up when one morning Hussein came to the house and sat quietly with me under the bougainvillea arbor.
He said, “I have been thinking. John Glenn went into outer space in a rocket. Very high. Is that true?
“Yes, of course it’s true. In the Friendship 7. He even circled the earth.”
Hussein shook his head as if to resettle out-of-place pieces back into their proper slots. “Did he go straight up into the sky? Didn’t he crash into anything?”
So that was it! At last I understood Hussein’s model of the universe. A phrase from long ago school days floated into my mind: “the music of the spheres.” Hussein’s community’s cosmology was based on the second century Ptolemaic system. The verse from the Koran, “seven heavens in harmony,” seemed consistent with this view. The system visualized the sun and moon and planets being moved by spheres that rotate around the earth and, in Hussein’s thinking, those spheres had to be substantial physical things to support such weight. Like everyone else, Hussein had read in April 1961 about Yuri Gagarin rocketing into space, but he dismissed the event as unimportant. After all, the Russians were communists and did not believe in business. Besides, who could trust a nation of atheists? Americans, as his fellow Indians confirmed, were a god-fearing people who appreciated businessmen and dealt fairly with them. When Americans launched a rocket that went straight up, unimpeded, far, far above the earth one had to pay attention. This was believable evidence that the sky held no spheres. Hussein would reconsider his cosmology. The American woman might be right after all."