Post-empirical Party!

The Knight section on Post-empirical research has finally shed some light on something that I have been wondering about since our first class!  Coming from a literature background most of the research that I have done has been text-based.  In the past I have worked with the general arrangement that I should form my argument based on the literature that already existed, and then determine the shortcomings of these conclusions as well as expand on the main points that I found believable.  While I understand that this approach to research is not always effective, I do still believe that this sort of evaluation can be valuable.

In doing readings for my SSHRC application it became very clear that much has already been discussed on my subject (which is based around collection digitization and has been a hot topic for about a decade).  I did not think that it was adequate to simply examine the existing literature and draw conclusions about what is and isn’t working in the field of digitization, so I developed a methodology that would involve interviews and surveys.  While interviews with information professionals would certainly be beneficial to my research – after reading Knight’s thoughts on the matter I think that I will revise the survey section of my methods to include an area that looks more like a post-empirical study.  The amount of literature on the topic of digitization is vast, but like in Knight’s example of undergraduate learning (110), it has never been connected in a cohesive manner, and that would be an important contribution to academia.

I found that Allen S. Lee’s paper on “Reviewing a manuscript for publication” really interesting, and think that this might be especially helpful while writing our peer reviews.  The section on being explicit about your own area of expertise is obviously relevant as our own frame of reference skews our opinions, but it is not something that I generally would have considered including in an evaluation of an article.  I have kind of been rambling a little bit, but overall I found the readings from this week really helpful. I know that some of us in this group have been struggling with text-based research, and I’m glad that maybe now we can all have a bit of a post-empirical party and stop being so intimidated by all the more “scientific” methods!



6 thoughts on “Post-empirical Party!

  1. hannahmasterman

    I like the idea of a post-empirical party, Jessica.

    I know many of you have commented about being intimidated by the “science-y”, empirical methods. I think I come from the total opposite background: for the most part, everything I’ve learned to date as been research based on a very postivist, empirical perspective. I like experiments and quantitative data and stats. If you told me to conduct a study using a text-based analytical approach, I wouldn’t know where to start. It’d be terrifying. I’m very much one of those researchers who, as Knight puts it, “turn to fieldwork like a child to a comfy blanket” (pg 109).

    So I’m glad Knight calls the importance of post-empirical work to our attention and that you’re going to find a way to incorporate it into your assignment. The fact that so little work in science focuses on collecting and systematically analyzing past research is quite unfortunate. Even from my own limited experience, I have gotten the feeling that many scientific studies appear to be “reinventing the wheel” each time. It all gets a little confused with so many researchers looking at similar phenomena but very few people actually systematically reviewing what the work collectively shows. I wonder why: Is post-empirical work simply harder? Or is it easier to get funding if you appear to be discovering something new? Or is new empirical work more prestigious? I’m not sure.


  2. Milo Anderson

    Hi Hannah,

    I remember you mentioning to me that your background is in psychology, and that you were feeling a bit iffy on these qualitative methods we’ve been learning about. Although Sari Thomas, in the article we were assigned this week, seemed more concerned with defending content analysis against the criticism of those who adhere to methods that are even less “non-canonical”, I thought she made a few strong points challenging the notion of a big divide between qualitative and quantitative methodology.

    Particularly, I’m thinking about page 685: “…all the extant methods previously mentioned–including content analysis–only provide data that may be interpreted as reflecting these behavioral processes.”

    And then further down on that page: “Also already extensively critiqued is a similar illusion that somehow laboratory enactments are a full and equal substitute for behavior. Again, laboratory behavior provides but another tableau for subsequent translation.”

    And further in the same paragraph: “Thus, when it comes to meaning and its social application, all available methods are approximations of the process we seem to want to uncover.”

    So the way I interpret this, research can be non-empirical, but we’re still going to be looking for evidence. If our work is quantitative, there’s still no way to avoid interpreting the data, and if we classify the research as qualitative, chances are we’re still going to be trying to find ways to gauge the amount of something (say, the relative level of concern that a participant expresses concerning X, Y, or Z). It is starting to seem to me that these methods exist along a spectrum, rather than being chunked together in categories.

  3. Brett Phillipson

    Thanks for this post, Jess. I think you and I are definitely in the same boat here – since nearly all of my research has been in history, where methods like surveys, interviews and experiments are impossible for anyone looking back more than 70 or so years (and even then!) I’ve found these science-y methods very alien and a bit scary. While it’s certainly been interesting to learn how other researchers do things – and I’m certainly not ruling out the possibility of conducting research of this type sometime in the future – since my research project for this course is in 18th-century book history, they haven’t been much help to me. This was exacerbated by the fact that, despite having an M.A. in history, I’d never taken a class in which any concrete methods for discourse/textual/content analysis (empirical or post-empirical) had been addressed in any concrete way. When it came to writing proposals, my “methodology” section nearly always ended up being just a list of the sources I was going to look at, and not much else – something that cost me grade points on my SSHRC proposal. It’s definitely a relief not only to see post-empirical methods acknowledged as legitimate in the social sciences, but also to read a bit about how these methods might be used in real research.

    I was pretty thrilled to see Knight make a mention of historical methods in the latest chapter, particularly when addressing the issue of research as thinking vs. research as data creation. Obviously, in history, there’s no new data to be created – it can be collected and analyzed in new ways, obviously, but it’s all been there for a while. Research involves looking at sources that haven’t been examined recently, and/or finding new ways to think about them. And, as Knight pointed out, new understandings more often spring from new ways of thinking than from newly discovered sources.

    One great example of this (and this could be a whole new post, but I’m going to put it here instead) is Robert Paxton’s book Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944. It was first published in 1972, at least a decade (maybe two) before the archives of the Vichy regime were made public, but, despite not having access to these sources, Paxton managed to seriously challenge the dominant interpretation of Vichy (that they were just trying to protect France from the Nazis, that collaboration was forced upon them, etc.) and show that the Pétain and the other members of the Vichy government were in fact actively, and enthusiastically, involved in collaborating with the Nazis. As it turned out, when the archives were opened up in the 80s or 90s, the sources therein confirmed Paxton’s argument – an argument that he had arrived at not by looking at new sources, though, but by thinking critically about the idealized, nationalistic interpretation of Vichy. It also helped that he is American and not French, and so was able to gain some critical distance from the nationalist rhetoric that most historians within France had (and still had) a hard time getting away from. It’s a great book and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in WWII or in critically examining methods for historical research.

    More generally – and Knight addresses this to some extent – I’ve come to think of history as an act of translation, albeit a translation between cultures rather than languages. That’s what makes history, in Knight’s words, a “never-ending reinterpretation”: as we move further away in time from a given period, our values and those of that period come to have less and less in common and we need to develop new ways of thinking about that culture in order to be able to fully understand it.

    Sorry, this turned out much longer than I anticipated. Too much “post-empirical” and not enough “party”. To make up for it, here is a video of a dog trying to eat a lemon, freaking out, and headbutting a couch:

    1. Brett Phillipson

      Also, Jess, here is the citation for that INF1300 article I mentioned a while back:

      Gorman, M. (1995). Five new laws of librarianship. American Libraries, 26(8), 784-785.

      Sorry for not posting it earlier; I didn’t see your comment until a while after it was posted, and then I got distracted by other things. Flaky? Me?

      1. Jordan

        I really like this take on post-empirical research. In my head, when I was conceptualizing Knight’s blurb on post-empiricism, the data has already been collected was always quantitative, and always suited a positivist framework. I didn’t think of literary works, theories and criticism as data that was already collected, but I mean it is, hey?
        I don’t know that I want to dip my toe into anything that comes off too positivist yet, so it’s nice to think of post-empirical study this way: something still accessible. When I think of method as the means by which I collect data, for my undergraduate degree, it was, in a sense, all post-empirical. It was just reading. But no one ever talked about it in those terms. When I talked about how I was going to write an essay, I said, I’m going to do this sort of reading, or that sort. And even then, I wouldn’t say I’m doing this or that sort of reading while I was actually writing the paper. (If Spivak talking about how she was doing a postcolonial or feminist reading, it would be completely bizarre.) It’s still taking time for me to think about it in terms of method, and to think about articulating my method, but this totally helped.

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