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My Personal Wayback machine: While Reading “Tricks of the Trade”

I haven’t blogged about my own research process in a while. Tonight I thought I might, and I found this incomplete post in my “Drafts” folder. I originally drafted it in the fall of 2009. Rather than expand it now, I thought I’d just release it into the wild. I’m not editing it because I like the hopeful, curious tone it takes. I haven’t felt like this about research in a while, but maybe I will again having read my own thoughts. Find the original draft after the jump.

Sometimes I forget just how helpful reading what other academics say can be. I take for granted that I need to read journal articles to stay up-to-speed, but what I’m experiencing today is a renewed appreciation for researchers writing about doing research. I’ve long advised other students to take as many methods classes as they can, to use workshops as a place to ask other researchers about their instruments, interviewing techniques, analysis tricks. One can read journal articles alone and learn almost as much about current findings as reading them for class, I think, but the same is not true for learning about how to do the research that enables us to have findings.

For starters, methods books are too formulaic. Research is seldom as routine and clear cut as methods books make it sound. They make excellent reference books but not great teaching manuals. Articles about methods are harder to come by, and reflections on research even more so. Luckily, Howard Becker wrote a bunch, and it is to him that I turn when stuck.

I’ve written before about the usefulness of Writing for Social Scientists, and today I’m reading Tricks of the Trade and experiencing a renewal of energy and curiosity. In fact, I feel more energetic and curious today than I have in months, certainly since before I turned in the first complete draft of my dissertation in June. My main academic task now is revising my dissertation in time to meet the graduation deadlines looming just 5 weeks away. My committee has requested minor revisions, but one in particular has been troubling. Reading Tricks of the Trade, especially chapter 2, “Imagery,” has provided me the sociological language to explain my own problem to myself.

The problem I face is that I need to more clearly define “adaptive capacity,” the concept I develop in my dissertation and what the concept does for us. That seems straightforward enough. The trouble is that I have been writing in circles about adaptive capacity for 4 months, and I cannot seem to escape the centripetal force. Becker’s writing helped me snap out of it. Here is the excerpt that did it:

Focusing on activities rather than people nudges you into an interest in change rather than stability, in ideas of process rather than structure.

My conceptualization of “adaptive capacity” emphasizes the activities within teams that afford them the ability to respond to changes in their environment. Adaptive capacity assumes that teams will have to make changes. The components of adaptive capacity – such as positive relational engagement – are activities that produce abilities. Positive relational engagement is the activity of interacting with others in a respectful, caring manner. It produces the ability of the people involved to think about each other when making decisions about how to act.

So, what do you think ?

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