The instant people specialize, it’s in their interest to dehumanize the people their specialized function operates upon. – William T. Vollmann
I’ve been reading a couple of papers by Colin Eden about action research and I’m glad I came across them a little later in my exploration of this research space. Eden writes about his experiences and what he’s learned along the way. Interestingly I think I discovered a lot of it myself, but he weaves it together and helps makes sense of it – and it starts to explain the journey I’ve been through.
There’s an important point that I haven’t really seen explained elsewhere and it comes down to the old joke that goes like this, “Why are academic arguments so vicious? Because the stakes are so small.” The nature of research has changed over time, a focus on measurable, positivist approaches that stress hypothesis and experimentation as a route to understanding have dominated thinking. That makes a lot of sense if you want to understand the material world – because it’s amenable to tests and measurement but it is much less useful when it comes to the inner world of the minds of humans and the forms of their societies. Quantitative research in such areas has been less successful, less valuable.
And I suppose the best example of that is mathematics – the purest kind of reasoning there is. Many mathematicians see their space as a pure art, untainted by any suggestion of real-world impact. I studied a lot of maths – from arithmetic to calculus and I can safely say that all the maths I need to know involves the basic operators we learn about in primary school. That was all that was needed to manage billions of pounds of trades.
The reason that any form of study that seeks to do something that is generally true – that works irrespective of people – is that in social systems the people are what matter. Eden points this point as one of the requirements for action research is that we research situations where people care about something enough to take action. If they don’t, then there is no value, no reason to invest and put money into the project. This is missed by lots of people – they study their areas and come up with a bright idea and are then surprised that no one cares. So they try and change policy, asking the government to force people to care. And that works – to the extent that people do the minimum needed to comply. What this means is you can spend a lot of time working on something that interests you but that people don’t care about enough to pay you.
The unsurprising takeaway is that if you’re smart then you’ll be interested in lots of things. But if you also want to be rich you have to work on things that matter enough to people so that they will take action.