We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us. – Marshall McLuhan
I’ve been wandering down a path looking at how scientists, writers and artists used their notebooks – in what we might call their workshop – and the nature of the marks they made. In doing that I came across the idea of “paper tools”, a methodological concept introduced by Ursula Klein in a few papers.
The term caught my eye – “paper tools” – a nice term for something that we’re all familiar with even if we don’t really think about it much. Bargheer (2001) goes into one specific tool in more detail, the 2×2 table, and shows how it became a popular tool in the first half of the last century among sociologists.
As is often the case the outdated tools of yesterday’s research are used by businesses and consultancies today as the latest thing they’ve learned. But while there are better approaches now the 2×2 table is still powerful because it lets you analyse pairs of concepts in a rough but useful way.
Take, for example, a problem I have been facing with writing content for this blog. As I read academic research it gets harder to find ideas that I can write about quickly. Some of the concepts I’m coming across need time to work through and understand before one can write about them with any authority. At the same time it would be nice to keep going with the blog as I carry on towards my goal of getting a million words out as I try and learn how to write better.
This is a good problem to analyse using a 2×2 table – looking at the length of content vs the content of content. You can write stuff that’s long or short or you can write stuff that’s deep or shallow.
When you put this information into a 2×2 table it helps you make sense of your options. For example, most of the stuff that comes up on your feed is short content that’s shallow – it’s click bait that delivers nothing of value. At the same time you get long content that’s just as shallow – usually a tired sales pitch that thinks that long form content selling some rubbish is going to work on you. All this does is waste your time.
On the other hand you can have short content that is insightful – something that you can take away and use immediately. A tip, a hack, a method. I saw one recently on how to draw gears – a useful trick for a visual thinker. You could argue that this is the kind of material Seth Godin puts out, writing short content every day but aiming to make it punchy and insightful.
At the other extreme you have long form content that is genuinely useful – Tim Urban’s blog comes to mind here. Perhaps a few others.
So there are two takeaways here – the first is the use of the 2×2 table as a paper tool that helps you think about key features or elements of a situation. There is real power there. And then there is the bit about content types.
For me, I think it would be nice if the material in this blog was short enough to read but good enough to be insightful. There is little point in writing shallow material. The long form work, however, needs to make its way into papers and books.
I’ll aim for fewer words next time, then.
Bargheer, S (2021), “Paper tools and the sociological imagination: How the 2×2 table shaped the work of Mills, Lazarsfeld and Parsons”, The American Sociologist, Vol 52, pp 254-275.