Imagination and Analysis: Refining a research question (part 2)

In the previous post, I was trying to illustrate how I approached a question, trying to detail my ideas and the process through which my thinking developed.  The purpose was to highlight the importance of using one’s own imagination and judgement in developing a research question. Many graduate students with whom I have worked, have struggled because they didn’t develop their own ideas, but rather tried to follow the ideas of other people. To contribute to research in a field, however, requires the confidence to challenge old ideas and develop or refine theories. As I have argued elsewhere, it doesn’t take vast brilliance, just willingness to use natural basic abilities with care and attention to detail.  The example of reasoning presented in these two posts is offered as an illustration of the way someone (me) who is naive in a subject (politics), can develop a complex, detailed range of issues that are potential subjects of research as I try to answer a fairly simple question (simple in the sense that it came from my initial, offhand intuition/curiosity, not any detailed analysis), and complexity arose as I imagined possibilities.

Wild imagining

One intellectual exercise for a scholar is to try to imagine what other possibilities could be added to those lists of possible issues affecting voting results. In this area, imagination is the key factor. This imagination of possibilities could also be called “generation of hypotheses,” if I wanted to frame it in more formal (and perhaps intimidating) terms.

It can be useful to suspend reason and logic to help imagination flow: for example, I can imagine that maybe ballots are being improperly counted because extra-terrestrials are tampering with the ballots.  That’s kind of ridiculous, but it is an explanation, and maybe there are even a few people who would believe it. Maybe there are some Satan-worshipping pedophiles who are working to actively miscount. That also seems ridiculous, though in this case, it seems likely that many people would believe it. Or maybe the election system has been tampered with by the Russians.  This seems less ridiculous, given what is known about Russian cyberactivity, or, for that matter, hostile cyberactivity from a range of sources.  To research the possibility of cyberattacks affecting the vote counts, we would want to understand Georgia’s election protocols: at what point could hostile actors affect the vote counts? Does Georgia use electronic voting machines where individual votes can be changed (e.g., I click on “Ossoff,” but the machine registers “Loeffler”)? Does Georgia have a centralized computer tally that could be hacked and altered? Diving deeper, we could ask about technologies used by different groups of potential attackers—maybe Russian cyberattacks use different techniques than Chinese cyberattacks. (And maybe there’s a nefarious actor who pretends to be the friend of the US but also carries out cyberattacks?) Not only could we dive down those technical holes of whether and how the voting system could be compromised, we also are led to ask why: why would someone want to help Perdue but not Loeffler, or help Warnock but not Ossoff?

Anyway, my general point is that as I ask questions—sometimes ridiculous questions—it’s possible for new ideas to arise that might be worth some investigation. Generating ideas for what could be researched—research hypotheses—is an act of the imagination. Therefore it’s useful for imagination to operate freely, to  be able to propose the absurd as well as the “reasonable,” in order to generate hypotheses for investigation.

Yet more possibilities

So far, all the questions I have been asking were generated from looking for an explanation that allowed me to retain the assumption that people would not split-tickets in this election.  Once I start to entertain the notion that people might split tickets, a variety of new questions arise: who would do so, and why? (Also note that these considerations do not rule out any of the previous considerations—in addition to ballot errors and tampering, people could also split their ticket—the observed vote totals could be influenced by all of these factors.)

And just in asking this, I realize that there are multiple ways to “split” a ticket: you could vote for one R and one D, or you could vote for one R (or one D) but not vote at all for the other, or you could vote for one R (or one D) and a third-party candidate (well, actually not in this election because it was a run-off with only two candidates, but if that weren’t true, you could get people saying, e.g., “I’m not voting for Ossoff because he’s not progressive enough, so I voted Green party”).

Now, again, it’s necessary to start to use imagination: why would people split the ticket and cross party lines? Maybe:

  • 1. Democratic women (or feminists) crossed party lines to vote for Loeffler (a woman).
  • 2. Black Republicans (or anti-racist Republicans) crossed party lines to vote for Warnock.
  • 3. Democrats who voted for Warnock didn’t vote for Ossoff because
    • he’s not progressive enough
    • he’s a white man
    • he’s too young
    • he holds a specific position on a specific issue to which they object (I don’t know a ton about his campaign, so…)
    • he was the kid they hated most in elementary school (I’m reaching for the absurd here—we wouldn’t expect this kind of explanation to affect large numbers of people, but it is a possible, if silly, reason that someone might choose not to vote for Ossoff—again, I’m exercising my imagination)
  • 4. Republicans who voted for Perdue didn’t vote for Loeffler because
    • she’s too much/too little like Trump
    • they didn’t like her for some position on some specific issue.

Again, these lists are probably not exhaustive—there are probably many other reasons that Dems might vote for Warnock but not Ossoff (and vice versa) and that Reps might vote for Perdue but not Loefller (and vice versa).

How does imagination match up with the real world?

As I start to lay out these different possibilities, it raises questions of how these hypotheses might be reflected in the data. 

If, for example, the differences are caused by damaged or incomplete ballots, what kind of data patterns would we see? To answer this question, we can look for old empirical data: what does previous election data show, with respect to damaged/incomplete ballots? Given the standards set by the historical data, we could compare to see if the damaged/incomplete data would predict the data that we’re seeing—would we see the kinds of discrepancies we see, on the basis of that kind of problem? Have past elections had enough damaged ballots that we could see the differences that we see in this election?  Alternatively, we can use imagination—what would we expect if there were a lot of damaged ballots? Would we expect them the ballot errors to be distributed evenly across all candidates (i.e., the number of votes lost by Warnock due to damaged ballots would be equal to the number of ballots lost by Ossoff)? What if damaged ballots were coming from one specific location, because of a damaged machine, perhaps, and perhaps that machine was damaged so it failed to read both elections and only read one of the two?  (We would expect an error like this to be quickly discovered in checking ballots—someone at the precinct would notice that they weren’t getting votes for a single candidate.)

Even simple questions get complicated very quickly

I’ve gone through all this detail to show 1) how imagination plays a key role in finding hypotheses for research, and 2) how quickly a question can branch out into many questions—even this brief, informal analysis identified a number of different concerns that could lead to further research. I didn’t even begin to ask questions about how I might gather any supplemental data that could support inferences about the vote totals.

My final steps with the voting question

I’m not researching the question of why Warnock got more votes in any formal way. It was mostly a passing curiosity, but I wouldn’t be able to the put an answer to use in any way. So I didn’t go far, but I’m going to briefly mention my final steps in my “research,” just to give an angle on yet more details that crop up in research.

Before I decided to start working on this blog post, here’s what I did: I compared the number of votes received by Warnock and Ossoff—Warnock received about 19,000 more votes when I looked. And I compared the difference between the votes received by Perdue and Loeffler—Perdue had about 19,000 more.  This similarity of numbers was highly suggestive of people splitting their ticket because each person who splits their ticket, voting for Warnock and Perdue, adds one to both their totals and takes one away from Ossoff and Loeffler—a mirroring.  The similarity in numbers could be coincidence, of course (it would require further analysis to study), but it is suggestive of a group of about 19,000 people who split their ticket, voting D for Warnock and R for Perdue.  If the difference was caused by errors in reading or filling ballots, or by people voting for Warnock while leaving the other vote blank, we wouldn’t expect that mirroring. Again, my interpretation of these basic numbers requires imagining how different voting patterns would be reflected in numbers. <y imagination may be wrong, but having written out my premises, I can begin to test them, and other people can check me and, if necessary, correct me.

Why did Warnock get more votes that Ossoff?

Here’s my guess at a simple explanation for those numbers: there is one group that seems most likely to explain people splitting a ticket between Warnock and Perdue: Black Republicans. It seems plausible that some Black Republicans would cross party lines to vote for a fellow Black person. Doing some rough numbers just as estimates: about 5,000,000 votes cast in the GA election; GA is roughly one-third Black–estimate that as roughly 1,500,000 Black voters—roughly 12% of Black voters in GA are Republican (according to Pew Research Center), so that’s roughly 180,000 Black Republicans in GA—far more than the 19,000 in the Warnock/Ossofff difference. If one in ten Black Republicans decided to cross party lines for Warnock, that would explain the observed difference. It’s also worth noting that because the Democrats needed to win both seats to win control of the Senate, it’s possible that a Republican voter might think that voting for Perdue would be their step to preserve control of the senate (“As long as Perdue wins, we keep control, so I can vote for Warnock”). Let me reiterate that this is a simplistic conclusion that probably misses real world truth, but at least offers an easily understood explanation. (Real world explanations might include differences in specific policy positions held by Warnock and Ossoff, but I have not studied them closely enough to do any analysis based on their policy recommendations.)

Another group might also explain the same pattern of data: misogynist Republicans, who might vote for Perdue but against Loeffler because she is a woman. This seems less likely, just on the basis of how many women have previously been elected by GOP voters. (Continuing down the path of imagination, we can conjure up a group of racist Democrats who vote for Ossoff but not Warnock, or feminist Democrats who vote for Loeffler over Ossoff because she is a woman. But these groups would give more votes to Ossoff than Warnock, so don’t help explain the observed data.)


On many levels, what I have offered above is simplistic analysis. Despite my performing a quick analysis, the various considerations and possible questions proliferated. I didn’t do any research beyond looking up the numbers of votes cast.  I could have looked more deeply. I could have looked at different details (what if I had looked at county-by-county breakdowns? Those might provide some counter to the ideas I used above). 

Finding comfort in writing practice 3: Finding time for ideas

[This claims to be the third in a series, but I posted the first and second on LinkedIn, to test whether posting as LinkedIn articles boosted my views.]

This is my third post in the series on finding comfort in a writing practice, and, in a way, I’m finally reaching the points that I initially wanted to make.  I started this series to help a parent I know whose writing practice has been thrown off due to child care demands. I’m not a parent, so I know the concerns of parenting only secondhand.   But I’m pretty sure that a lot of the general suggestions I made in the previous post about developing a practice are far more difficult, if not impossible, for parents. The parent of a young child may never have 15 minutes undisturbed to write, and may never be able to nail down a regular time to write. And, of course, when a parent does have time that they’re not directly caring for their children, there are pressing practical needs that will take precedence over writing—all sorts of self-care and housework. Even if there are a few minutes to write, the chances appear unexpectedly—the desired writing routine may seem out of reach.  It would be a bit facile to just say “make a commitment to your schedule.”

Although I’m not a parent, there are some points that I feel qualified to make.  These are largely ideas about a general relationship with writing and how writing fits into our lives.  In particular, what interests me is how to fit writing into the little empty spaces in out lives. Because the most important dimension of writing is the ideas that we want to express, we can actually work on our writing without actually writing, or with only a little writing.  In the long-run, completing a significant written work—a doctoral dissertation or work for publication—takes many uninterrupted hours of focused attention; I don’t want to suggest otherwise. But, in terms of building a writing practice that can provide some comfort in the moment, and that can be productive in the long run, the imaginative work that fits into the little spaces in life is extremely valuable.

Write because you’re interested, or even fascinated

Ideally, people will write about ideas that interest or fascinate them. In practice, lots of people end up working on projects that don’t interest them. That’s unfortunate, but a little outside the scope of this article, because it was inspired by someone who is interested in their work. Sometimes, however, people who have lost interest in a previously interesting project can re-ignite their interest by re-evaluating their relationship with the project, and my suggestions here might help with that.

The key here is that, if you’re interested in an idea, you’ll think about it, and thinking about your ideas makes a difference.

Visualization and imagination

Imagining how and what you’re going to do, helps you do it better.  Many of the same neural circuits that fire when you actually do something also fire when you imagine doing that thing.  Visualization doesn’t replace practice—especially not for a writer, for whom it is absolutely necessary to get words on to the page—but it can be a strong supplement to it.  For people with difficult schedules, visualization can lay a foundation for productivity by using brief moments of time to develop ideas and phrases that can later be put into writing.

It’s easy to find time for a single thought

Life is filled with moments where there is time for idle thought. Can you fill those moments with thoughts about the ideas you want to write about, or thoughts about how to express those ideas? If you’re sitting at a traffic light on your way to the grocery store, you have time to ask yourself “how would I express that idea?” Or “what is the most important conclusion I can draw from that?”  There’s time for such passing thoughts when cooking, or when doing laundry, or bathing, etc.

Thinking about what you would write, or how you could explain an idea to different people, is a way of engaging the ideas that you will ultimately write about.  Thinking about what to write helps develop ideas and can help you find phrases.  Maybe you don’t write down that thought you had while stopped at the traffic light, but maybe you get a chance to make a quick note on your cell phone while waiting on line at the grocery. And, perhaps most importantly, thinking about a subject helps keep it near the forefront of your mind.

Building patterns of thought

The more you think about an idea, the easier it becomes to call that idea to mind. The most obvious case of this is repetition: the more you repeat something—a name or a phone number or a poem, for example—the easier it is to remember it. Ideas don’t have the same fixity as the words of a poem printed in a book, but they do have some of the same continuity.  If you think about your subject today, you have a place to start thinking about that idea tomorrow.  If you don’t think about your subject for a week, then you have to search your memory for the ideas that you were thinking a week ago.

And the more you build patterns of thought, the more likely the thought will pop up in your mind spontaneously in idle moments.  An idea that you have been considering is more likely to appear in dreams than one you have not.

Geek out

Pretty much everyone knows someone who is extremely interested and absorbed in some idea, pursuit, or activity.  Such people are often mocked as geeks for their focused interest on subjects.  Whatever the interest—be it a game, or a sport, or a job, music, art, etc.—it becomes a dominating focus on a person’s attention. In academia, of course, scholars often “geek out” on their subject of study. Such focus is often derided, but the person who is focused in that way often enjoys the focus and finds meaning in it.  If you are a writer who is struggling to find time to write, and struggling to find time to attend to your work, a geek-out approach can be useful in building patterns of thought.  Focus on your interests; think about them whenever you can.  The more you do, the easier it will be to write when you do find the time.

If you’re writing fiction, think about your fictional characters and setting. If you’re writing non-fiction, think about your subject as much as possible.

Reflections in daily life

Non-fiction writers can often see traces of their subject matter in daily life.  Someone studying human behavior in a specific field of endeavor—in restaurants, for example—may not be able to go to restaurants to observe people in action, but they can still think about how people behave. Perhaps something they observe in their family will remind them of how people act in restaurants.  Or perhaps someone is studying some human characteristic—intelligence, for example—in some specific setting (restaurants, for example), and even though they may not be able to go to a restaurant, they can observe people around them—their families, people at grocery stores—and ask how intelligence (or humility, or honesty, wisdom, creativity, etc.) plays out in the situations they can observe and compare those observations with their ideas about how the characteristic of interest plays out in the specific setting that they are concerned with.

To be sure, not all non-fiction studies have reflections in daily life, but if yours does, then you can develop your thinking on the subject even if you aren’t writing.


How would you explain your idea and your interest to your child or children? Or, more generally, how would you explain to a 5-year-old? Or a 10-year-old? Or a teenager?

What would you say you study? Why do you study it? What good is studying it?

What is your “elevator pitch” to a peer? To someone who might offer you a job? To someone who might publish your work?


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, schedules have been upset, and finding time to write is difficult, especially for parents who are now tasked with constant childcare. But, as I have argued in this series of articles, a positive writing practice can provide a form of comfort, offering a chance to focus on things other than the stressful state of the world.  Therefore, it would be good to be able to focus on writing, and especially on the ideas that interest people.  In this article, I have focused on the purely intellectual part of writing—the development of ideas for writing.  Thinking about what you would write if you had the time is a habit that you can develop. All it takes is a focus of attention in the spare moments when the mind wanders.  In the long run, thinking is not enough for a writer, but developing patterns of thought and developing the habit of thinking about your writing—not as an adversary, but as a fascination—can help make actual writing more effective when you find time to sit down to it.