Continuing my discussion of analysis from my previous posts, I look at how analysis can lead to new questions and new perspectives. Just as Alice ducked into the small rabbit hole and found an entire world, so too can stepping into one small question open up a whole world of new questions and ideas.
If you look at things right and apply a bit of imagination, analysis quickly leads to new questions. Even something that looks small and simple will open up to a vast array of interesting and difficult questions.
The multiplication of questions that arises from analysis can be good or bad. New questions can be good because they can lead to all sorts of potentially interesting research. But having too many questions can be bad, both because it can interfere with focusing on one project, and because it leads to complexity that can be intimidating. Learning to deal with the expanding complexity that appears with close study is a valuable skill in any intelligence-based endeavor—whether scholar or professional, decisions must be made and action taken, and falling down a rabbit hole of analysis and exploration will sometimes interfere with those decisions and actions.
This post follows up on my previous in which I argued that we analyze automatically and that the work of a researcher includes making our analyses explicit so that we and others can check them.
In this post, in order to show the potential expansion of questions, I’ll look at a couple of examples in somewhat greater detail. While I won’t approach the level of detail that might be expected in a scholarly work meant for experts in a specific field—I want my examples to make sense to people who are not experts and I’m not writing about fields in which I might reasonably called an expert—I hope to at least show how the complexity that characterizes most academic work arises as a natural part of the kind of analysis that we all do automatically.
Looking more closely: Detail appears with new perspectives
In the previous post, I used the example of distinguishing the stem, seeds, skin, and flesh of an apple as a basic analysis (separation into parts), but it was quite simplistic. Now I want to examine how to get more detail in an analysis of this apple.
For starters, we can often see more detail simply by looking more closely (literally): In my previous post, I separated an apple into skin, flesh, seeds, core and stem. But we could look at each of those in greater detail: the seed, for example, has a dark brown skin that covers it and a white interior. With a microscope, the seed (and all the rest of the apple) can be seen to be made up of cells. And with a strong enough microscope, we can see the internal parts of the cells (e.g., mitochondria, nucleus), or even parts of the parts (e.g., the nuclear envelope and nucleolus of the cell’s nucleus). This focus on literally seeing smaller and smaller pieces fails at some point (when the pieces are themselves about the same size as the wavelengths of visible light), but in theory this “looking” more closely leads to the realms of chemistry, atomic and molecular physics, and ultimately to quantum mechanics. Now we don’t necessarily need to know quantum mechanics or even cellular biology to study apples—you don’t necessarily visit all of Wonderland—but those paths are there and can be followed.
In this apple example, each new closer visual focus—each new perspective—revealed further detail that we naturally analyzed as part of what we saw. But division into physical components is only one avenue of analysis, and others also lead down expansive and detailed courses of study.
So Many Things to See!
We can look at different kinds of apples in a number of different ways. (Not to go all meta here, but we can indeed separate—analyze—distinct ways in which we can analyze apples.)
At the most obvious, perhaps, we can separate apples according to their variety, as can be seen in markets: there are Granny Smiths, Pippins, etc., so that customers can choose apples according to their varied flavors and characters. Some people like one variety and not another. These distinctions are often made on the basis of identifying separate characteristics of apples (another analysis): “I like the flavor and smell, but it’s kind mealy and dry;” or “It’s got crisp flesh and strong flavor; it’s not too sweet.” Flavor, texture, appearance (color, shape, etc.), and condition (ripe, overripe, e.g.,) are all distinct criteria that a shopper might consider with respect to an apple. These aren’t exactly the kind of thing that would be the subject of academic study, but they could certainly lead to more academic questions.
The question of apple variety, for example, could be seen through the lens of biology. There are the questions of which genetic markers distinguish varieties and the ways in which those genetic markers tell us of the relationships between different types of apples and their heritages. The question of heritage brings up another aspect of apples that could be a study for a biologist: How did a given strain develop? There are wild apples, which developed without human intervention; heirlooms, which develop through selective breeding; and hybrids, which grow from planned crossbreeding. Combining these questions of genetics and heritage might lead a scholar to study the migration of a specific gene, for example to see if GMO commercial apple farms are spreading their modified genes to wild populations.
Another characteristic of an apple that a shopper might consider at the store is the price. This is obviously not a matter for biologists, but rather for economists. And an economist might want to look at how apples get priced in different markets. That might lead to questions of apple distribution and apple growing. Questions of apple growing might lead back to questions of biology, or to other fields of study like agronomy. Questions of distribution might lead to questions of transportation engineering (what’s the best means to transport apples?) or to questions of markets (who are potential producers/distributors/vendors/consumers? what products ‘compete’ with apples?) or questions of government policy (how did the new law affect apple prices?).
So Many Different Perspectives
Different analytical frameworks can be found by imagining different perspectives on apples. In the previous section, I already linked the study of apples into fields like biology and economics and more, but there is wide potential for study of apples in many areas.
Think about university departments where apples might get studied. Biology, economics, and agronomy are three already suggested. But people in literature departments might study apples in literature—“The apple in literature: From the bible to the novel”. People in history departments could study the history of apples—“Apples on the Silk Road in the 14th century.” Anthropology: “Apples and the formation of early human agricultural communities.” Ecology/Environmental Science: “Apples and Climate Change.”
These example titles are a little strained because I have not made a study of apples in these contexts, and therefore I’m throwing out general ideas that are rather simplistic and free of real theoretical considerations. More complexity would attend a real project. The student of literature might be looking at different things that apples have symbolized because they want to make a point about changing cultural norms. Or they might look at how apples have been linked to misogynistic representations of women. Such studies, of course, are interested in more than just apples. As we combine interest with apples with other interests, too, new potential ideas being to arise.
Most people have multiple interests and these interests can combine in myriad ways to create a vast array of different questions that could be asked about apples (or any other subject).
Pretty much any scholarly perspective has its own analytical frameworks that structure research. Biology analyzes according to genetic structure, for example. Business analyzes according to market and economic factors. When these frameworks start to overlap—a business analysis using genetic factors, or a genetic analysis driven by specific economic factors—multiple points of intersection appear. Each genetic structure (each type of apple) can be examined with respect to a variety of different economic factors (e.g., flavor, shelf life, durability, appearance).
This multiplication of different ways of dividing things up (analytically, anyway) can be problematic because it creates a lot of complexity and because it can be confusing/overwhelming, but it can also present opportunities because each new perspective might have some valuable insight to add.
What seems small and simple to a first glance—a rabbit hole has a small and unassuming entrance—usually opens into a vast and expanding world of questions.
Analysis requires a bit of imagination—imagination to see a whole as composed of parts, imagination to consider different perspectives from which to view an issue, imagination to recognize the different aspects of things. But a lot of this analysis is pretty automatic: little or no effort is required for the necessary imagination. Still, because it’s so easy and so natural, this process gets discounted—especially if you view “analysis” as something highly specialized that only experts do.
To develop a practice of analysis, all you really need to do is make a point of trying to make your different observations explicit. Whether you’re judging an apple (taste, appearance, scent, etc.) or a theory (the various assumptions, conclusions, relationships to other theories), chances are good that you’ll pretty automatically respond to different aspects at different times. If you can formalize and record these different observations, you lay the foundation for developing your own analyses.