Imagination and Analysis: Refining a research question (part 1)

A lot of dissertation writers with whom I have worked struggled to generate their own research, not because they weren’t smart enough or hard working enough, but because, due to self-doubt or humility, they didn’t rely on their own ability to think—they did not work to develop their own theoretical vision or scholarly voice, but rather tried to adhere to the ideas of others. They would get bogged down in debates of theory and method, not because they failed to understand theory or method, but because they didn’t trust themselves to question, examine, or doubt the theories and methods they read in the literature.  They didn’t trust themselves to make choices based on their own speculation. 

I have previously written about the role of confidence, as well as about the ways in which analysis causes proliferation of details and considerations. In this two-post series, I offer a sort of case study of how I approached a question about which I knew little, to show a process of questioning, how that questioning required my judgement and my imagination to shape the direction of my research, and how that approach naturally opened up several different courses of potential investigation. It’s offered as a view into ways of thinking about questions, and about all the places where imagination can enter.  It’s not scholarly, and so it doesn’t incorporate dealing with scholarly literature, which is an important part of actual academic research. But I hope that the detail might encourage self-doubting scholars to engage their own judgement and imagination.

The need for imagination and judgement

Research is complicated, and there’s lots of doubt involved: if we knew the answers, we wouldn’t need to do research. Because of this difficulty, and because of how smart some researchers appear, lots of people get intimidated, and they look to others for answers without developing their own ideas. I have often worked with scholars desperately looking for answers outside themselves without first developing their own thinking.  Basically, one of the key skills of a researcher is to develop your own theories—your own ideas about how the world works.  Too many scholars struggle because they don’t trust or develop their own ideas or sense of critical judgment.

Key to the work of the researcher is imagination and story-telling.  The researcher gathers data from the world, of course, but the researcher also tries to create a coherent story of how something in the world works. To be a scholar or researcher requires being able to address an unknown, make hypotheses about possible explanations, and then look for evidence that might support or counter those hypotheses. Some research is more exploratory and descriptive—Grounded Theory, for example—but even then the goal is to develop explanations and stories—to take pieces of evidence and start to move towards a coherent story.  The researcher uses imagination to help build an explanatory and descriptive  story of the world.

An additional role for imagination, for critical judgment, and also for natural analysis (see my previous posts), is the process of developing general questions and turning them into questions that could drive actual research projects. In this post, I develop an example that shows both the repeated role for imagination, the rapid proliferation of different questions that can overwhelm some researchers, and the need to make choices about which possibilities to pursue.  

The example I have chosen came from the political news, and it’s not in an area that I have explicitly studied, so I lack the sophistication that a researcher in politics would have. That lack of sophistication, however, is useful when speaking about how someone might develop a research project or question from a starting place of relative naiveté. The post below tries to reflect both my initial thinking and the extra details that cropped up as I wrote about it. (Writing is a useful tool for developing ideas—I learn as I write. But a discussion of that dynamic is outside the scope of this post.)

The question that sparked this

On the morning of January 6, I noticed that in the Georgia special election, Warnock’s win was called early, but Ossoff’s was not. My first reaction was: “Who would vote for Warnock but not Ossoff? Why wouldn’t they both get the same votes? Who would split their votes between R and D?” My strong assumption was that, given the context—with control of the US Senate hanging in the balance—everyone who wanted Warnock would naturally want Ossoff. 

Beginning the process of exploration and analysis

Just starting to think through that, however, forced me to shift: as soon as I seriously started thinking about large groups of people, I had to abandon the silly idea that all people will behave similarly.  It’s pretty safe to assume that if you have a group of millions, there will be significant variety among them. And it also occurred to me that the discrepancy in votes might not be because of the behavior of voters, but due to some other factor.

My question became: What is the explanation for the difference in votes? I have not explicitly studied politics or voting behavior, so what follows is just my naive attempt to think through the issues at hand—what are possibilities? What are different dimensions of the issue?

Proliferating questions

I started using my imagination: what are possible causes of the difference? One potential cause was that people might split the ticket—they might vote for one D and one R—but this seemed so unlikely to me that I wondered about whether there might be other explanations. Were there people who voted for only one candidate but not the other? Were there ballots that were damaged in some way so that only one vote was readable?

These are pretty much first-level hypotheses/analyses, in which I try to imagine different potential causes.  This is where research really starts: it starts with a question about hw things might work, ad some ideas about how things might work.  

I wondered whether there were factors that might explain the vote differences while allowing me to retain my “everyone who votes for one D (or R) will also vote for the other D (or R)” hypothesis. As mentioned above, I hypothesized that some ballots would have been damaged so that only one vote tallied, and as I write about it now, I realize a second, related possibility: improperly completed ballots (i.e., with the vote entered properly for one candidate, but not for the other).

Imagining possibilities; proliferation of possibilities

Notice the crucial role of imagination, how it aids me as a researcher by generating hypotheses that could be studied, but also adds complexity. I started with a question about something I saw in the world (Warnock getting more votes than Ossoff) that contradicted what I would have assumed (people would vote for both candidates of the same party). And then, I started making stuff up.  And as I started making stuff up, the complexity of the question grew.

To have a coherent story, I would need an explanation for why voters in this election would not split their ticket, even though split-ticket voting is not historically all that unusual. And my general assumption along those lines is that voting has become so polarized in America that split-ticket voting is far less common than previously, and that it would be especially crucial in this election where control of the senate rested in the balance.

To recap so far:

  • 1. I saw the discrepancy in votes and wondered why 
  • 2. I expected no split-ticket voting in this election
    • despite the fact that split-ticket voting was not rare in the past
    • increased polarization
    • the stakes of this specific election
  • 3. I sought explanations to allow me to retain the no-split-ticket hypothesis
    • damaged ballots
    • improperly completed ballots

Each individual line in that little list above potentially leads to questions and research angles—information that would help me answer my question or understand the situation better. I could look for information on:

  • 1. split-ticket voting over time (historical data)
  • 2. potential causes of non-split-ticket voting (generation of explanatory hypotheses for voter behavior)
    • polarization
    • political context (in this case because control of the senate hangs in the balance)
  • 3. potential causes that ballots might not be counted correctly (generation of explanatory hypotheses for non-voter causes)
    • damage to ballot
    • improper completion of ballot

Already there are several different issues that can usefully contribute to the examination of the question at hand, but I’m really just getting started because I haven’t answered any question or found any reason to accept or reject any of the stories I have imagined so far.  And, it should also be noted that while I have listed potential causes for split-ticket voting or mis-counted ballots, those are hardly exhaustive lists—it’s entirely possible that there are factors that I have not considered. In the lists above, I could add “other” lines to emphasize the likelihood that the list is not complete.

Conclusion (Part 1)

This discussion will be continued in a following post. I’m going to break here to keep this from getting too long, and also to reiterate my main aims for this post and the one that follows: to offer an example of how imagination plays a role in the development of research questions. In particular, it emphasizes the ability to look at some event in the world, to imagine a variety of different stories that explain the situation, and then to try to explore those different possibilities in order to judge which might be most likely.

To briefly recap: I saw a question of interest (why does Warnock have more votes than Ossoff?), sparked by an assumption (that they would have the same amount of votes), and I started imagining possible explanations for the observed discrepancy, and I split those explanations into two groups: those that would allow me to retain my original assumption (e.g., ballot-reading errors caused the discrepancy, not split-ticket voting) and those that would force me to reject my original idea.

In the next post, I will continue my illustration of this process, showing yet more use of imagination and more proliferation of complexity.

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