On Following Rules

Over the course of my life, I have often found it difficult to follow rules or instructions that didn’t make sense to me.  This is distinct from finding it difficult to follow instructions because I don’t like being ordered around. Like many people, I dislike being ordered around. Sometimes I resist instructions or rules that actually make perfect sense just because I dislike being ordered around. But that’s not the kind of difficulty following rules that interests me here. This is about following instructions without understanding those instructions.

Throughout my schooling, I found it difficult to do things “just because.” If instructions didn’t make sense to me, then it was hard to follow them. When math classes told me to just learn the process, I struggled. As a writer, when writing was something I was forced to do, and the rules of grammar were just rules I had to follow, they made no sense and I struggled to follow them. Once I realized that writing was something I wanted to do (or at least that it was a way to communicate ideas I wanted to communicate), and I saw grammar and punctuation as helping me accomplish what I wanted, grammar and punctuation became much easier. Still, recognizing grammar and punctuation as tools to communicate does not make me sympathetic to small-minded grammarians who want to reduce grammar to simple rules. Rules can help, but they can also hinder.

My new book, Literature Review and Research Design, is very much an outgrowth of the spirit that following rules can be a problem.  In this blog post, I’m primarily in the personal side of this—the sense of motivation and purpose—and the difference between doing things because they make sense to you and doing them because someone says you have to (or should). 

Research and Rules

Research (and life more generally) doesn’t always follow rules.  Crucial to research, in particular, is a willingness to challenge accepted ideas and accepted methods.  But the willingness to challenge accepted ideas and methods has to be blended with the confidence to take action. And where does the confidence to act come from?

Rules can be a very good thing. One place to find confidence to act is by following rules: if you follow the instructions laid out by someone who came before you—someone with expertise (or at least who claimed expertise)—then rules can provide a structure that gives confidence: “If I follow the recipe precisely, I will get a good result.” This ability to follow instructions is extremely valuable in learning of any sort.

But rules need to be applied judiciously.  Rules applied in the wrong context can lead to poor results. Following the wrong rule at the wrong time can lead to error. For example, the common English spelling rule “i before e except after c” isn’t going to help you spell height or weight right. Knowing a rule, or having a set of instructions to follow is not a guarantee of success. Understanding how or when to apply a rule is crucial.

The problem I have in following rules is when I can’t see the sense of purpose.  That lack of insight makes it hard for me to understand how to apply the rules—without knowing how things worked, it’s very difficult to use the rules.  I suppose I mostly think about this in the area of grammar where I really struggled for a long time.  When writing was a task imposed by school teachers, the rules of grammar were just another structure that made an unpleasant exercise even more unpleasant. Now that I have ideas I want to communicate, those rules can help, and having that sense of purpose provides me guidance in applying the rules of grammar and knowing when to violate them.

Writers led astray

In my experience, many dissertation writers struggle because they don’t understand the place and purpose of literature and literature review in the research process. This is at least partly attributable to the fact that “literature review” can mean many different things, and following the rules to create the wrong kind of literature can be a counter-productive time sink. Having a better sense of how research proceeds can help writers avoid this problem.

At the large scale, there common conceptions of the scientific process that hold a mistaken view about what the scientist/research does and how science/research works in practice. This mistaken view plays into the problems that many researchers have with the literature review, particularly at the beginning of the research process. At a smaller scale, I think this comes from specific misconceptions about the purpose of the literature review itself.  These are not entirely unrelated, but I think it worth separating them. 

Common mistaken view of research

On the large scale, the concern that I see for the placement of the literature review in the research process is that it is common to think of research as starting with a definition of the problem.  But in research, as well as in research design, defining the question is a problem in its own right.  For research, in the large, defining a question is difficult because it is often difficult to define concepts (and there is the related difficulty of how to observe/measure those concepts—the problem of operationalization).  

Furthermore, this notion that research starts by defining a question tends to ignore some practical realities of research.  Firstly, there is the simple issue of time and growth: learning often involves discovering that the old questions we asked weren’t the right questions, and this means that over time the project definition/problem definition that seems best will change. 

Additionally, defining a project typically involves not only the theoretical concerns of the researcher, but also a negotiation with a research community—for a dissertation writer, their community starts with their professors. You don’t just come up with a project: you have to convince people to support it, and that often involves accepting their input.

These issues in defining problems are resolved with practice that develops the judgement to know which questions are worth asking, a confidence in the choice of theories and methods, and a way of convincing other members of the research community to support the work.  But these issues of defining a research problem/question complicate the use of literature review—or at least certain kinds of literature reviews.

Common confusion about “literature review”

And on the more specific scale, there is the question of what a literature review is and what it is used for. The phrase “literature review” can refer to a wide range of different activities. On the one hand, “literature review” can be a process of gathering and reading literature and learning from it. On the other, it can be a presentation of material to an audience. Different types of literature review suit different contexts. In some contexts, working on the wrong type of literature review can be wasted effort or even a positive barrier to progress.

A lot of people approach the literature review as partly a task of reading everything of potential relevance and partly a display of that wide range of sources and ideas. This is, I think, a fairly common view of what a literature review should be. It is a view that probably causes a fair amount of grief.  If your purpose is to design your own research project—something that requires focus and commitment despite uncertainty–then tasks that spread your attention across many competing ideas will be a terrible distraction, and possibly a source of growing doubt.

Choosing when to follow the rules

The way I see it, the dissertation project is primarily about learning to make your own choices about how to manage your work and your efforts. You choose the project; you choose how to study it; you choose who to present the work. (Admittedly, all this occurs in the context of a community that may exert a lot of influence over what you can do, but still, the goal is to work independently.)  Among the choices are those of which rules to follow and when.

Sometimes I think that the most crucial personal factor that determines success as a researcher is a degree of blind self-confidence—a strong belief in the self, so that the questions and uncertainties that deter those who are less certain do not slow or stop the researcher.  Every researcher faces uncertainties. Some researchers carefully survey each uncertainty as a serious obstacle. Others roll right over those doubts with blind self-confidence. While a researcher needs to be able to learn from criticism, and to learn their own problems and problems with their research, a researcher also needs to be able to put aside doubt in favor of action. But I don’t want to make this about self-confidence, but rather about having a sense of purpose.

The clearer you own sense of purpose, the easier it is to make the choice to follow rules or not. Or which rules to follow.

In the case of dissertations and literature reviews for dissertations, there are a lot of people out there propounding rules for behavior that will allegedly lead to success (in the literature review specifically and the dissertation more generally)—including me—so maybe the question is: which rules will you choose, and why?

My recommendation for a place to start a literature review: look at the American Psychological Association Publication Manual’s discussion of the introduction to a scholarly article, and especially the “background” section of that. (This is based on the 6th edition. The 7th edition was recently released, but I do not yet have a copy.)