How do we begin?

Throughout the course of this class, I’ve been interested to see what kinds of conversations might be able to come up between biology and anthropology with regard to the topics at hand. That question has been really interesting to think with, but of course reality ends up being complex. Between the language barriers of different disciplines and the whirlwind pace of the course there hasn’t always been mental or temporal room for some of the more abstract, floaty questions I had had to come into play. But, one space for conversation that’s outside the literal content of our research, and therefore maybe less hampered by such different ways to talk, is in how to approach the beginnings of research.

In other words, Nicole’s post from a few days ago, “What came first, the study system or the research question?” is an interesting thing to think about for me. It shows up probably in any discipline—how do we start asking questions? In anthropology, it sometimes surfaces in whether you talk about studying a particular place or a particular set of issues, which is probably just a different form of the same question. That question, broadly speaking, might be do you start from the concrete, or from the abstract?

Either way though, we could maybe say that the starting point for doing something creative is some sort of spark of curiousity, some thread that when tugged leads to more and more marvelously interwoven threads. Whether you start by looking at the thread or thinking about the loom, you end up studying the same tapestry. To quote Philip Glass talking about music, “The starting point is always arbitrary”.

Yet to equate arbitrariness with irrelevance would be an injustice to an important question. Either approach, concrete to abstract or the other way round, starts from a spark and can open worlds, but they still probably lead to different kinds of questions and different answers. They also lend themselves to different kinds of investment, which might be more neutral in biology but more complicated in anthropology. So the differences might be both arbitrary and deeply significant?

In the context of academic research, as opposed to curiousity at large, I would also wonder if perhaps different ways to frame questions shape what is funded? It’s easy to imagine a funding agency with comparatively little knowledge of how research works being more inclined to the structured approach of starting with a theory than the exploratory play of starting with observation. Then again, perhaps that same agency might be more drawn to the concrete than the abstract. Whichever the case may be, if we agree that different approaches lead to different kinds of questions and relationships, the results can’t be neutral.

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