The Prison of Analysis | On parallel approaches to research and academic thought
The western world is obsessed with logic and analytical thought. It is the very fabric our society is founded on. And with that comes a distinct neglect for more holistic and alternative methodologies of discovery.
Over the last couple of years I have spent much time conducting research into human performance: academically, experientially and alongside indigenous societies and elite athletes. I have come to value alternative approaches to that research: the practical, the exploratory and the intuitive, and whilst on a recent research expedition—Mud, Movement Perception and Elephants: A Batek research expedition with Shane Benzie—and then subsequently in preparing for a presentation to Oxford University, I started to string these thoughts together in my journal: the basis of this article.
I should preface this discussion with the following. I myself spent years within the academic world, culminating with a doctoral degree in Biological Anthropology at Cambridge, and I am by no means finished with it. I have lived the analytical world of academic thought and thrived on it; it is of massive value and usefulness. This article is not an attempt to discredit it, nor to judge its efficacy against other perspectives. Rather it is an effort to draw awareness to its sister methodologies—underappreciated and underutilised—such that the different approaches may be employed in concert for a more complete and integrated understanding.
Alternative research approaches during the Batek climbing expedition
AN ACADEMIC DISCONNECT
As mentioned, the western academic institution, and indeed society in general, is deeply rooted in logic and reasoning, analytics and data-based deduction. Whilst this in itself is not an issue, it is done to the neglect of other more holistic and intuitive approaches to discovery and knowledge. Even when I was studying at university, long before the influences and experiences I gained in of more recent years, this was something I was very aware of.
With a major interest in animal tracking, awareness and practical skill, the disconnect of western reasoning and logic from intuition and qualitative evaluation was painfully clear. Constant quantification and breakdown frequently destroyed the wonder of the greater picture for me, and I found it difficult to maintain my interest once the process of scientific analysis was applied.
In recent times the disconnect is becoming more formally recognised, and alternative research methodologies and frameworks gaining acceptance. Ancient concepts such as Eastern medicines and new-age integrational fields the likes of whole-organism evo-devo are showing the way to more open and holistic approaches of scientific understanding and analysis.
Acknowledging the biases and limitations of our societal and academic system must be the first step in realising the potential for a wider framework of research methodology. As such, below are listed three key concepts that I believe can majorly enhance our perspective on scientific thought—and especially in the application and approach of field research.
Actively trying it out yourself is more fun anyway...
ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES TO RESEARCH
1) CREATIVITY AND INTUITION-LED
(VERSUS ANALYTICAL AND LOGIC-LED)
If you will allow me a short tangent, Louis Liebenberg argues persuasively in his book The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science that logical thought and reasoning evolved in inseparable unity with awareness, intuition and creativity.
In line with this argument it is reasonable to suggest that there is benefit in the integration of such methodologies, and in many cases we may find that a more qualitative approach can reveal phenomena long before their explanation by western scientific thought—we would be foolish to reject such concepts for lack of hard proof. This has already been shown in the acknowledgement of certain traditional medical practices such as acupuncture and fascial manipulation: known for centuries to be effective, yet only recently is the logical reasoning behind them beginning to be understood.
Whilst analytical, quantitative hypotheses and the scientific method are unquestionably the gold standard in research and understanding, often the specificity with which such rigorous methods must be applied (let alone the academic bureaucracy and hoop-jumping) leads to such specialisation and dissection that the essence and whole of the phenomenon in question is lost.
Using kinesiology tape to mimic the body's lines of fascia helped us to visualise the Batek' movement and direct our investigation accordingly
2) SPONTANEOUS AND EXPLORATORY
(VERSUS PREDETERMINED AND DATA-DRIVEN)
Oftentimes in field and conceptual situations, you don’t know what it is you don’t know, and so going in with a prescribed methodology and data collection plan can only ever limit what you get out of the expedition. Rather, by going in open-minded and empty you are far more likely to find the key connections and critical insights that would be otherwise missed. In essence, your research is driven in the moment, and directed by your observations at the time. Of course this doesn’t lend itself to writing papers, but after all, you have to consider why you’re there—to learn something or to prove a potentially non-relevant hypothetical theory?
A great example of this phenomena is the underrepresentation of persistence hunting in the ethnographic record. It is believed that many early anthropologists would desperately seek to record the techniques and frequency of tribal hunting. Seeing the bows and spears and other tools they would specifically ask and watch for their utilisation, whilst all the while they were blind to cases of the less obvious persistence hunting going on around them. Whilst this example may be a little sensationalised, it is clear that there is a significant danger in looking only with the eyes of a predetermined hypothesis.
Essentially it’s about being able to see what you’re looking at, and then once you do, to be able to see without bias. You often don’t know what it is you don’t know, and it takes time to adapt to a situation or study subject sufficiently to understand enough to angle your research appropriately. If you go in with only a predetermined plan and agenda, you will likely miss much of what is going on around you—things that may be the very answers to the questions you seek.
You must first adapt to the paradigm of the research subject, whether that be a community, discipline, individual or whatever, and only then can you view it with enough understanding to create educated and informed hypotheses to test and consider. Only then, and with an open, unbiased mind, can you truly see what you see, untwisted by some preconception of what you’re looking for.
Surely the best way to begin looking for the secrets of the Batek climbers is to simply ask them?
(VERSUS THEORETICAL AND OBSERVATIONAL)
Of all of them, this to me seems the most obvious and painful disconnect. I remember sitting in a lecture once, where a professor was explaining to us how a certain stone point had been knapped using a particular technique. He was wrong—and I knew it from only the most basic of practical experience.
Practical experience is immensely powerful. And passing up such obvious opportunities to develop insight is asking for embarrassing mistakes. I would go so far as to say that a readiness to get your hands dirty with real and practical fieldwork is essential in allowing you to accurately perceive and fully understanding what you’re looking at. With indigenous groups it can take months of integration to develop the trust to see them in a natural state, and only by actually doing can we understand: how can we research ultra-endurance without knowing how it feels to run an ultramarathon, or understand the intricacies of Palaeolithic hand axes without first becoming adept at flintknapping and animal butchery?
By actually being there and living it we may answer a question or acquire a critical insight in an instant that could never be found through reading papers or even complex mathematical modelling. For me with the Batek, actually practicing their tree-climbing techniques myself gave me a ‘real’ understanding far beyond what I could ever learn from hours of observing them climb, and spending months living as a part of their community gave me a level of understanding impossible to glean from reams of ethnographic reading. The same was true for the aforementioned professor, whereby me picking up a lump of flint and hitting it answered feasibility questions in an instant that he, despite all his years of theoretical knowledge, was simply unaware were even questions.
I truly believe that practical experience is something massively missing in the academic world. And whilst in some cases it may seem like a lot of effort, how can we even begin to suggest that actually doing is not a priority in understanding?
Practical experience has to be a necessary supplement to theoretical analysis
ON THE EDGE OF PARADIGMS | THE IMPORTANCE OF A CROSS-DISCIPLINARY APPROACH
When I was at university one of my professors used to tell us that it is on the boundaries of disciplines and scientific paradigms that the big breakthroughs are made, and I believe that holds true for many aspects of life.
It is not just a case of developing aspects in parallel, but also with direct reference to one another: realising that they are not separate systems. Focused, analytical thought evolved at one with an open, intuitive and practical curiosity, and it is of central importance that we develop the capacity toutilise both approaches in concert. To do so is the key not only to maximising research productivity, but also, and more importantly, to generating novel progress and hidden insight. Neither approach can break the plateaus of understanding alone.
The scientific method is the gold standard of proof and accountability. But it is not everything, and alone it can often be blind to less tangible yet vitally important phenomena, dissect a subject so much that the original essence is lost, or simply miss the point. Equally, for all their systems-level understanding and lateral insight, exploratory, intuition-led and practical approaches are rarely able to provide the same accountability and proof of data-driven analyses. Used together we have a complete framework by which to direct our research: an arsenal of tools to be used accordingly to direct and enhance one another.
Just as they evolved together in an integrated pattern of cognitive evolution hundreds of thousands of years ago, the different approaches were designed to work together as a complete and complimentary framework of deductive-creative (‘scientific’) thought.
The cross-disciplinary ideology holds true in terms of content as well as approach. Oftentimes, by integrating ideas from different branches of study we can shed light on difficulties that a single field cannot easily resolve.
The Batek project with Shane really brought this home to me. Whilst we certainly weren’t pushing any boundaries of ground-breaking research, combining my anthropological background and tribal knowledge with Shane’s movement expertise led to much insight and many new thought processes. Likewise the combination of my tree-climbing research with his work on runners produced a new perspective by which to view Batek tree-climbing, as well as a novel context by which Shane could pose his questions of athletic movement.
As a general rule, the largest breakthroughs in science are at the edges of disciplines—breaking conventional paradigms and crossing the boundaries of previous thought. If we are to discover the remarkable and link the unlinked, it is there that we should focus our efforts.
Although of course there is the ever-present danger that such fruitful discussions lead to more new questions than answers…
New applications; new perspectives
A FINAL THOUGHT | COLLABORATION
This leads us nicely to one final concept of research approach—one that neatly ties together the whole discussion and is perhaps the most important of all: collaboration. Too much of scientific research is jealously guarded. Yet if we are to realise any of the benefits of cross-disciplinarianism we need the collaboration of experts from multiple fields, both academic and non. In doing so we combine content, approaches and methodological frameworks from disparate areas of expertise into a more powerful force for discovery. New insight and the breaking of glass ceilings cannot help but be the result.
For many reasons, the productivity of a group is far greater than the sum of the individuals present. Bouncing of ideas, building off one another, and the concept of group flow all come into play. There is no doubt that we are at our most productive, and crucially: creative, when spurred on by a common group drive. I felt this even in my modest collaborations with Shane and Vivek, and I truly believe that it is a major factor in maximising research productivity, even when the individuals concerned are working on separate goals. We would do well to remember it.
Double the brain-power, double the confusion