I advise students on research methods, which often puts me in a tenuous position. My job is to ensure that students learn methods by-the-book but the reality is that researchers tug and pull at methods, adapting and adjusting to circumstances.
This can be frustrating.
There’s a white lie in empirical research methods. We pretend that our studies are clearly outlined in advance and that we follow this path without taking a detour.
But the reality is that research is iterative and that we adjust our methods as we roll along.
When I was taking research methods as a student a million years ago, one of my professors talked about how scholars learned about Type A personalities from furniture, not just from clinical trials and experiments.
The researchers—cardiologists–knew that some folks were prone to stress and they were trying to pin down factors that caused stress. Problem is that stress can lead to additional health problems, including poor heart and brain function.
The researchers interviewed subject after subject, trying to assess the causes of stress. Meantime, the office manager was noticing that the upholstery on the arms of the chairs and seats in the waiting room were wearing thin at a rapid rate.
Seems that Type A individuals sit on the edge of their seats: literally. The stressed folks were gripping the arms and sitting their bums on the outer edge of the seat cushions.
An upholsterer pointed out the frayed fabric to the cardiologists: this isn’t normal, he said. But the researchers didn’t make the connection until a few years later, perhaps stuck by the blinders we impose in the research methodology trajectory.
But they finally made the connection, too late to credit the upholsterer by name.
Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist who wrote the book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, relates the story in a nicely crafted article in Discover magazine. Worth reading: http://discovermagazine.com/1997/nov/ontheroleofuphol1260