May 1, 2016
What Can The World of Research Teach Us?
Research is creating new knowledge -- Neil Armstrong
By Eugene Hemrick
As body language deepens our understanding of one and another, so too, does research deepen our understanding of each other and the world in which we live. How does research achieve this increase in understanding? Its main purpose is to raise essential questions like what, why, how, when, and where. Without sounding too philosophical, research is inquisitiveness and discernment in pursuit of knowledge and truth. It is a mentality that desires to cut below the surface and learn what is causing what.
For those who have no vested interest in research, there may be the temptation to skip this chapter. To skip its value deprives us of one of the best means we possess for coping with our challenging times.
In Latin, the word science means knowledge. It is no exaggeration to say greater knowledge is needed in a transitory age that is moving us from simple life styles into a complex existence.
In his book The End of the Modern World, Guardini was concerned about this new age and enormous powers it was generating that could cause a holocaust if not better controlled. To avoid this he felt specific virtues were needed that address the challenges of the moment. The first virtue he listed is earnestness, which is getting at what is.[i] For example, it is one thing to build bomb shelters, yet another to ask why we are building bombs at all. It is one thing to learn of a bank's failing, yet another thing to ask when all this began, and who is responsible.
As we can see, the goal of earnestness is the same goal of research: to get at what is by raising pointed questions aimed at unveiling the truth of the matter.
My initial experience with research began while pursuing a degree at the University of Notre Dame. During the second year of studies I was asked to be a research assistant in the now defunct institute, The Study of Man directed by Dr. George Schuster. It was there I first learned the nuts and bolts of conducting studies and one of most valuable principles of research: consultation.
Chinese philosopher, Confucius states "A fool despises good counsel, but a wise man takes it to heart." During my years of research after graduating from Notre Dame, I was blessed to have the renowned sociologist Dr. Dean Hoge as a colleague. Before initiating a study, Dean and I made it a practice to consult experts around the country. I will never forget one meeting we had with Latin Americans in preparation for a study on multiculturalism. Although we knew Guatemalans were culturally different from Chileans, it was not until we got them in a room together that we learned the degree to which they differed. We quickly came to understand that it is a grave mistake to lump them together just because they understood each other in Spanish. They may be called Latinos/as, but in fact they are Guatemalans and Chileans with their own separate identities.
Although these consultations required extensive travel, long meetings and sometimes infinite patience, the dividends far outweighed the labor. Through these gatherings we learned firsthand the local conditions and uniqueness of the cultures we were studying. The result was structuring questions that coincided with reality. More often than not, the studies were well received because they connected with men and women in the trenches.
Conducting those multicultural studies was one of my finest research moments. Why was this so? It was because there was a feeling of goodness that comes from connecting with other cultures intimately. Our consultation brought us face-to-face with the persons we were studying, and in doing so, created a wonderful bonding between us.
Consultation requires docility that is an essential quality of prudence. Docility encourages us to leave our provincial confines and to venture into another's world. From history we learn it was the underlying reason Peter the Great was able to modernize Russia. He was forever visiting other countries to learn of their success stories. This was especially true in learning how to construct ships. The word Kremlin means wall. In venturing outside the Kremlin walls, Peter was able to modernize Russia, which was entrenched in provincialism and the status quo. This was all made possible because of his docility that led him to consult worldwide.
As consultation requires docility, so too, does docility require humility, which St. Gregory the Great states is the mistress and mother of all virtues. During my research years, I was blessed to have co-workers who were the first to admit they didn't have all the answers. I can still hear Dean Hoge saying, "Well, I never thought of that before! Tell me more." That spirit of openness invited those we were studying to open their minds and to feel they had something important to contribute; and contribute they did!
Establishing authority is another beneficial result of consultation. One of my most memorable teachers insisted we consult authorities when doing an assignment. "You become authoritative by being surrounded by authorities!" was his motto. One reason our research was so successful was because it began with the review of related literature and consulting the most prominent authorities we could find.
Another lesson research teaches is focusing on the most important is absolutely important.
During one of our research projects on marriage, we had a woman who wanted us to survey everything possible about it. Unfortunately, we acquiesced to her wish. When the data were amassed, most of it was useless because it lacked focus; it was all over the lot and impossible to decipher. In our quest to learn "everything" we lost control of the study. This led to the principle: "Focus on one thing well and many other things you wanted to include will come into focus."
Although we are talking about focus in the context of research, it applies to everyday life and raises the question, "Have we entered an age that is causing attention-deficiency and adversely damaging our ability to focus?" Take, for example, our daily news in which we dart between local, national and world problems in split seconds. Is this flittering back and forth and being inundated with information one reason we feel so tired much of the time? Reiterating Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Concentration is the secret of our strength." Conversely, when we are unfocused, our strength becomes sapped and we tire more easily.
In addition to the above principles of research, it also employs an indispensable tool for our times: the well-though-out question aimed at uncovering truth. English philosopher Francis Bacon states, "A prudent question is one-half wisdom." And we might add one imaginative question can change the world. To prove this all we need do is recall world-changing inventions that were created by someone who asked that one unthought-of question that caused a revolution.
To this day, I will never forget an unexpected question that changed our national study on the wives of permanent deacons. When we showed the wives a draft of the questionnaire we were preparing, one woman raised the question, "Why are we considered 'the wife of a deacon', we are unique persons in our self." That one pointed question changed the whole complexion of our study, and I might add, made it a success. Because of it, the survey of deacon wives was about them as a woman and not as an attachment to their husband.
We often envision think tanks as a group of knowledgeable, scholarly persons pondering knotty problems, or researchers working in a laboratory. As true as this is, we must wonder what would happen if more people who weren't scholars thought of themselves as thinkers seeking other thinkers? It doesn't have to happen in a university or noted think tank; it can happen in our homes, parishes, neighborhoods and workplace.
In the book Habits of the Heart, its authors learned that civil minded Americans were greatly responsible for this country's success.[ii] Early Americans often came together to discuss, question and hypothesize about the best means for improving American life. These informal mini think tanks were the driving force in making America a world force. Even though many mini think tanks already exist today, I believe our times are calling for a heightened increase in them. Our budgetary-ecological-population-multicultural- peace issues can't be left solely to our government, national institution, or schools of higher learning; all of us must shoulder the responsibility. And what better way to achieve this than by putting our thinking caps on and considering ourselves researchers! Mother Teresa once remarked, "Don't wait for leaders, do it is yourself alone, face to face."
So far we have spoken of research in a somewhat idealistic fashion. It has another side that needs mentioning: they do shoot the messenger! Research implies people who think outside the box. It goes without saying, not everyone likes thinkers; more often than not, they are considered trouble makers.
There were times bishops rejected our research, telling us "Religion is not sociology!" One bishop especially felt statistics were overrated and relied on too much. His questioning of statistics prompted me to ask,
"How did you get to Washington, D.C.?"
He replied, "I flew here."
"Do you realize," I chided him, "the plane you took relies on the laws of probability and higher mathematics, the same laws statistics employ? Many of the greatest improvements in civilization are the result of mathematical laws put into practice. Thanks to their formulas that led to new discoveries, we live in a higher order of life than our ancestors."
Many think of Albert Einstein as an atheist. When we read his biography, however, we learn that the order he saw ruling the universe led him to believe in a higher power: God's universal law of order smote him. In a very true way the world of research employs the same mathematical laws that led Einstein to realize the laws of God's order.
As I look back at the memories this chapter evokes, I can truthfully say I never dreamt of devoting a third of my life to research. Even though I am still trying to figure out why this happened, I feel blessed by the precious lessons it teaches. It teaches us to revere consultation, to savor a well-thought-out question and to respect the power research possesses for causing change. Cardinal Newman states ideas are illuminations. When we have illumination, we have light that is life-giving. I thank God for working in the world of research and its inspiring, creative ideas. May the lessons we discussed here possess the inspiration needed for enhancing the "good life" in all of us.
[i] Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World (Chicago, IL, Regnery, 1956) 112
[ii] Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton (Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1985)