Thinking: An Important Part of the Research Process

A bit ago Kerim talked about ‘reading fast’ and ‘reading slow’ (something I’ve called ‘pace layering‘ in the past). It was a post a lot of people found useful, although I have to admit I feel there is something not quite kosher about calling reading ‘devouring’ — somehow it makes it sound like ‘reading’ is an unusual way of feeding your mind, rather than the normal way we go about things (graduate students: guess how interested hiring committees are in your ability to demonstrate that you’ve bookmarked a lot of articles?). There was one thing that our two discussions has left out, however: thinking.

Thinking is one of the most important parts of the research process, second only to reading. (You must read. Read. Read. An article. A day. Read.) And yet I’m struck by the way that smart phones inhibit thinking by keeping us busy. When you are waiting for the bus checking Twitter, you are not only giving up the opportunity to read an article, you are giving up the opportunity for thought.

Thinking isn’t hard, at least not for me: most of my thinking occurs during my free time (walking is a fave) and just involves sitting there either silently ranting to myself (“We’ve given up thinking! Hey wait, I bet I could spin that out into a blog entry…”) or just sort of sitting there letting thoughts roll absently about in your head (“uh… interpellation…. hmm…”). Like sleep, the other major time your brain sorts itself out, moments of downtime spend stupidly pondering the universe can be remarkably productive because they allow your mind to shake the leaf bag that is your brain down until all your thoughts are nice and tightly nestled together.

Of course, thinking is second to reading because most thinking actually is the act of reading, which involves actively if silently responding to the author. But failing that, I really believe opening a beer, watching the sun set and going “uh… interpellation…” is a valid and important part of the academic process. So the next time you feel the urge to trawl the Internet for more things you’ll never read, take a second instead and turn off your smart phone and stare vacantly at the cars going by as you wait for your bus to come. Trust me — it’ll pay off in the long run.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

12 thoughts on “Thinking: An Important Part of the Research Process

  1. This is a really really big deal.
    I have been thinking (haha) about this a lot lately, and as someone who is in between an MA and getting PhD acceptances (hopefully) I tend to distract myself so much throughout the day that there isn’t a moment to spare. Literally. Wake up to an alarm, music in the shower, tv/conversation at breakfast, NPR in the car, surfing the web/music/work at work, cook dinner with music, surfing the web at dinner, then I take my laptop with me to bed if I’m not going to the gym, which is filled with conversation w my gym partner. And in any case, I can’t fall asleep if something isn’t playing on my laptop. I’m going to get away from that and a few other things, because I realized how much I’m robbing myself. I have a much shorter attention span, and when I read an entire chapter of an electronic book without flipping a tab on my computer, I hit an epiphany that this shit has got to stop. Sitting there and staring at the wall seemed like an odd thing to do when a friend told me they did that in my ma program. She’s now doing the same thing with an NSF and top university fellowship at a top top top program. Of course that’s not all that contributed to her success, but food for thought.

  2. I recently was digging through a box and found my old Razr. I’ve been seriously debating selling my smart phone and going back to using that. Not only would I save money, but I wouldn’t be tempted to sit and check facebook while waiting for a class to start.

  3. Closing the circle of topics, one of the best ways to get some thinking done is to write. Not write as in writing for publication or writing a term paper, writing in the sense that William Zinsser talks about in his classic Writing to Learn, putting down on paper (hard drives also acceptable) whatever you’re thinking about. Give yourself at least a half hour a day to exclude distractions and write about whatever pops into your head. You will find yourself thinking about all sorts of things.

  4. Alex, I entirely agree on the relation between thinking and reading. Hemingway said the same. You must read hard if you want write well, read all the greatest, train by reading them. If you train for marathon writing, you should read Tolstoj. Classics are especially important. On this aspect, the best notes on writing in anthropology I’ve read are in Alfred Gell’s Notes on Seminar Culture, in his collection The Art of Anthropology (edited by Eric Hirsch). Gell mentions a few model texts: Malinowki’s Coral Gardens and their Magic, Leach’s collection on Genesis as Myth and other essays. I remember a founder of a famous creative writing school in Italy had students reading the first chapter of Kan’t Critique of Reason, inviting them to think they were reading fiction and learning about sharp style. Best scholars are incredibly erudite and well-read beyond anthropology. Marshall Sahlins is a polymath, incredibly erudite. David Graeber is the same and totally omnivorous. Many have simple habits. Marilyn Strathern told me she used to write (and probably still is) from 5-6 to 9-10 am. She pointed out that she learned writing in the most efficient way when she had children and needed to make use of 30-minutes or one-hour free windows for writing effectively (normally with 30 minutes free window one won’t even think about start “creating” and end up browsing the web or at best revising). Roy Wagner has been walking for decades to his office at UVA at 6 am and is head down on his typewriter until 9 or 10. He has read anything on kinship published until the late 80s. You pick a Native american group and he starts recounting about their moieties and marriage strategies. (Who reads kinship classics nowadays?)

    An interesting trend is the recent development of Zen-writing applications, especially for Mac: IA Writer, Byword, Ommwriter, etc. They replace Word and fancy menus with just one type of font and a blank page (and just a paragraph in focus, as in IA Writer). Interestingly IA Writer is one of the most popular Mac apps of 2011. That’s a symptom that scholars and writers are suffering cognitive overload. Another trend are apps for selectively cutting internet distractions: Self-control is one of them. You can choose to cut all internet access (including email) for hours but the reference websites you may need for writing (google books, jstor, anthro source, etc.).

    David and I refer to the problem of (PDF-related) “Adobization of Life” in our Foreword to HAU’s inaugural issue. I think there’s a serious problem of PDF and digital texts overload, similar to what Umberto Eco in the 70s discussed in reference to photocopies and the “vertigo of accumulation” they induced…Here’s what he wrote:

    A xerox is an extremely useful tool yet it often constitutes an intellectual alibi: one leaves a library with a pile of copies in his hands, certain that he could never read them all. Eventually he becomes unable to use any of them since they begin to get mixed up and confused. Yet despite this, he still has the feeling that he has gained possession of the content of those books. Before the xeroxcivilization, this man used to handwrite cards in huge reading halls and in the process, something sedimented in his memory. With the anxieties prompted by xerox there is a risk of wasting days in libraries copying books that will never be read

    There’s an excellent project on the process of academic writing and related tips run by anthropologists at Durham University:

  5. Rex, you bring up an interesting point about the specific relationship between reading and thinking: the type of reading in which a person actively engages the text is a form of thinking. I have personally found that dense books, articles, and sites such as this one have served as an impetus to explore topics I may have overlooked for any number of reasons.
    Giovanni’s also brings up a couple of good points about reading and writing, basically a good way to write good is to thoroughly read what is considered good literature. In another sense, Giovanni’s view of academic reading instantly reminded me of one of my professors. My professor believes that anthropologists should become general readers. In this sense, while taking one of his courses you will find yourself reading a (dense) book a week, e.g.,Tocqueville’s Democracy in America; Lange’s History of Materialism; Spengler’s Decline of the West 1 & 2, etc.
    In all an excellent post. Always a please to read the articles and comments on the site.

  6. There is nothing, I repeat *nothing*, better in the life of the scholar than regularly spending 3-4 hours in a library without internet access. Just you, your thoughts, your earplugs, your pens and paper. Internet and phone-free mornings are the future of scholarship. Amen.

    p.s. Don’t buy your earplus at Girona airport, whatever you do.

  7. Great post. You should re-post this monthly as a reminder. Giovanni, I couldn’t agree more about the importance of reading breadth. One of the greatest aspects, in my opinion, of anthropology is its capacity and encouragement of a synthetic approach.

  8. Thanks for a great submission! This will make a wonderful way to open the undergrad theory and methods class. What is thought? When and how do we think and express ourselves as anthropologists? What about the people with whom we are to work?
    The comments regarding how social media takes over our opportunities for reflection relates to the research my introductory class does on social relationships. In the roundtable discussions in which students share aspects of what they learned, students invariably comment that they find face to face interaction a great deal of work–that it is threatening in some ways. However, they “reflect” when walking to class, driving, just before sleep, etc.
    Amber Case, who studies the use of communicative technology, comments on a TED lecture, that she sees individual reflection being replaced by interactive, shared in blogs….as in what we are doing right now…in the asynchronous, manner in which we follow up on a leader’s reflection.

    I wonder if reflection and resting are different sorts of activities that have become conflated. To me, reflection is an active, focused activity. Resting the mind may take place between moments of reflection, letting it wander, and may be the times our subconcious “gets” us in “Eureka” moments. However, I don’t see letting the mind wander as at all reflective. As I understand it, reflection is thinking about something, attempting to ponder it with fresh appreciation in some way.

    When I work with students researching this topic for a class project, what most seem to fear is having to interact with others in a face to face setting…not thinking analytically. [They may not yet appreciate what analytical thought is for an academic]….For them, social media is “safer,” “more intimate,” “easier to relate to others through.” So, at the bus stop and on the elevator, while standing in lines, sitting in a classroom waiting for class, students retreat to the safety of their networks rather than extending them in conversation and forming community.

    What fMRI research tells us about multitasking on computers and phones is that the “sorting” functions of the brain dominate when we try to do several things at once and those aspects of the brain that are engaged in analysis tend to go dark.

    Therefore, this blog post is a wonderful comment on the seductive character of our technology as it pulls us away from our quiet, but active, inner life.

    I wonder about the physicality of thought. A Washington Post blurb recently mentioned that we learn another language fastest when we gesture. I pace when I think through a notty problem. Chewing has been shown to enable a greater focus and ability to synthesize information.

    I wonder what reading and writing have done to detach us from reflective human selves, too. When is it “reflective” to sit together with food and drink and talk, with gestures, about an issue….as I remember in my Italian American family on a long Sunday afternoon after church services.

  9. Haha great advice! Intel Anthropologist Genevieve Bell suggested the same during a panel: that people will find intellectual value in boredom. It’s something I have to tell myself everyday, while forcing my phone back into my bag.

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