I started a new article recently on the life and thought of Bernard Narokobi, one of Papua New Guinea’s most influential thinkers. The paper grew out of my book, which has a significant section on Narokobi at the end. Expanding the material in the book into a whole article has involved digging deep, deep into the stacks and has gotten me thinking about what a funny thing research is, and what its goals are. I look at it this way: When life hands you a coffee plantation, make espresso.
Life is, after all, like a huge coffee plantation — perhaps one left fallow and running wild — and our articles about it are like espresso: distilled, highly processed condensations of the real thing.
When I teach my research design class, I often use the metaphor of a bag of leaves to describe research: dissertations (and dissertation proposals, and funding applications) are like huge bags of yard waste. You stuff them full of stuff and the shake shake shake them down until, suddenly, they’re half empty. By the time the bag is actually full, you’ve got like a yard worth of stuff in one bag.
But this metaphor of compaction doesn’t quite capture what research in the field or library is really like. As Andrew Abbott has shown us, most research is mostly about processing information: Was Michael Somare Bernard Narokobi’s sixth or seventh grade teacher? Which of the 61 occasional papers of the Law Reform Commission of Papua New Guinea were written by Narokobi? When, and how long, precisely, was Narokobi involved in drafting the constitution of Vanuatu? This kind of scholarly grunt work is less like shaking a bag and more like picking, washing, roasting, shipping, and grinding coffee… a process of refinement of sources.
Steve Coll describes this daily work as ‘one stroke of the oar’. Elsie Clews Parsons described each of her small articles as ‘grains of sand’ that added up to one big monograph (Pueblo Indian Religion). You have to like doing this work and not being done with it because there’s a lot more doing than finishing. I envy journalists their short-term, accumulative genres — a small piece every day or week that eventually builds into a career with expertise on a particular beat.
Research involves reduction, and I suppose some people would say that there is something unethical in principle about reduction. There’s something to this idea — library work can lead to pedantry, fieldwork to butterfly counting, and (maybe?) both can lead one to tune out other ways of knowing and experiencing. But in general, I’m not too convinced that there’s something pathological about doing violence to reality by providing a detailed scholarly bibliography of the work of Bernard Narokobi. On the contrary, for people who care about his legacy this sort of work is important and timely. And, after all, all life is a process of reentextualization — humans live their lives together by deciding to talk about one thing and not something else.
The main problem with processing information is having the guts to (to borrow a phrase from Gerald Graff) ‘dare to be reductive’. It’s hard to jettison that small, irrelevant news clipping you fought so hard to find. An even more common problem is that you can’t tell what’s signal and what’s noise. Usually this results when you yourself aren’t clear on what precisely your point is, or what sort of story you’re telling.
In the end, our books which summarize decades of history begin to pile up, and then someone writes a book to summarize them up. And then time passes and someone… you get the idea. It’s comforting to me to know that research never really ends, it just keeps on going. We put in our oar or pile up our grains of sand to answer questions which matter to us and, hopefully, to the people we study.
Turning coffee plantations into espresso: It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.