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Boit Nuit: 8.24.05

Social science researchers often rely on a nifty concept referred to as the “black box.” To see why it is so nifty, you need to understand that researchers love questions almost more than they love answers. This is because a good question, along with some savvy understanding of what information you need to accompany it, produces the answer that makes sense.

That’s waaaay easier said than done. Enter the “black box.”

On the one hand, certain researchers see the BB as a challenge…like, there’s no way we can come up with a reasonable explanation for what’s going on here, we’ve got to crack open that BB and poke around in all the weirdness, the hard-to-understand, the who-really-knows-what-the-hell-is-really-going-on-behind-the-scenes stuff.

These researchers are what we like to call “qualitative.” Give them some numbers as an answer to their question and they’ll scoff at you. Hah! That doesn’t EXPLAIN what’s going on. Qualitative researchers want the why behind the why. The want PROCESS and the only thing that usually gives it to them is grappling with a whole bunch of questions that don’t even become evident until after they are lost deep in the dark of the BB. And they like it like that.

On the other hand, other researchers see the BB as the perfect disclaimer. Like, our data shows that XYZ happened as a result of A, B, and C. What? Result? How can we deduct causation from a bunch of numbers? (Cue tone of condescension and withering disdain.) That’s because we can develop these handy EQUATIONS that take into account all your other possible MEDIATING FACTORS. We can get it down to a science, see, because when you CONTROL FOR situation Q, XYZ still results from A or B or C. Duh.

These researchers are (usually accused of being) “quantitative.” The quantitative researcher says, look, if it’s analyzed with insight, the data will speak for itself.

Here’s a re-enactment of researchers arguing about the following scenario: Hi, I’m a prison warden and I gotta tell you, things have sure been nice and quiet around here lately. Of course, we want that to continue so we took a survey of the major activities that our inmates engage in and their frequency. We want you to find out what happens when prison inmates watch a lot of Springer.

Ok. When prison inmates increase their rate of viewing the Jerry Springer Show, violent incidents among inmates decrease. Oh yeah, and we know it’s not because the guards have changed any of their violence intervention policies, nor is it due to a significant rise of less violent offenders in your population. All things held equal, Springer soothes your convicts.

Hey, if you wanna know WHY inmates get all cuddly nice after watching Springer, go ahead and bust into that BB. It could be because they really take Jerry’s moral subtext to heart, or it could be because they eat more Toaster Hotpockets while the show is on and go into carb-comas, or it could be because they just get really depressed after the show. Who knows? And really, who cares?

To the quantitative researcher, the job here is done. The BB can remain intact while they fondle their nice hard data and feel good about things. And, if you want to know something else, ask a new question and the right data will perform for you all over again, all outside of the messy BB.

The qualitative researcher, however, decides to spend the next however many years interviewing inmates in depth about prison life and observing them watching the Springer show. Maybe they’re less violent because the food is better or Bubba in Cell Block D just found a long-term boyfriend so the pressure’s off and everyone can relax. To the qualitative researcher, the effect of Springer—unlike many of the guests on the show—is not so quick and easy.

Me? I find myself on the fence usually. Sure, it’s nice to feel you’ve got a solid question and some equally solid info. to answer it….but still…sometimes, there is something way out there that you wouldn’t even think to measure or collect data on that really tells the whole story. So you still have to attack the BB, armed with your numbers that suggest simple fact. I feel like you always have to ask: It appears that this is the case, but what else could possibly be going on that might be another explanation?

The problem with this kind of research is that it is never-ending. Because you can go into the black box again and again, even with an identical question in mind, and always find a new angle, a different perspective, a new way of interpreting something you’ve seen a million times before. The most frustrating thing about this method of inquiry? You ALWAYS end up with more questions than answers. Always. Not so good, if you are a researcher. You don’t want to be the researcher without any answers.

What is my point here, anyway? All I know is that it’s my “lunch-hour” and I’m sitting here writing about research for entertainment and leisure. Yikes.

But actually, I’m using it to illustrate a nice point about questions, and answers, and the BB that every one of us is, and old adages about sleeping dogs and dead horses. Sometimes in life, just as in research, it’s better to walk away from the BB. Does it contain information that might prove useful in answering your question? Undoubtedly. But is it going to offer you evidence that will refute the clean truth shown by the numbers your brilliant and thorough analysis has yielded? No. Then it’s just not worth the trouble. It is SO not worth the trouble.

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