– or the art of exemplification
We talked in the previous post about ‘cherry-picking’ – the negative term directed at researchers who are accused of selecting only the data that fits their pre-existing theory. The implication is that their nice, shiny cherries are idealised and partial data, and that a ‘complete picture’ of a phenomenon needs analytic and statistical methods that ‘process’ the ‘full data’. But what often comes out of this is an ‘average cherry’ or even cherry pulp. The unique qualities and context of the thing being researched disappear, and the ‘processed data’ becomes lifeless. Both quantitative and qualitative research often end up with colourless and tasteless data fruit, and the sense subsequently made from them becomes what Goethe called ‘grey theory’.
But there’s another way of thinking about the research process, especially for subjects where the unique and varying qualities of the particular things you’re studying are important. Here the purposive use of the best examples – exemplification – is a way to keep theory ‘green’ and useful. We suggest how strategic and imaginative ‘arranging of cherries’ can be an important and valid stage and process in qualitative and ethnographic research.
To make the photo for this post Gary went to his local fruit-shop and asked a surprised server for ten cherries (he got 11!). Because he’d asked for only 10 she kindly starting looking for the best ones. Gary said ‘just give me any ten please!’. She looked even more puzzled, but put these carefully into a brown paper bag. If Gary had said “10 of your best cherries please” how would she have selected these? Probably according to the ‘best looking’ as in the shop it wasn’t so easy to select the ‘best tasting’ or ‘best smelling’. The point here is that our selection is always based on certain situational criteria, and in relation to what we are selecting for…
As with ‘picking cherries’, ‘arranging cherries’ is another research metaphor. Forms of data that result from complex qualitative/ethnographic projects first need arranging as part of the ongoing analytic process. This is exactly what we’re doing at the moment with the Care for Music project. The data is mostly safely gathered in, but there’s now an embarrassment of riches, and the prospect of ‘data death’ – being submerged under the sheer weight of what’s there. A way to deal with this is the strategic arrangement of data. But importantly, this is not done in terms of fixed and pre-determined criteria, but in relation to how the collected data itself suggests its arrangement. What is the data beginning to show you of its pattern and significance? We find the answer to this question through making what Wittgenstein called a ‘perspicuous representation’ – that is, the laying out, arranging and synoptic viewing of data such that larger patterns and meanings begin to emerge.
One interesting thing that our data is showing us is how the elderly residents and staff of the care home participate in music through both conventional and unusual modes of active performance: singing, but also conducting, tapping, nodding, dancing with zimmer frames, and more. But within these categories each example is unique to that person, their style, and that particular social situation. So initially it’s the relationship between the category and the varying individual examples that is analytically interesting. As a preparatory stage of theory-building we are compiling detailed ‘analytic albums’ of each of the performance modes: an album of conductors, singers etc – using Powerpoint files to gather together audio-visual and verbal data. In our data-set we have strong examples of 27 conductors, 20 dancers and 40 singers. This process shows up the diversity-in-unity of the phenomenon, and helps us think about our broader research question: How are people caring for music, and what are the consequences of this for caring in general?
This arranging process uncovers good examples that can be further worked with: analysed in micro- or even ‘nano’-detail; or tracked longitudinally – comparing and contrasting similar examples across the full data set. Take the cherry picture above as illustrative of this arranging logic: at a first glance we might see 10 identical cherries. But as these are arranged on a piece of white paper to photograph we might see subtle variations between them, and even how the cherries suggest a sequence in which to place them experimentally in order to directly see the pattern of similarity/variation, and what this might mean for understanding either the phenomenon of ‘cherryness’; or the development over time of the cherry in any parameter we might be interested in – colour, form, taste etc. We might then (imaginatively) work on the active process of this developing pattern – something which can’t usually be perceived purely empirically, but can be sometimes seen by the ‘rational imagination’ when we give the phenomenon this kind of comparative and sequential analytic attention.
What we’re doing is to let good examples find us – which is the opposite of cherry-picking. It’s rather a process of allowing the exemplary cherry to show itself in terms of itself when we’ve got enough richness of data to make this process possible, and we’ve given enough attention to the multiplicity-within-unity of the phenomenon through this kind of scientific/artistic process of data arrangement and attention. This is the method of exemplification – where particular instances lead our thinking by standing forth as the most complete manifestation of a phenomenon. Example is method rather than illustration.
There is of course a heritage to this logic and practical approach, but one that’s not very common in research culture these days. Wittgenstein was famous for having two philosophies, the first actively abandoned for the second. An important factor that characterises the difference between the two is his use of examples. The very few examples in the first philosophy are generic and artificial (“this chair is brown”). The particulars don’t matter as they are only designed to illustrate a pre-formed abstract statement. Whereas, as Beth Savickey (2011) puts it, “the later writings could be described (with little exaggeration) as nothing but examples”. In this later work, thousands of detailed and imaginative examples function as ‘thinking-tools’, leading not following thought.
Wittgenstein partly developed this method from his reading of Goethe’s scientific writings on method. Again, this approach has been largely eclipsed by standard scientific perspectives, though the Anthroposophical science movement has both preserved and developed it (Bortoft 2012; Seamon & Zajonc 1998). Goethe studied plants, animals, the weather, minerals in a way that we of would now call phenomenological, ecological, and comparative. He painstakingly observed phenomena in their natural habitats, observed their development over time, and collected and arranged exemplars which then led his systematic thinking through cycles of observation, imagination, and intuition – towards an ‘archetypal’ insight into a phenomenon.
Music therapists Nordoff and Robbins were deeply influenced in their practical and research work by this Goethean paradigm through its development by the Anthroposophists. They let their practical music therapy work yield exemplars that they could think with in order to explore what music therapy could be, and to transmit this understanding to others. The famous case example of ‘Edward’ in Creative Music Therapy (1977) is an exemplary case in this way – showing how crying can be heard musically, and then worked with in a music therapy context. Exploring this example (amongst many others) led Nordoff and Robbins to develop their early work and theory.
This leads us to our final point: that exemplification in research is part of case study method. Of an ideal example we often say ‘this is a good case of…’, recognising how it is both singular, unique and how it belongs to a family of similar and different cases. ‘Case logic’ could be said to be the basic intention of much ethnographic work – or as Howard Becker puts it ‘reasoning from cases’:
When I investigate a case, I look for elements that seem to resemble each other in many ways and then look for how they differ, using the differences to uncover new variables and dimensions of explanation. [… I’m] always looking for new elements to add to the explanatory scheme and finding them in the careful inspection of the details of specific cases, reasoning from the details of a case to a more general idea. [2014, p.186/4]
Ultimately it could be said that, like all researchers, what we are ultimately doing is not picking, selecting, or arranging, but creating cherries. That is, we are making data through successive processes: ‘capturing’, gathering, selecting, analysing, and finally theory-building. As ever, it is the underlying rigorous reflexivity of the overall process which makes this ‘rationally imaginative’ work open to scrutiny and further thinking.
Cherries are good to think with!
Becker, Howard (2014). What about Mozart? What about Murder? Reasoning from Cases. University of Chicago Press.
Bortoft, Henri (2012). Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe & European Thought. Edinburgh: Floris Books.
Nordoff, Paul and Clive Robbins (1971/2004). Therapy in Music for Handicapped Children. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.
Savickey, Beth (2011). Wittgenstein’s Use of Examples, In: Oskari Kuusela and Marie McGinn (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Wittgenstein. Oxford University Press.
Seamon, David & Arthur Zajonc (1998). Goethe’s Way of Science. NY: State University of New York.