Doubting with the stars – why doubt is actually constructive for your project

Thijs WillemsBy Thijs Willems / Reading Time: 8 minutes

 

It is on rainy days like today that I tend to dream away and drown in memories of past summer. While the leaves are dramatically glowing red and yellow, and I slowly but surely replace the shorts and shirts in my wardrobe with shawls and sweaters, I still see beaches, sun and cocktails. This summer was a special one for me, as I had the chance to visit a symposium in Rhodes, Greece, and a summer school in Warwick, England. These two work trips were partially funded by the VU Graduate School of Social Sciences (VU-GSSS) and offered me the great opportunity to get up close and personal with my academic ‘heroes’. You can call me naïve, but I found it very intriguing to learn that these scholars you usually only refer to in the papers you write, actually are real human beings, with a face and a personality.

I noticed one common character trait while meeting my heroes in both Rhodes and Warwick that might seem unexpected for renowned academics: They doubt a lot! This observation was particularly noteworthy in light of their academic work in peer-reviewed journals, where they appear to argue with strong convinction to the highest degree. In real life, however, they seriously dare to doubt. This revelation was a bit troubling for me. For how can we claim to be ‘doing science’ if even those scholars who are cited a mere 10,000+ times tend to doubt about their concepts and theories? However, having carefully observed my heroes during these two events I had to conclude that an attitude of doubt might actually be at the very core of academic research. Related topics have already been raised, here on Socializingscience  and other popular media, as well as by scholars critically reflecting on the status of the field of management and organization studies (Alvesson & Sandberg, 2012; Hambrick, 2007). The article by Locke, Golden-Biddle and Feldman (2008) put things in perspective by discussing three strategic principles how we scholars can 1) recognize doubt, and 2) how we can use it constructively in a research project.

jjjj  Principle 1: Embrace not knowing

 We work in an environment where, in trying to get published, we are forced  to convince readers, to rationalize and legitimize our research process, and to strip away our text from any insecurity or imperfections that are in fact part and parcel of engaging in a PhD project. We thus have to unlearn how we typically respond to doubt in the first place: instead of resisting not knowing, embrace it; instead of turning away from doubt, turn towards it. In fact, doubt can be generative as long as you interpret it as a signal there is some work to do!

 

Principle 2: Nurture hunches

Hunches are unscientific. A hunch is a vague feeling or intuition about something that cannot be clearly discriminated or put into words. As such, they are of little scientific relevance or value. Although a hunch often makes no sense at this point in time, it might make a lot of sense in retrospect. Hunches sometimes constitute the beginnings of a great scientific discovery! More often than not, however, hunches are more like blind alleys. Typically, we try to avoid wasting time and, so we argue, hunches are unproductive. Blind alleys as well as great discoveries are inherent to doing research. Even Albert Einstein himself, perhaps the greatest hero of modern science, prioritized imagination over knowledge, and mistakes over success.

Principle 3: Disrupt the order

Once you know how to embrace not knowing and nurture your hunches, doubting is not automatically and potentially generative. A natural human reaction is to solve doubts and puzzles. However, this often implies that we start explaining things through rationalization, attempting to ‘box’ the problem in the categories of facts we already know or understand. In this way, puzzles or doubts rarely stimulate discoveries or stir up academic debate, as more often than not you end up with what you already knew in the first place. Order can even be disrupted on purpose, so the authors explain, in order to stimulate doubt; for example, by haphazardly rearranging your data set to foster doubt and, perhaps, come up with creative new solutions and understandings.

There you have it: three strategic principles, obviously extremely simplified, to foster doubt and to make it potentially generative. I have to admit that I myself doubted a great deal whether I should write this blog for an academic audience. I do not know if scientists are open to the non-factual. I have the hunch this blog might be an interesting read, but I do not know. But perhaps, at least I tickle the order of my audience a little bit, by showing how ‘unscientific’ doubting might in fact help our scientific work.

Good luck and lots of doubt!

kk

 

Reference:

Alvesson, M. and Sandberg, J. (2012), Has Management Studies Lost Its Way? Ideas for More Imaginative and Innovative Research. Journal of Management Studies, 50 (1), 128-152.

Hambrick, D.C., “The field of management’s devotion to theory: Too much of a good thing?”, Academy of Management Journal, 2007, 50 (6), 1346-1352.

Locke, K., Golden-Biddle, K., Feldman, M. S. (2008). Making doubt generative: Rethinking the role of doubt in the research process. Organization Science, 19(6), 907-918.

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Thijs Willems is a Phd candidate in the Organizational Science department. His research projects focuses on ‘The role of collaborative routines during disruptions in the Dutch railway system’.