A Boy, His Tiger, and Qualitative Research

1 08 2008

You want the story WITHOUT animals? This question, asked by the young Pi Patel in Yann Martel’s triumph Life of Pi of two inquisitors researching into the ship-wrecked boys’ survival story featuring seven months at Sea with a Bengal Tiger is the essence of qualitative research, in my mind.

(A bit of background: I have just finished listening to Life of Pi on CD while I have concurrently been burying my head in qualitative research books taking copious notes–is there any other way to take notes?–in preparation for my comprehensive exams in September)

I have come to the conclusion that, for good or bad, a researcher will get what he or she wants in research, and Pi Patel’s loaded question of his two inquisitors at the end of Life of Pi is a perfect representation of the pitfalls of bias in research. Incredulous of Pi’s story about surviving 7 months at sea in a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger, the inquisitors press Pi for a different story–one without animals.

I wonder how often we enter a research project–theories in hand, and solution-stamp ready to be applied, but unwilling accept an answer we have not prepared for. We talk of validity, reliability, generalizability, and any other word you can tack -ability onto, to evaluate the usefulness of a research project. But in the end, I think the accuracy–the truth–of a research project comes down to evaluating what you’re looking for, and how willing you are to be surprised. In Life of Pi, Pi rails against the inquisitors who have a problem with “hard to believe” elements of his story–explaining that it isn’t that they have a problem believing, it’s that they don’t like being surprised. You set out on a research quest(ion) and you get an answer. The answer that surprises you is the one that you hoped you wouldn’t get. The “Validity” of your research then, lies in your ability to believe. AND, how you rationalize the answer. Did ask the right questions? Could this have led to the “wrong” answer? Did you ask the right person? Could there be another explanation?

In the end, if you want the story without animals–that’s the one you’re going to get.

Note: If you have not read Life of Pi, you should. If for anything, the last 3 or so chapters are the quintessential treatise on research methodology.




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