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The Tao of research?

When we are doing research, are we asking questions to study and document how the world actually exists, or in doing research, are we calling into existence our perception of world, as viewed through our questions?

This question may sound more appropriate in a study of philosophy, but as we discussed today, is equally relevant in the world of research. The ability to adhere to critical thinking and objective researching is of ultimate importance. In the realm of both qualitative and quantitative study, facts and numbers can be represented in a myriad of ways, often resulting in the opportunity for confusion, or even a misunderstanding of what was measured.

Take quantitative study, for instance. It can be thought of as being ‘more scientific’, immutable, and authoritative, but one needs to remember that a ‘measurement’ is simply an arbitrary number applied to an observable constant.

The Zen/Taoist philosopher Alan Watts (1995) describes an imaginary scene of an ancient fisherman floating on the ocean in his fishing boat. As he looks back at the shoreline and the mountains, the man holds up a fishing net and looks at the hills through it, counting their height; “One, two, three, four, five. The mountain is five squares high!” he declares. His desire to quantify his environment is appealing. But in this simplistic example, does he really have the mountain’s number (p.86)? Of course, most of us recognize that his system of measurement is seriously flawed. What size is the net? How far was the mesh from his eyes? How far was the ship from shore? How many other variables did he fail to account for, that even we, as modern people, have the ability to overlook?

Although this seems a silly example, I am intrigued by the challenge of attaining ‘real’ data when our entire ability to describe the world with language and numbers is simply a construct we have developed for describing the very world we desire to measure! Ask the mountain how many feet high it is, and it will laugh at you. People developed the measure, not the world. Naturally, if enough of us follow an established set of rules for ‘measuring mountains’, then our numbers will equate, and our folly will pay off.

In my past experience, I have witnessed many occasions where people were in conflict or at odds with each other over a topic or concept that either side had thought resolute, explicit, and crystal clear, only to later realize they were talking at cross-purposes, and had completely misunderstood the issue.

Therefore, when committing to a research project, it would behoove us to make sure to remember the vagaries of language and measurement, and to make sure we are being critical in our thoughts and assumptions of what is being studied. In this way, others may benefit from the results of the study. Without it, we are just arbitrarily counting squares in a fishing net.


Watts, A. (1995). The Tao of philosophy the edited transcripts. Boston: C.E. Tuttle.

4 thoughts on “The Tao of research?”

  1. Note: my previous cheesy WordPress theme was broken and wouldn’t allow comments. My apologies.
    With this new cheesy WordPress theme, that should no longer be an issue. Post away!

  2. I am equally intrigued by the challenge of measure. What is the unit of measurement, if not described in word(s). For instance, what is the measure of a foot, if its quantitative qualities changed over the years, depending on the location? Do French have smaller “feet” than Scottish? Why not use a palm? What creates a consensus?

    Then I wonder if the measure is affecting how we perceive the world, as if through the fishing nets squares, the mountain is a small protuberance in the panorama. When in fact, if I try to climb the same mountain, the same squares will be misleading, to say the least. Or is it that 5 squares remains 5 squares, just in a different context?

    My final thought for tonight. You said: “(…) are we calling into existence our perception of world, as viewed through our questions? If I may quote Douglas Adams (1992): “Everything you see or hear or experience in any way at all is specific to you. You create a universe by perceiving it, so everything in the universe you perceive is specific to you.” (my memory)

    Adams, D. (1992). Mostly Harmless. London, UK: Heinemann.

  3. Ken, you bring up such a relevant concept. It boils down to what is reality? What is truth? How we interpret these is unique to each individual. Having completed the Article Critique assignment, we have seen how there can be as many interpretations of the data and outcomes as there are people in the team analyzing it.

    Going forward then to our own research, the issue of clear and concise language is crucial when we discuss how we collected our data, how we quantitatively or qualitatively analyzed it, as well as in our discussion of data results. The tome of Sage will become our best friend as we employ applied research design. As well, this is where the critical eye of our cohort, advisor and mentors we have engaged with can assist in acting as a fresh set of eyes to ask questions and assist us in clarifying our potentially unclear language.

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