Richard’s distinction between ‘real’ research and ‘sham’ research hinges on the difference between the knowable and the deductible; proper research delivers hard irrefutable facts; sham research delivers only 'food for thought'.
But does this perception stem from an assumption about 'scientific research'? Science has a reputation for rigour, empiricism and control: ‘hard science’ deals only with facts. As Richard puts it ‘When we are using quantified data that reports actual behaviour by consumers I think we can call that research ... it tells us about something that has actually happened in the real world’. But how is this data collected and how does it really relate to the reality it purports to represent?
Let’s look at an example from a different field. A scientific study from the Amazon was itself studied ethnographically by Bruno Latour and written up in his book Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. How do scientists come to their conclusions? Latour begins by posing the problem the scientists are facing – is the forest advancing onto the savannah, or is the forest receding from the savannah?
Latour follows the scientists for 15 days as they carry out their study. He describes how samples of grass and soil are collected for study in the lab and how the ‘real’ space of the forest is itself transformed into a laboratory-like environment through markings, labels and measurements. Branches are given numbers, pits are dug to collect soil samples, areas are marked off with tape. ‘Real’ space, chaotic and unmanageable is transformed into ordered, Cartesian space. In the lab, samples of leaves, grass and soil are dried, cleaned and sorted into groups for further study. The scientists are now better able to classify and note emerging patterns than they would in the forest.
These scientific activities are what Latour describes as acts of metonymy – several leaves stand for every leaf in the forest, soil samples stand for all the soil, earth, plant and animal life are restricted to a set of numbers and points on a map. This is how Latour describes the scientists’ discussion:
“At the restaurant table we are quite distant from the forest and yet Edilusea talks about it with assurance as though she had it under her hand. The sciences do not speak of the world but, rather, construct representations that always seem to push it away, but also bring it closer”
In the end the scientific facts are found in a diagram, a cross section of the area of land they studied reduced to such an abstract form as to be completely unrecognisable – a whole landscape reduced to some lines on a piece of paper.
Is this an example of 'real research'? Where are the hard, irrefutable facts, the answer to whether the forest is advancing or receding? At one point the scientists determine the soil texture by spitting on it and rubbing it between their fingers. Based on the evidence they have the scientists discuss, challenge, make their minds up, change their minds and discuss further the results of their experiments.