January 27, 2014

What to study? Bingo vs Monopoly

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

I was asked to have a conversation with students about how I picked my research topic. It’s an old question, and the answer is often a mix of factors. Sometimes sociology books include an introduction or appendix on choosing a research project but often they do not. I’ll put it in rather unconventional terms: You’re either a Bingo researcher or a Monopoly researcher.

On the motivations for doing research, Joe Feagin, in his 2000 Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association, noted that sociologists must be committed to social justice and tackle the “big social questions of this century.” He mentions economic exploitation, oppression, and environmental concerns, added to the already targeted issues of political power, segregation, racism, gender inequality, and poverty. These, and others, are unquestionably vital issues in need of study, and there are many great sociologists engaged in that work.  What Feagin described is the study of social problems.  And a great many—perhaps most—sociologists think about what social issues inspire them.

This makes sense because there are, obviously, a lot of challenging and important problems that warrant research. It also means there are, then, other research areas that are seen as less vital, where fewer of our collective resources (e.g., funding, publication space, status) are directed. The game Monopoly has helped me think about this.

Through our research, and review and publication process some areas arise as ”high rent properties.” These areas are not predetermined by a game-maker like Parker-Brothers, but the “Park Places” and “Baltic Avenues” of sociology are the result of our collective activity as a field of research and in response to real world problems. And when we make connections across areas of interest, it is something like the when a Monopoly player benefits from having houses and hotels on a series of similar topics. Sociology is stronger for building on quality research and high value properties, and folks like Joe Feagin would agree with that assessment.

There’s another model, however. There is an oft-told story that involves University of Chicago sociology graduate students who were assigned to different neighborhoods and encouraged to go report on them. Chicago was seen as one big laboratory for these early twentieth century sociologists, who used Census blocks and neighborhood boundaries as targets for research. The city itself looked something like a very large Bingo board wherein each square could be mapped according to any number of residential, racial, occupational, or immigration patterns. (View some of the maps here. For a first-person narrative of what it was like to be a graduate student at the time, being sent to investigate Chicago’s ”Hobohemia” area read Nels Anderson’s essay “A Stranger at the Gate.”)

I take from this history the belief that sociologists should be responsible for all sections of the social map, just as a Bingo player needs to look at the whole board. There are sociologists who study a number of topics that are not obviously social problems and yet still contribute to our collective knowledge of the diversity of human activity. I suppose I would count myself among them.

When I spoke with a group of undergraduates about this, their professor chimed in and suggested that her research area, love and media representations, could be similarly grouped as a Bingo research area rather than a Monopoly/social problem one.

Now, it’s doubtful that researchers in the social sciences are so strategic. And, furthermore, there are all sorts of points where the metaphor breaks down or is in need of adjustment. I’ll mention two.

First of all, you have to think about where topics come from. They could originate from external sources or internal impulses. A professor might nudge a student in a direction, or have some data that she would happily share with a graduate student to conduct research.

Increasingly, university administrators are also nudging scholars toward any areas that might receive funding from external sources like the National Science Foundation or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  (New language from Congress presses the NSF to fund political science research that proves to be in the best interest of national economic development and security.) Potential audiences might also be a factor, as graduate students might have an eye on the job market or researchers may be eager to reach a wider, more public readership. So too can opportunities dictate a research topic: are there enough respondents to speak with? Is it too difficult to travel to conduct the research? Is there a research opportunity to exploit?

And there are the more personal dynamics at work too. As I read through applications for our graduate program, I saw dozens of essays from potential graduate students who are eager to tackle a project that has been troubling them personally.

This latter point is worth expanding upon for a moment. Most sociologists I know are deeply passionate about their research areas and are also personally committed to social justice. Everett C. Hughes once said that sociology “was a social movement before it was part of the academic establishment,” and more practically, there’s the old adage: you can’t be good at something if you don’t truly enjoy it. Indeed, when faced with the challenges of conducting a long-term research project, interest might be the only thing keeps a scholar going.

Informed enthusiasm for a research topic is crucial and often a great thing, but an entire other blog post could be written about the troubles of researchers who have partially crystalized positions on a topic before conducting systematic research or even before being trained as a sociologist. (Of course, we are humans and cannot possibly arrive at a research topic that is pure and indifferent, either!)

Research is not necessarily an either/or between ”Bingo” and ”Monopoly.” It’s quite obvious that scholars can tackle a new field and thereby cover a new part on a map, while at the same time still bring it around to the big issues of the day. One could study love, for example, but also examine it through the lens of gender inequality--bringing together the best of Monopoly and Bingo.

Perhaps this is, in fact, a good way to think through any project: working toward the best of both games.

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