Month: December 2015

Research as an analytical day dream

Posted on Updated on




Everybody loves a good detective story.

Usher (1997) uses one as an extended allegory  about  modernist and postmodernist research. 

In another of Umberto Eco stories, The Name of the Rose (1984) a monk, William of Baskerville, is called in to solve a number of inexplicable murders in a monastery with a library that contains the most extensive collection of books and manuscripts in the Christian world. This quest then becomes entangled with a quest for the book whose identity is unknown yet whose possession is the motive for the murders. 

The plot of the novel is centred on the library – a library which is itself a labyrinth with many hidden secrets, the foremost being the mysterious book around which the action revolves. the library is where all knowledge is to be found – if you know how to find it – and only someone like a detective, the epistemological research par excellence with deeply penetrating observation and highly developed powers of reasoning can unlock the secrets of the library-labyrinth and thereby know the ‘truth’ (the identity of the murderer and the book).

The detective is an apt metaphor for the modernist social researcher. (S)he seeks the one and only truth as some sort of quest – a missing piece 0f a puzzle that – once found – makes the picture whole; she is unable to rest until it is found. 

In the Name of the Rose, the epistemological hero, Baskerville – fails in his quest. He discovers the truth (a truth) by chance. He stumbles upon it rather then discovering it through a successive chain of logical reasoning. Indeed, there is no deep structure, no master plan, no coherent unifying plot, no discernible pattern nor grand design underlying these murders. 

The champion of empiricism solves the mystery through the  misinterpretation of the evidence and the occasional irrational leap prompted by a dream and a grammatical error.

I really enjoy Usher’s use of these stories. They convey something about the research as a process that implies much more then technique, method or methodology. In these stories the modernist epistemological question of how are we to know the world is overtaken by the postmodernist concern with ontology ‘what is the world and what is to be done it it’ p29 


Usher, R. (1997) Telling a story about research and research as story telling, Ch 3 in McKenzie, G. W., Powell, J., & Usher, R. Understanding social research: perspectives on methodology and practice (No. 16). Psychology Press.