"If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?" ~ Albert Einstein (1879 –1955)
Like most people, I am worried about what is going on in the Middle East and the way it appears to be developing into a major rift between Muslims and the rest of the world. I know very little about Islam and have only a caricatured image of the Middle East in my mind. I would guess that many others find themselves in a similar state of ignorance.
So I have set myself the difficult task of boiling it down into an explanation that is easy to follow. But that is what I like best: to take a big question and break it down into bits, so I can understand what is going on and draw my own conclusions. Before I retired, I did this for a living and what an exciting and inspiring activity it was. Now that I have been writing this blog for almost three months, it occurred to me that I could use my old skills in a new arena.
When I started to tackle the Middle East, I soon realised it was far too big a problem to condense into one 1500 word essay (the length of most articles posted on this blog). My first idea was to just break the topic down into bits. But then it occurred to me that, with all the talk about amateurism on the internet, readers might find it interesting to learn how the internet can be used to find information to develop and present an argument. The process is this:
- Find the information
- Assess its quality
- Pull it together
- And present it
I am a fervent believer in the democratising effect of the internet in all its manifestations. But using any tool properly needs training. I am not talking about the technology of the internet,but the information it contains. Not the box, but what is inside it.
When I was working as a researcher and analyst, the internet did not exist and my research took me to libraries across the world, both public and private. I was relatively well resourced and could interview people and go and see things on the ground which helped me to build an even better picture. With the internet, there is a lot more information about, and it is quicker and easier to find, but sifting the good from the bad is more difficult. So over the next few weeks, I shall share with journey through cyberspace with you using my research into the Middle East as an example.
When I was working, questions were posed by my clients who paid good money for the answers. Now I have the luxury of asking my own questions. So why the Middle East and why Sunni and Shia Muslims?
At one level, the answer is obvious. 9/11 meant that the free world – which is the only world in which I care to live – was threatened. That threat came from the Middle East and was committed by fundamentalist Muslims about whom I knew little or nothing. I knew that the Middle East is an area of constant strife and ferment, and that it is the repository of much of the world's oil. But I knew little about what it was actually like, about the people who lived there, or how the oil was shared between the various nations.
I was inspired to dig deeper by Vali Nasr's book The Shia Revival, which provides an illuminating introduction to the religious and cultural tensions in the region. It focuses on the religious aspect of the problem and much of the first part of the book is a review of the history and theology (to which I shall return later). The key thing I learned from the early pages is that, across the world, Sunnis represent 85-90% of Muslims but, in the Middle East, the numbers are more evenly divided. I also read Matthew Carr's book The Infernal Machine, which traces the history of the current bout of Muslim terrorism back to 1948.
So I had a historical and cultural structure on which I could build. But I felt sufficiently confident to believe that my own research skills could illuminate what I had read and add a little more to my understanding.
Had I not read these books, I would have started my research by looking in Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica (the latter can be accessed on line for a modest annual fee.) Encarta is an alternative to Britannica which I do not often use. Wikipedia comes in for a lot of flack because it is put together by "amateurs". However, many of these amateurs are also experts in their own fields who give their time and expertise for free.
Wikipedia's open nature also attracts partisans with their own axes to grind, but they are watched by their opponents who can quickly redress the balance. Wikipedia has the advantage that it is being continually updated and corrected. This is not true for many conventionally-published reference books (including those available online). My wife, a historian, is continually frustrated by inaccuracies in the online National Dictionary of Biography; her efforts to get simple mistakes corrected are met with a wall of silence. Conventional publishers may do their best to check for mistakes but are constrained by time and money issues.
We have to be realistic about information. It is only as good as its original collectors made it. It never gives 20/20 vision. But an opinion backed by the best information available is always better than a guess or a knee-jerk reaction. What we have to guard against is information that is systematically biased. This is not true of Wikipedia or Britannica, but they are different. I like to think of it this way: w-b=z (where w=wiki, b = Britannica and z = the zeitgeist).
What is the point of all this background research? It is simply this: an exam question along the lines of "The Middle East – discuss" would be very hard to tackle, whereas the question "Does the schism between Shi'ites and Sunnis contribute to the problems of the Middle East?" provides a structure to help think about the problem and investigate it properly. Knowing the right question to ask can contribute 50% or more to finding a satisfactory answer. The choice of approach often comes from inspiration after an initial probing. In my case, Vali Nasr's book convinced me that an understanding of the Middle East problem was likely to be found by focusing my research on the relationship between Sunni and Shia. Beneath the headlines which focus on terrorist attacks on the West, and the intervention of the Western coalition in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a continuing rumble of Muslim-on-Muslim violence, with a much bigger and more relentless death toll.
Whenever I start to research a subject, I try to get a handle on numbers. Numbers tell you so much; without them, you are floundering. You have no idea of the size of what you are looking at, and you don't know how the different parts relate each other. Numbers give you a sense of scale, and they sometimes provide spectacular insights. This proved true in this investigation.
A couple of housekeeping notes. I am not writing a textbook or a manual. I am offering you the chance to "sit by Nellie". (In the dim and distant past, there was no formal training in my business. You were assigned as a new boy or girl to work with someone who had the skills. Hence – "sit by Nellie and watch what she does". It worked for me.)
In these articles I shall do my best to separate guidance on methodology from the results of research.
First, I plan to mark passages which have a lot of methodological information by presenting them in blue boxes – like this one. The boxes may also include real content. Remember that Nellie has a job to do and can't spend all her time worrying about whoever is sitting beside her.
Second, I will sometimes come across ideas and leads that I cannot deal with immediately, so I shall highlight them to remind me to go back to them. I shan't follow them all up, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't – if they interest you. Research is about following your own nose.
Finally, sources are marked to remind me where I found stuff and at the bottom of each article there will be a list of links.I hope you find this journey interesting.
Links referred to in the article:
talk about the amateurism on the internet