MESSY RESEARCH. Methodological Mess: Doing Research in Contexts of High Variability

In today’s blog, Greta Semplici and Linda Pappagallo introduce their just-published Special Issue of Nomadic Peoples (24.2, October 2020), ‘Methodological mess: doing research in contexts of high variability’.

Cover of the latest issue of Nomadic Peoples, using a lino-print created by Greta and Linda

The world is messy and, it seems, increasingly so. The global ‘pause’ dictated by Covid-19 and the feeling of uncertainty that has characterised our lives these last months, mark a turning point that is difficult to ignore. It is also highlighting contradictions, incoherencies, and the serendipity of ‘being in the world’. We have seen our planet earth breathe again, but many of us still wish to take planes, travel and explore. As academics, we hate organising meetings, conferences and classes on digital platforms. For years, we have cursed the mass of tourists invading our towns, but these same towns now suffer from the silenced roads and alleyways. We have learnt the importance of being ‘local’, but we have to defend the right to be abroad too. To be global. 

Contradictions, like the ones so evident now, are ordinary: part of the messiness of everyday life, part of the randomness of our environments. Political, social, and climatic factors are undoubtedly root drivers of such messiness but, as many agree, there is also a great deal of uncertainty we must learn to live with – and which could also be seen as opportunity, as something valuable (Kratli 2015). There is the risk that by failing to live with uncertainty, to gain from it, we will end up building a chaotic world. We thus must unlearn certainty and re-learn uncertainty.

We have been taught that reaching a state of equilibrium, a balance between ecologies and societies, enables us also to predict, order, and control. Equilibrium has thus been an implicit long-standing policy goal for most institutions of governance (governments, international organisations, etc.). Yet what we might not be conscious of is that, by rendering objective what is in fact highly subjective (like the goal of balance), we are exposing ourselves to  experiencing ‘variability’ and messiness as an interference and not a general state. The danger is to fail to recognise that variability and mess operate structurally in our socio-environments. As a result, scholars from different fields and some practitioners have increasingly started to wonder if the implicit goals of our ruling institutions are misleading.  Or, in other words, we may not be walking along the ‘right’ path, or the direction of the path (the goal of equilibrium) is not suitable in the world we live in. 

The metaphor of the path comes in handy. The development or growth path seems to prescribe an upward walk through a trail with thorny bushes of poverty and inequality which will be pruned off as we keep walking. Yet the world does not function linearly. On the contrary, it is rather messy and it is crossed by a mesh of plural pathways going in multiple directions. Others before us have claimed that if messiness is not accounted for (or, worse, attempts are made to control and suppress it) we create the so-called ‘mess-paradox‘: The more mess there is, the more reliability decision makers want; but the more reliable we try to be, the more mess is produced. 

And here we come to the urgency of our special issue ‘Methodological mess: doing research in contexts of high variability’, where we challenge dominant research practices in the field of pastoralism and Roma studies. Reflections on messiness, uncertainty and non-equilibrium are extensively explored in the literature at a theoretical level. How these theoretical advancements translate to fieldwork practice and research methods, is where we situate our contributions. This is important as, we argue, existing methodological legacies make it difficult to grasp the ontological and empirical mess of everyday life and to translate it into policy recommendations and practice. Indeed, methodological implications of doing research in a messy world are starting to be addressed in applied research. One perspective is that research practices and dominant methodological infrastructure (‘the operational elements of method’) are still silently based on assumptions of equilibrium, uniformity, and stability and the product of outdated views of the world. As a result, research risks introducing distortions that influence knowledge production by hiding internal differences, ignoring self-ascribed traits, or concealing socio-economic heterogeneity. In other words, methodology hides messiness – and this is the heart of the problem at stake in this special issue.

We need to restore the messiness that has been ‘lost in our representations’. We need to rescue the value of messiness by embedding it in our methods and research tools. Together the articles in the special issue provide a collection of reflections and recent experiences in the field which give guidance for the unpredictable, allow for rupture in plans and methods, and suggest ways to thread the ambiguity and ambivalence we inevitably find in the process of knowledge creation. We, as guest editors, hope that this special issue can provide support and guidance to engage creatively with contemporary transformations of research practices that are more flexible, more open to differences, more wary of power imbalances and ultimately that shed light over the messiness of our lived world. 

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