Andrew Abbott on the Nonlinear Nature of Research

Andrew Abbott is a sociologist at the University of Chicago who specializes in, well, specialized knowledge, the disciplines and also research as a practice.  He has spent his career doing research, writing about it (very meta), and studying how students and professors develop ideas.

His latest book, Digital Paper, is a how-to book on doing research projects.

What is a nonlinear process?

Spoiler Alert! Abbott is going to describe a research project as a nonlinear process, but does that qualify as news?  Here in the 21st century creativity and right-brain-edness have become not only accepted, but seen as key to success in business even outside the creative bastions of marketing and advertising where, I’m told, workers typically put their feet up all day and doodle.

A linear process is a series of left-brained, logic steps.  Like cooking a meal from a recipe.  Or the many scripted things that we do in life.  When you order food from a waiter in a restaurant, that’s a linear process.  When the waiter goes back to the kitchen and hands off the order to the chef who follows a recipe to cook the food, that too is a linear process.  The behaviors that young children learn are all linear because nonlinear is too advanced.

And nonlinear is also hard to describe.  I can give you directions to Greenwich Village or a recipe for Coq au Vin, but how do I tell you how to produce a research paper that says something new and interesting and have it come out as good as the food.

Curtain up, enter stage left, Andrew Abbott.

Research Projects are Nonlinear

When I searched for “How to Do a Research Project”, the first hit was an article on how to do an A+ paper.  Answer?  7 steps: choose topic, find information, state your thesis, make an outline, organize notes, write the first draft, revise, and finally, type the final draft.  Finally.  The cat is out of the bag.

But wait…Abbott writes that when you do research,

You don’t start with a general question, focus that into particular questions, then specify the data you need, gather the data, analyze it, and finally write up the result…Quite the contrary, you will be doing many different kinds of things at once. Only at write-up time will you cast the project into the classical rhetorical form: general questions leading to specific questions leading to analysis and finally to conclusions.

He’s critiquing any kind of linear step model, especially one that relies on getting the plan or design of the research right in the beginning.  Instead the plan emerges as you proceed.

Nonlinearity is especially descriptive of the browsing and searching process.  The researcher needs to take advantage of randomness.  Furthermore, the author writes, “you surrender to nonlinearity.”  This language suggests that people–especially people with a deadline–often have a resistance to the chaos of the back and forth and they have to give that up in order to get the job done.

Construct Your Work from Infinitude

Research is not about finding things and putting them together. That might be linear.  Even though research involves a massive but finite set of materials in libraries and on the web, the number of questions that can be asked about those materials is infinite and the number of combinations of those materials is infinite as well.  So research involves constructing an answer to the puzzle that was posed

The Process Revealed

What were steps in the primitive linear description been metamorphosed into seven tasks that are orchestrated and dynamically sequenced based upon the current needs of the project.  Those tasks are:

  • Compiling Bibliography
  • Scanning and searching
  • Reading
  • Maintaining files (organization of assets and artifacts)
  • Analyzing material (minianalyses)
  • Writing

The Temporality of Nonlinear Research

A process is something that unfolds in time, so merely breaking tasks out of their lockstep martial format isn’t very helpful.  What is needed is a kind of temporal map and therein lies the genius of the book.

Abbott presents a big-picture timeline of the seven tasks across five phases of a research project: preliminary, midphases 1,2, 3, and endphase.

During each phase, the researcher is performing the same tasks but the relative times and the specifics of task execution change.  More time is spent writing toward the end and reading in the beginning is more background-oriented. The book goes into the subtleties and changing patterns of these tasks at different points.  Here the book shines and a summary falls short because it can’t capture the back and forth of the process.

In the preliminary phase, the researcher starts with a general interest and formulates it into a more specific puzzle.  Then he browses and scans sources in libraries and on the web to produce an initial bibliography.  The researcher also does background reading of whole texts.  At some point in the process, the design document–the plan of the research–feels stable.  That’s how you know you’re in midphase.  Now the researcher is working with the materials he’s collected into a bibliography, but in the process leads arise that inject nonlinarity in the form of fishing expeditions.  Along the way, minianalyses and mini-writeup are done to absorb and process the research data. The researcher is in the endphase when he’s ready to do most of the writing.  Linearity returns.  The fragments of writing are assembled and tweaked and transitions are added.  Text is revised and gaps are addressed.  The researcher arrives at a draft.

There Will Be Fishing Expeditions

Whenever I’ve encountered the term fishing expedition in text or speech, it’s always been negative: someone is wasting time following a lead that is doubtful on the surface.  But for Abbott, a fishing expedition is a normal and regular process in research.  Researchers have to take these risks.

In chapter two, where Abbott presents a case study of his own research, a paper on the history and habits of professional researchers, he decides to read the title of every thesis ever done at the University of Chicago Graduate Library School.  His thinking going in was that 10% of the titles would be useful and a few would be absolutely central to his work. So, against the advice of most books on research, he brute-forced his way through thousands of theses.

Abbott says that to be successful in a fishing expedition, you need to be able to recognize that it’s a fish when it lands in the nest, but you care less about the type of fish.  Abbott caught 600 fish in his net, scanned the 600 dissertations and, to the librarian’s chagrin, checked out 100 useful titles.

Did You Know? Monkeys are Nonlinear

Monkeys and gibbons brachiate as they travel through the forest using their arms to swing from branch to branch.

Abbott explains that the locomotion of research also involves brachiation.  The researcher moves back and forth in time (older and newer texts) and place (texts written in different places) and landscape (different types of text) to follow the clues.

For example, a researcher will find a source, perhaps disregard the text itself, but after scanning the indexes and bibliography, discover concepts and references, and then swing to another source, repeating the pattern and moving through vast physical and digital information cosmos to find the right information.

A Researcher is a Human Virus Checker

Abbott writes that browsing is going on at all levels at all times.  The researcher is like a human virus checker, scanning the information landscape with peripheral vision looking for finds.

Nerdbar: Software Development is Nonlinear


When I first saw Abbott’s timeline, I was reminded of the Rational Unified Process (RUP), a software development methodology which was developed in the 90’s (under another name) to deal with the fact that too many software projects were never getting completed or finishing late and grossly over budget.

RUP may have been the first methodology to incorporate non-linear elements into the development process and has parallels to Abbott’s research process.  RUP has activities: requirements definition, design, implementation, etc and those activities are iterated across four phases.  Like researchers, software developers are designing at all phases, but doing more design in the beginning.

The following diagram vividly illustrates the proportion of time spent on the core activities at different times.

Organization of Project Artifacts = Thinking

Regardless of how you organize your files, physically or digitally, organization is important–for the reason that the researcher is generating a lot of content in the form of notes, writeups and copies of sources and that content will need to be found and re-found as the project progresses.  So organization is important for that reason, but Abbott makes a second point:

Doing the filing is thus a central part of the intellectual work of a project.

In other words, organizing is a type of thinking that contributes to the content of the project.  So findability is not a sufficient criterion for an organizational style.  Your organization system must help you analyse what you’re organizing.

Abbott provides a list of artifacts that the researcher generates.  He talk about the folders you need; I’ve translated to artifacts.

  • correspondence
  • task list and task log
  • current and archived design documents
  • writeups,  minianalyses, and notes
  • primary sources (like interviews, collected documents)

Abbott cautions that if all you do is tag documents, you’re refusing to think.  He seems to equate thinking with putting things into folders.  Later, he clarifies his point by asserting that these organizational acts involve creating a controlled vocabulary of the terms and concepts that will be the key concepts of the work.  Perhaps Abbott would be OK with tagging if the tags were thoughtfully chosen and reflect analytic thinking about the research topic.

He puts the point in another way:

you can think of your final written product as a thoughtful and even authoritative index to a certain set of materials. It is an index from a particular point of view— yours. And the claim you make by writing your final text is that you have a particularly wonderful index to your materials.

By implication, if you’re using a tagging system, it should reflect your controlled vocabulary.  Then tagging would be a key part of the thinking process. Tags and names for artifacts are an invention.

Abbott writes,

It forces you to reduce ambiguities in your thinking (“ did I think that article was about anxiety or about fear?”), making the judgments and inferences that gradually constitute your analysis.

 Just like the human virus checker scanning for leads, organization and re-organization goes on throughout all phases of the project. It’s part of the main work.

Abbott suggests a rule of thumb for categorization which he calls the six item rule:  don’t put more than six items in one category.  Again, a similar justification.  Creating the sub-categories forces more analysis.

A Concluding Butterfly Postscript

Nonlinear has another meaning: that a small change can have a large and disproportionate impact: a butterfly flapping its wings in Taiwan causes an earthquake in California.  Likewise, a discovery of a small piece of information may trigger a redesign of your project.

May the butterfly flap its wings early on in your work!

(This post was written with a new web app, AirStory, that I’ve been developing with Joanna Wiebe.  If you’re interested in trying it out, email me at jim underscore briggs at athenz dom com.)

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