Thursday, September 01, 2016

research and rabbit holes

Alberto Manguel Argentine Canadian anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist and editor describes how he does research. He writes of being

“an inquisitive and chaotic traveller … discovering places haphazardly …. I have not attempted to devise or discover a systematic method .. My only excuse is that I was guided not by an theory of art but merely by curiousity.” Reading Pictures: What We Think About When We Look at Art, ix.

It disturbs the notion of academic research as objective and systematic and instead offers a process that is more haphazard and unexpected. It feels more like dropping down a rabbit hole, a la Alice in Wonderland, a sudden plunge into a whole new world.

Today I found myself dropping down a research rabbit hole. Two weeks ago I presented a paper on indigenous Christology at the International Conference of Mission Studies. Titled – Fiction as missiology: a Creative “hapkas” Christology in Drusilla Modjeska’s “The Mountain” – it involved reading a fictive novel, Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain to articulate a hybrid Christology.

At the back of the room during the presentation was Joel Robbins, one of the keynote conference speakers, who had himself undertaken research in Papua New Guinea. He sought me out afterward to make a connection – that the focus of my research (author Drusilla Modjeska) – had the same surname as an anthropologist from Papua New Guinea, a Nicholas Modjeska. Might they be related?

A rabbit hole beckoned.

The surname connection made Robbins recall that Nicholas Modjeska had done research on the relationship between understandings of leadership, cultural change and ability to resolve conflict. Would this provide another angle on my research? I had been arguing for an indigenous Christology based on a fictive novel. How might anthropological research into how cultures work provide insight into reconciliation among indigenous cultures?

A rabbit hole beckoned.

Today, as part of my Parking 60, I unexpectedly found myself on wifi near the Otago University Library. Looking for an excuse not to write (not to snack!), I googled Nicholas Modjeska. The Library had two books. It is remarkable to have such a diverse collection so close, just across the road.

A rabbit hole beckoned.


Plus History Australia journal, in which I was to discover a review of The Mountain, and the following most intriguing quote, ideal for a section I am developing.

“Modjeska would probably just smile and repeat that this is a novel, but the level of accuracy in descriptions of people and places is so good that any ex-PNG hands will find themselves making guesses.” Moore, “Crossing the border into fiction,” History Australia History Australia 9, 3: 250

The next time I teach Research Methods I will share the following as a way of conducting research. I will call it the rabbit hole methodology and offer 3 steps:

1. Deliver an academic paper in which a PNG researcher sits in the back.
2. Do research on a person who shares a surname with another researcher.
3. Accidently find yourself on wifi near a large library.

Like Alberto Manguel this will ensure you remain “an inquisitive and chaotic traveller … discovering places haphazardly … guided … merely by curiousity.” Reading Pictures: What We Think About When We Look at Art, ix. Like Alice, slipping into a rabbit hole.

And for those who ask: What’s the point? Here’s the (current-might-change- research-in-progress) conclusion :

In sum, I have examined fiction from outside the West and argued for a distinct and creative Christology as one result of religious change in PNG. “Hapkas” provides a way to understand ancestor gift, fully human, fully divine and the new Adam. It is a reading that attributes primary agency to an indigenous culture and offers a transformational way to understand religious change as communal participation in the art markets of twenty-first century global capitalism. It is consistent with recent Biblical scholarship regarding the Genesis narratives in the Old Testament. This suggests that to understand conversion missiologically, requires following Jesus who is “‘good’ man true” for the particularity of all indigenous cultures.

Posted by steve at 08:37 PM

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