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that’s (not) interesting!

So I’m teaching a graduate class this semester that’s got sort of a logic-of-qualitative-inquiry thing going. One of the pieces we just read was Murray Davis’s “That’s Interesting!

I imagine many of you know the article (it’s come up several times before on orgtheory), but for those who don’t, Davis attempts to taxonomize what makes social theories “interesting.” An interesting piece of research, he argues, does four things:

  • It articulates taken-for-granted assumptions.
  • Then it challenges one of those assumptions.
  • It demonstrates that the challenge is correct.
  • And it suggests the practical consequences of that correction.

People thought that suicide resulted from individual proclivities. But Durkheim argued that suicide could be explained by social factors. Sociologists assumed that people who were deviant committed deviant acts. But Becker showed that being labeled as deviant causes people to act in deviant ways. And so on.

It’s a great article for teaching, because it gets students thinking about how to frame their research so that readers perceive it as “interesting!” Because “interesting!” totally works for getting your research published. And Davis’s taxonomy is easy to apply to a wide range of sociological arguments. I’m not likely to stop using it in class.

But rereading it got me to thinking about the limitations of our fixation on “interesting!”

One is that “interesting!” isn’t a good criterion for normal science. Or rather, normal science can be interesting, but it’s got to include lots of not-so-interesting stuff, too, if progress is to be made.

A fixation on “interesting” is what leads us not to publish replications. Or to test scope conditions. Or to refine existing theories. Instead, we end up in a cycle of the novel and counterintuitive. One result is the situation in experimental psychology, in which the whole field seems skeptical of its own findings.

Another, I suspect, is the endless churn toward new theories and concepts that sociology is susceptible to. The quest for the interesting can produce the fractal dynamics Abbott describes. One rejects what has become mainstream in one’s subfield, arguing that an alternative approach can in fact produce new insights or challenge old assumptions. But unlike in Hegel, thesis and antithesis never seem to reach synthesis. And rejecting the status quo by upholding the status quo ante is hardly “interesting.” Instead, a new, narrower community develops around the “interesting” finding that challenges old assumptions, often under freshened-up language.

Finally, the quest for “interesting!” makes it harder to convey what we know beyond academia. Media attention goes to the research that challenge existing assumptions. So we “learn” that we were wrong about eating Mediterranean: it’s a low-carb, high-fat diet that will keep you healthy. At the extreme, this becomes the click-bait of academic research: You Thought You Knew About Social Mobility. But This One Weird Social Theory Will Prove You Wrong.

In the end, I still like the interesting: the unexpected finding, the surprising result. But it’s probably worth considering, every now and then, when we should pay some attention to the uninteresting, too.

Written by epopp

September 11, 2014 at 12:42 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the post – Davis’ article is a favourite of mine. I just wanted to link to another article we read in a graduate class which, I think, adds to the debate about what members of disciplines think is “interesting”:

    Peter, J. Paul and Jerry C. Olson (1983), “Is Science Marketing?,” Journal of Marketing, 47(4), 111–25.

    It’s very much from the “paradigm debates” in marketing regrading arguments over the sociology of knowledge. In particular, this article makes me wonder whether what’s “interesting!” is, to a significant degree, shaped by the marketing capabilities of the scholars involved in the research, and not just the arguments of the research itself (which is the emphasis of Davis’ piece).

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    Alex

    September 11, 2014 at 1:55 pm

  2. An article along those lines that I’ve enjoyed is Paul DiMaggio’s (1995) Comments on “What Theory is Not” .

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    Chris M

    September 11, 2014 at 6:08 pm

  3. Pay attention to the uninteresting? Now that’s interesting!

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    Mich

    September 12, 2014 at 4:22 am

  4. Perhaps we can get some new recruits for “The Society of People Interested in Boring Things.”

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    Dan Hirschman

    September 12, 2014 at 6:50 pm

  5. BTW, Davis’s Annual Review of Soc paper on aphorisms is the trippiest thing I’ve ever seen in that outlet.

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    jeremy

    September 14, 2014 at 9:45 pm


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