mesearch vs. research: pros and cons

When I used to teach undergraduate research methods, I told my students, “we’re learning RE-search, not ME-search.” I also liked to say, “This is SOCIO-ology, not FABIO-ology.” The message was simple. In social science, we try to develop theories of human behavior. We’re not here to delve into our own personal experiences.

But the funny thing is, there’s a lot of good “me-search.” Just scan the faculty lists of top programs. You’ll see a non-trivial number of people whose first project, or whose main contribution, is an academic analysis of what they did before they got to grad school. And it can be very good.

So what gives? I think the issue is this. Me-search can be important because sociologists study society and every sociologist is exposed to the social forces that we study. A wise person appreciate this fact and can build on it. At the same time, a lot of me-search is incredibly lame. This is because the scholar simply can’t see beyond their life. They never learned the lesson that just because it happened to you that it should be of general interest.

I think another less commented upon danger of me-search is the stunting of professional growth. If the point of graduate school, and being a junior scholar, is to learn a discipline and expand one’s horizons, then me-search allows you to turn inward and not really grow. For a sociologist, this is a particularly bad drawback. We’re supposed to explore and celebrate diversity, but if we just write about ourselves, we invite stasis.


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Written by fabiorojas

January 30, 2019 at 5:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

8 Responses

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  1. IMO, the real risk of “me-search” is that it easily transmutes into a crude standpoint epistemology. It’s a short but consequential step from “I have x or y attribute or experience and can provide insight on x or y” to “ONLY people with x or y attributes or experiences can legitimately study or provide insight on x or y.”

    The former, me-search, may limit an individual scholar’s intellectual growth, but at an aggregate level it’s fairly harmless. The latter is potentially very damaging to sociology, both as a social science that’s trying to accumulate knowledge about general social processes and as a “big tent” discipline.


    Kim Weeden

    January 30, 2019 at 2:12 pm

  2. I strongly disagree with this post for many reasons and I say this as someone whose core professional identity is that I am a social scientist (emphasis on scientist).

    First, as many others before me have pointed out, allegations of “me-search” seem to disproportionately be directed at men and women scholars of color. It is often used as a way to dismiss their work. What sociologist dismisses or discounts Weber’s work because his father was a bureaucrat and his mother was religious, and surely those things shaped his work? That’s just one example.

    Second, I actually don’t think “me-search” exists in the social sciences, at least not to the degree its discussed. “Me-search” assumes that because someone shares characteristics with their participants, they are the same. But in fact, like I argue in the methodological appendix in my forthcoming book and in my article in Ethnography on the ethnographic toolkit (, “me-search” assumes that the communities studied are homogenous, and doesn’t account for how being a researcher (e.g.having a PhD or being in grad school) necessarily means that they and their participants are not the same (even if you’re studying other academics, I would argue that paying attention and examining something for your research is significantly different than engaging in those conversations or behaviors in everyday life). Nor does “Me-search” take into account how researchers all have visible and invisible tools they use in the course of fieldwork (like I say in my article).

    Also, saying that someone’s background can provide insights, I would argue is NOT a short step from saying “ONLY people with x or y attributes or experiences can legitimately study or provide insight on x or y.” Both “insider” and “outsider” research is important and each provides insights, and I would suggest – as others before me, that it’s not a categorical distinction – but these occur on a continuum. People can be an “insider” in certain situations and an “outsider” in others, all in the same fieldwork or research project. I think reflexivity should also be something all sociologists engage in, not just those who conduct fieldwork or interviews.

    Also, we are a science and I would agree with many that science is cumulative and self-corrective, to an extent, but we also cannot separate science from scientists themselves. It is not “anti-science” to suggest that people from different backgrounds may shed new insight into research. It says nothing about the quality of the work, their research design, data collection and analysis nor writing. If an allegation against a certain project is about confirmation bias, then we should be more specific in our critiques. For example, confirmation bias is not limited to those who conduct so-called “me-search”. I think the category of “me-search” further reinforces divides within the discipline without actually getting at any core issues. Is the issue quality of design? Then say that. Is it confirmation bias? Then say that. Is it not being precise? Then say that.

    I’ll get off my soapbox now :)

    Liked by 4 people

    Victoria Reyes

    January 30, 2019 at 5:59 pm

  3. Isn’t much of sociological research “me”search? Separating the current “me”search scholars from all research in which majority groups study majority groups seems a bit of an arbitrary distinction — i.e., is it “me”search when Weber studies the protestant ethic? There is a line of work that argues that when some groups enter a field new discoveries are made (e.g., medicine focusing more on women’s diseases [or at least on differences between men and women within disease paths] when women are among the studies’ co-authors). I agree that not seeing beyond one’s own experiences may limit broader implications, but in-group research preferences might have significant value for research and discovery, and for prioritizing important but underdeveloped research topics if done right.

    Liked by 4 people

    Bas Hofstra

    January 30, 2019 at 6:37 pm

  4. (Oops, wasn’t aware I used your exact example Victoria, didn’t saw your post until the page got refreshed by my own post.)

    Liked by 2 people

    Bas Hofstra

    January 30, 2019 at 6:47 pm

  5. Bas, no problem – it’s a good example!

    Liked by 1 person

    Victoria Reyes

    January 30, 2019 at 7:25 pm

  6. First, Victoria and Bas probably already said what needed saying. But my 2 cents anyway. I am a White woman and I honestly never heard the phrase “me-search” until recently when minority scholars described being accused of doing it. Granted, the biographical origins of my research were pretty latent (although not non-existent). So I can understand why Victoria and Bas reacted so negatively. ALSO I honestly have seen lots of instances of White men’s research agendas being shaped by their own experiences but, like me, they keep it pretty latent. ALSO there are tons of new important insights that come in from the personal experiences of marginalized or previously-marginalized people that force use majority folks to just completely rethink something. As one small example, nobody was paying attention to the importance of proximity to college and families’ desires for their children not to leave home until Ruth Lopez Turley brought it up. I could give a zillion more examples. ALSO I understand why people object to having their experiences objectified and translated by others. In fact, I have watched White sociologists get very uncomfortable and hostile when White middle class life is subjected to analysis. There is something subtly different (or in some cases overtly different) when one is writing about one’s “own” group than writing about “others.” Almost everyone actually dislikes being objectified.

    Liked by 3 people


    January 31, 2019 at 1:20 am

  7. Before Fabio’s post, I’d heard “me-search” in a couple of contexts. First time was close to 20 years ago in a session on gender inequality in the labor market where nearly all attendees were women; one of the attendees (may even have been a panelist) joked about me-search, including her own work under that label. Another was in the context of a discussion about how people chose cases in organizational sociology, econ sociology, or social movements research. In neither situation was it intended as a pejorative, nor was it limited to research about or by scholars of color. Maybe its connotations have changed or its become a lazy way to critique work by historically marginalized groups, but my reading of Fabio’s post was that he didn’t intend it his way.


    Kim Weeden

    February 1, 2019 at 12:34 am

  8. I won’t repeat the many points others have made that I agree with. I will point out that quite a lot of social science really would count as me-search if we applied the category equitably. For example, my undergraduate honors thesis, dissertation, and first book were all about student protest. While none of the protest movements I studied were ones I had specifically or personal involvement with, there were specific autobiographical factors that drew me to these movements. For instance, my parents were anti-war protesters while they attended college in the Vietnam era, and so for my undergraduate thesis I studied Vietnam era student protest at colleges including one of theirs, the one I attended, and the one my partner attended. No one would call this me-search because I wasn’t alive in the era I was studying and the connections to two of the three colleges I studied would not be obvious to an observer or even a faculty mentor. There are many children of doctors/scientists/lawyers/etc. who study health/STS/law/etc. and no one knows this is driven by their childhood dinner table conversations. Those of us who study higher ed are clearly drawing deeply on our experiences as faculty and/or students in doing so. But none of this draws attention as me-search. Yet people might enthusiastically dismiss others for more legibly doing the same thing.

    Liked by 1 person


    February 1, 2019 at 2:29 am

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