Little Shift, for Pancake-Flip • 20 December 2007

A few years back, I started asking how-questions.

I was initially trained in statistical and formal modeling—ways of asking and answering why-questions predicated on a world constructed out of “things” also known as variables. Think Freakonomics: elegant pat-answers to elegant why-questions. Beautiful, but trite. The just-so stories of my formal training were appealing, but the non-recognition that they were analytical houses of cards collided head-on with my background in Continental philosophy. Because of all those dead Germans, I wanted more attention to the humanly-constructed nature of the realities at hand. And to the endlessly tactile, experienced, immediacies of the WORLD. Phenomenology, baby.

How-questions are messy and they pay less, but the process of answering them is more involving and the provisionality of their answers seems more honest. I like the idea of letting the data, or simply the world, discipline my big ideas. So it is: now I do ethnography and interview-based research far more than large surveys and statistical models. Even though it’s the models that get the phone calls: the world loves tight explanations. Close description, hesitant generalization: much less sciency and much less useful in our facts-you-can-use forward tilt existence.

Anyway, as I looked back the other day on the first year of writing in this space, I saw a hilarious predominance of why-questioning. God, do I know how to write 500 words without making an argument? What am I, Maureen Dowd-meets-Yoga Journal?

Well, hrmmm. To a degree I’ve been nicely trained that words are tools for putting together just-so stories; and this effects the structure of my thought down to the way I engage with ashtanga yoga and our weird modern cultures of transformation and quests for the sublime. Very 21st century American of me. But the thing is, I have plenty of (equally western) resources for doing thick description and grubby worldfulness and how-questioning. And this year I’d like to light them up a little bit more, work closer to the ground, and grasp a little less for arguments and explanations.

More of the how, less of the why. As the big shift comes in on us (do you feel it? do you? our pancake’s just about cooked, you know), we will see what happens, and how interesting my boring can get.