The Method of Problems versus the Method of Topics

Venue: CTS, Husova 4, Praha 1, 3. patro
Lecturers: Fred Eidlin
Confused students researching papers not knowing where they are going, articles, lectures, and books on exciting topics that turn out to be boring. Such familiar phenomena are shown to be symptoms of the widespread, largely unconscious methodological habit of focusing on topics rather than problems. This habit rests on views about knowledge deeply ingrained in commonsense knowledge and much of social scientific inquiry. Such views saturate the understanding of scientific inquiry assumed by most social science methods textbooks. The word topic suggests that there is some surface to cover, but not why covering it might be interesting. Interesting research is problem-driven. It begins with a sense that something is amiss with existing knowledge and requires explanation. The method of topics is criticized and contrasted with the method of problems. The method of problems begins, not with data collection, but with identification of inconsistencies in existing knowledge. It seeks solutions to problems through free invention and severe criticism of hypotheses. The method of problems is intellectually challenging, since the human psyche naturally tends to skip over or blur them without solving them. There is no cookbook for the method of problems.