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Thursday, 24 April 2014

Reading around the subject

From: MRS Annual Conference 2012

There’s a short list of books that everyone in research circles seems to be expected to have read. Fortunately, these books are usually based around an idea that can be summed up in a couple of words (Nudge, Blink, Predictably Irrational, The Black Swan) and everyone bangs on about them so much at conferences that you can discuss them confidently without bothering to read them.

But there’s as much to be learned from books that have, on the surface, nothing to do with research or business. After all, researchers are supposed to be interested in the world in general, not just the world of research.

On the second day of the MRS Annual Conference, Razor Research’s Chloe Fowler chaired the Research Book Club, at which four speakers discussed books that have inspired them in their work, and the audience chipped in with their own recommendations.

Jonathan Wakeham, co-founder of the London Comedy Film Festival, brought along Comedy Rules by Yes, Minister co-writer Jonathan Lynn. Humour is underused in research, Wakeham argued, as a way of revealing and communicating truths. People talk about comics having a skewed view of the world – but perhaps it’s more about having a clear-headed view of a world which is skewed.

Comedy also teaches us to not take things too seriously, he said, and to remember that what we’re doing is ultimately “not that important”.

Andrew Bradley of BritainThinks spoke about George Orwell’s 1984. The book’s depiction of constant surveillance in a totalitarian state is particularly interesting in a time when observational research and tracking of online activity is a growing part of a researcher’s toolkit, he said.

Rose van Orden of BBC Audio and Music brought along the business bestseller The Trusted Advisor by David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford. The book defines trustworthiness as a combination of intimacy, credibility and reliability – divided by self-orientation. If we want to be trusted, we have to remember to be “other-oriented” said van Orden.

Layla Northern of Boots recommended Nickel and Dimed, in which undercover journalist Barbara Ehrenreich chronicles her experience in a series of low-wage jobs in America. It’s a great example of immersive, observational research, but also flawed from a research point of view, because Ehrenreich ends up influencing those around her, and is at times unable to see the working class world she enters through anything other than “a middle-class lens”.

Other recommendations included Annie Pettit’s The Listen Lady (via John Griffiths of Spring) and Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland (via Tom Ewing of BrainJuicer).

If you want to hear more about what other researchers are reading, and share what you’ve learned from the books that have inspired you, the book club is becoming a regular MRS event, starting on Friday 20 April.

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