Monday, April 19, 2010

One Fact, One Card ...

Beatrice Webb wrote in the Appendix of My Apprenticeship of 1926 that "The method of writing one fact on one card enables the scientific worker to break up his subject-matter, so as to isolate and examine at his leisure its various component parts, and to recombine them in new and experimental groupings in order to discover which sequences of events have a causal significance."

She claimed: "To put it paradoxically, by exercising your reason on the separate facts displayed, in an appropriate way, on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of separate pieces of paper, you may discover which of a series of hypotheses best explains the processes underlying the rise, growth, change or decay of a given social institution, or the character of the actions and reactions of different elements of a given social environment."

This advice has lost none of its saliency, even though computer programs allow you to create "cards" or notes of great length. To restrict yourself to one detail, fact, item, idea, or thought is not crippling but enabling. There is great virtue in breaking things down into their constituent parts. Luhmann spoke in this regard of "reduction with a view of building complexity."

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