> 1, 2015 > The Method of Problems versus the Method of Topics

Fred Eidlin
The Method of Problems versus the Method of Topics

22 2015

The most common plea for help that I get from students writing term papers and theses takes something like the following form: “I’ve been in the Library reading and reading about my topic, but I don’t know where I’m going.” Or, I ask a colleague what he or she is working on. They mention some exciting topic, like “ethnic conflict in the former Soviet Union,” “anti-poverty policy,” “Balkan nationalism,” or the “Arab-Israeli conflict.” “Yes, but what is the problem” I ask? What are you curious about? What puzzling questions need to be answered?” The response is often fumbling or an embarrassing silence. Or, one goes to a lecture or picks up a book or article with an exciting title like one of those just mentioned. But it turns out to be disappointingly boring. These are all examples of the malady of inquiry without problems, which I will call topicism. It is not just a malady of students who haven’t learned how to research term papers and dissertations, it also affects professional scholars. It rests on views about knowledge that are deeply ingrained in commonsense knowledge as well as in most traditions of social scientific inquiry. These views take for granted that inquiry is a kind of a description. “Topic” comes from the ancient Greek topos, or place. To “cover a topic” suggests that there is some surface to cover, like a wall to be painted, or a blank slate, tabula rasa1 to be written upon. One goes to the library to collect facts to cover a topic.