Research Is Full of Oversimplifications. Here's How to Put It All in Context
Strategies for reading with nuance and context in mind
Engaging nuance and context is a tall order in the age of political polarization and growing intolerance. The very representation of truth and the value of evidence—including research—are being questioned. These trends have serious potential moral consequences for researchers.
I am particularly mindful of how these trends affect my scholarship, which explores the paradoxes of educational equity for learners who have been historically marginalized on the basis of disability and its intersections with race, gender, social class, language, and other difference markers. My area of study has been fraught with controversy for over 50 years; in the recent past, it has only become more polarized.
Over time, I have curated complementary strategies to stay informed and avoid oversimplification. Adopting an approach developed by the postcolonial-studies pioneer Edward Said, I pursue contrapuntal readings of theory and research. This means recognizing that there is not a single narrative that explains the phenomena we call disability and instead seeking out both points and counterpoints. There are interdependent narratives of disability that include medical, cultural, and social perspectives. As I read to historicize disability—to understand how disabilities intersect with other markers of difference such as race—I strive to unearth perspectives and ideas that have been silenced or excluded. In doing so, I work to transcend the traditional division in disability research along a binary of individual vs. social models.
The canonical sources for an individual model of disability are produced in (special) education, psychology, and medicine. I read journals and books in the first two disciplines to keep up with theory and research on these populations, interventions, and policies. I systematically scan journal tables of contents that focus on learning, teaching, curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and child development for learners both with and without disabilities. I'm increasingly interested in the growing attention to biological influences, so I'm turning to neuroscience and related disciplines.
The social model of disability represents an alternative to the individual standpoint. I enrich my work with this perspective using historical and cultural considerations to analyze how race and disability have remained entangled over generations and how these knots can deepen educational inequities for certain groups. I track multiple disciplines that include disability studies, cultural psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Moreover, tools from social sciences, critical social theory, cultural studies, and humanities all enrich this social lens.
I am also concerned with tracing the history of ideas. This means I read original sources and track alternative meanings and uses of canonical categories such as disability, race, culture, equity, and inclusive education. This way of reading opens up new insights about how ideas evolve or are used across contexts and time periods. This way of reading enables me to increase the theoretical clarity of my ideas and identify topics in need of conceptual refinement.
As part of the annual release of the 2020 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings, Education Week reached out to a handful of influential scholars from this year’s rankings to find out how they stay informed.
Read the full package, along with original analysis of this year's new Edu-Scholar data by the EdWeek Research Center.
I challenge my research community to be mindful of its established ways to produce knowledge and focus on creating nuanced representations of disability. I monitor literature reviews—both in specialized journals and in consensus reports from key institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences—to identify patterns, gaps, and inconsistencies. I build from these reviews to craft my own analyses about disability intersections across time and space. My approach to what and how I read has enabled me to produce insights about disciplinary blind spots that would not be visible otherwise, including the silence about race and culture in disability research and the theoretical limitations of research on the racialization of disability across medical, social, and critical models of disability.
Today's exponential growth of knowledge production is unprecedented. Scholars cannot possibly read all that is published on a given topic, but demands for productivity keep growing. I am strategically selective in how I track, find, and consume information. I subscribe to journal alerts to scan the latest publications. I also subscribe to key publications and communities that offer comprehensive coverage (Education Week, SSRN), disseminate book reviews (London Review of Books), and share diverse viewpoints (scholars on social media).
My research group attracts students and faculty from multiple disciplines interested in sociocultural research, and I consistently benefit from their theoretical ideas and research. Interdisciplinary conferences are great sources of networks and ideas. Interdisciplinary publications, newsletters, and retreats consistently enrich my own scholarship, including the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences, Spencer Foundation, National Academy of Education, and National Education Policy Center.
It is a lifelong effort to transcend established views of disability framed as dichotomies (individual vs. society) through interdisciplinary reframings. In doing so, I hope to bring attention to the opportunities and limitations of my field's conventional theories and research practices. This enables me to raise ethical questions about how the educational needs of underserved populations are being addressed.