“…burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.
The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.
Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next. First, she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything; then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and book-shelves; here and there she saw maps and pictures hung upon pegs. She took down a jar from one of the shelves as she passed; it was labelled `ORANGE MARMALADE’, but to her great disappointment it was empty: she did not like to drop the jar for fear of killing somebody, so managed to put it into one of the cupboards as she fell past it.
`Well!’ thought Alice to herself, `after such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs! How brave they’ll all think me at home! Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!’ (Which was very likely true.)
Down, down, down. Would the fall NEVER come to an end! `I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time?’ she said aloud. `I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth’…”
from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Chapter 1
I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a child, never once considering that it would become a significant metaphor in my research career many years later. Now the question: “why is a raven like a writing desk?’ is meaningful to me; especially within the context of developing a research question. The Mad Hatter may not have known the answer to the question posed, but the question itself raises more potential issues to ponder and investigate (which makes it a highly valid and industrious puzzle to solve). For instance: what are the qualities of a raven? What are the qualities of a writing desk? What properties do they share, and what are their differences? How are they represented? How are they perceived? By whom? And so on….curiouser and curiouser.
Welcome to the research process, where questions abound, and a state of confusion is the only constant! You start with a nebulous thought that needs form and substance. This progresses in fits and starts to become a conceptual idea. You notice the white rabbit (the idea) and pursue it peripherally at first, taking tenuous steps towards it on the surface (the rabbit hole). Before you know it, the idea takes hold and down you plunge, into the research abyss (the deep well). This is the beginning of a long, arduous, challenging, inspiring, prosperous, at times lonely and futile, and other time’s joyful and productive journey. Like Alice scanning her environment, there are many distractions and disappointments among the breakthroughs and discoveries experienced. Dichotomous encounters and paradoxical principles become part of the flotsam and jetsam of the research voyage. Conundrums proliferate, periodically perplexing and sometimes beguiling. You lose your sense of time and place as you linger over the enticing tidbits that draw you in, and then take a tangential exploration that may come to nought, but the diversion was captivating nonetheless (this can also be called procrastination – but the process still can be of productive value). There may be many moments where you find the research equivalent of the ‘ORANGE MARMALADE’ jar, only to be disheartened at the emptiness and irrelevance of the contents, but file it for future reference (if it becomes pertinent).
The tunnel that you have entered at first is wide, fanning out in all directions, and then it can dip suddenly, taking numerous twists and turns (with the occasional dead-end). As the research journey progresses, the tunnel narrows as you remain focussed on the subject matter. Your analytical skills improve, and you are better able to scrutinise and dissect significant information and discard extraneous material. You feel a greater sense of purpose as the terrain becomes familiar and your expertise in the field increases, providing greater illumination. At this point you wonder why you felt so vulnerable at the beginning, full of self-doubt (because you did not have the knowledge required to get you as far as you needed to go). And like Alice, you should think nothing of tumbling down stairs! You are now defending your position (and thesis) with poise and courage, and totally transformed by the process!