Research results are often reported by the media as stand-alone statements and as though they are facts. “Slim women have a greater risk of developing endometriosis than obese women.” “Respiratory symptoms vary according to stage of menstrual cycle.” In previous blogs, I have said that a reader needs to understand research methods and basic concepts found in statistics in order to make sense of what results really mean. This blog is about another ingredient that goes into making sense of research. Metatheoretical frameworks, basic ideas of how the world works, are important influences on how researchers choose what problem to study, choose the methods with which to study it, and choose how to interpret the results.
The context of research is always stated in research articles. Articles always include a write-up of previous work, discussing what has been done and what unanswered questions remain. This sets the stage for why the research being reported is interesting and important. However, what I want to discuss are more general, often implicit, basic assumptions. Even what seem to be brute facts are understandable as such only within a given set of basic assumptions or paradigms. Paradigms guide thinking, but change over time.
Thus, as discussed by Sheila Rothman, a nineteenth century metatheory was that assertiveness and activity are dangerous for women. As stated in a more specific scientific theory: All people have a limited amount of nervous energy; this nervous energy is distributed over a greater number of organs in women than in men (because of their reproductive organs); therefore, all of women’s organs are more “sensitive and liable to derangement (p. 24).” It was concluded from these ideas that exercise and exertion are dangerous for women; further, mental exertion, such as going to college, should be avoided. Rothman describes case studies written up by physicians of women harmed by exertion and cured by rest. In this context, designing research to evaluate whether college harms women appeared to be a sensible, even important undertaking. So did structuring a college curriculum to avoid precipitating debility or insanity.
What are some of our current basic paradigms? One example: Menopause is senescence and reproductive physiology is central to women’s health. It follows from these premises that menopause or the transition to menopause are key factors in the development of chronic illness; research addresses what harm is created or, alternatively, whether these premises are correct. Another example: Cyclic changes in mood, intellect, and energy during different stages of the menstrual cycle are very important, especially to understand distress. Alternatively, a healthy menstrual cycle suggests that a woman is physically healthy.
Research I am conducting with Greg Derry addresses another metatheory about the menstrual cycle. Periods are most often described as cyclic, recurring in a regular repetitive manner (“every 28 days”). However, modern systems theorists know that there is a different kind of system (a “nonlinear dynamical system”) that by its nature generates a little bit of unpredictability and by its nature interacts with other systems (“is an open rather than a closed system”). Our research has provided evidence that the menstrual cycle is a nonlinear dynamical system. This means, among other things, that menstrual periods would be expected to be a little bit irregular with an occasional extreme cycle length.
The psychologist Robert Abelson reminds us that research is an ongoing process of discussion. Understanding research means joining the conversation.