Three Fragments From a Sociologist's Notebooks: Establishing the Phenomenon, Specified : Ignorance & Strategic Research Materials
By Robert Merton. Published in Annual Review of Sociology, 1987, Vol. 13, 1-28.
In its April 2011 issue, Professional Safety published my review of "The Travels & Adventures of Serendipity" by Robert Merton and Elinor Barber. While looking for something else, serendipity struck and I stumbled across "The Logic of Strategic Ignorance." With a title like that there was no chance I could pass it up. The expectation for a romp read or a spirited satire was seriously frustrated. However, the reference list included the article, "Three Fragments From a Sociologist's Notebooks," which is the subject of this review.
Let's agree at the beginning that loss control is a scientific practice in a sociopolitical environment. That environment by its very nature includes social machinations and politics with multiple opportunities for conflict. To achieve loss control results, diverse groups and individuals must interact. The bump and grind of politics rub up against the observation, remembering and comparing of science. These complicated interactions move to generate results and make up the challenging, social, political and scientific atmosphere in which the loss control professional performs his/her job every day.
Immediately after the introduction, Merton sets off an intellectual firecracker. "In the abstract, it need hardly be said that before one proceeds to explain or to interpret a phenomenon, it is advisable to establish that the phenomenon actually exists, that it is enough of a regularity to require and to allow explanation" (p. 2). For the immediate application to loss control, consider this slight paraphrase: When proposing a solution to a perceived problem it is imperative that the suspected phenomenon be completely and accurately isolated, described and understood. It is also helpful if the individuals and groups to be affected agree about the problem. If the problem phenomenon can be agreed on by the interested and affected parties, movement toward a rational solution can begin.
A relevant example is in order. For the past few years, in great measure, loss control and injury prevention have been functioning under the apprehension that legislation and regulation are keys to preventing occupational injuries. It has been mandated that major sums of money and other resources be expended to support that apprehension. The phenomenon that may not have existed in the first instance was the assumption that there was a lack of legislation and regulation. Significant conditions and alternatives may not have been considered in the investigation and analysis of the supposed phenomenon (lack of legislation and regulation). But, the legislation and succeeding regulations were passed, with what has turned out to be a curious result. No stakeholder is satisfied.
Lest you think I am overstating the situation, OSHA Administrator David Michaels said at AIHce 2013 in response to John Henshaw, vice president of the Academy of Industrial Hygiene, "We can't get to where we want to go with just enforcement." He followed with some qualifying comments but that was the first governmental acknowledgment of enforcement as an imperfect solution since 1969. The phenomenon or problem as stated, in Merton's terms, did not exist. Therefore, the solution implemented did not solve the problem.
Merton's title includes two other fragments. First, there is specified ignorance. Think about the fact that ASSE's more than 35,000 members, in general, from education, training and experience, have been conditioned to replace ignorance with knowledge. Then, one finds someone who is very convincing about the utility of a useful kind of ignorance. The major point developed is that each time we gain new knowledge we discover something we did not know at the same time. Merton describes specified ignorance as the express recognition of what is not yet known but needs to be known in order to lay the foundation for more knowledge.
We all remember when Donald Rumsfeld was the subject of late-night comics for his quote, "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns the ones we don't know we don't know." This is the area of observation and analysis that Merton develops. It is also an area of pointed truth.
The third and last fragment that Merton suggests for study is strategic research materials. This is a well-reasoned development and entertaining section on the need for research. It is entertaining because of the examples he uses in the development. For one example, Merton uses the story of the Canadian trapper Alexis St. Martin who was shot in the stomach in 1822. The wound never healed. The opening allowed a doctor to observe digestion directly. William Osler, a famous doctor, followed the case and indicated that he wanted to do a postmortem exam on St. Martin. The postmortem never happened because he received a telegram from the local French-Canadian community, "Don't come for autopsy; will be killed" (p. 12).
The first fragment of establishing the phenomenon unfailingly collides with beliefs, biases, preferences and revealed truth. Specified ignorance, when seriously considered, is a gentle eye opener rather than a bruising challenge. Strategic research material moves toward controversy because it is not always easy to determine what should be researched and where. But the what and where is central to loss control research and response. All of Merton's fragments merit concentrated attention because as they are digested they will have a positive effect on one's immediate point of view. Of course that means tomorrow's point of view will be different as well.
Carl Metzgar, CSP, ARM