Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Tao of Academic Research

                                               ...the path to high quality research...

As a Taiji (Tai chi) practitioner, I have always being amazed by the depth of oriental teachings and by the many positive externalities the study of Taiji generates on different aspects of a person's life. From a methodological point of view, I have always been convinced that my Taiji experience had significant value to offer to my professional life. Therefore, I recently decided to test this belief and below you may find the main results of my endeavor.
One of the most important preachings my Master (Wang Zhi Xiang) often stresses is: find the root and focus on it!  A very simple sentence but with extremely profound implications. The first obstacle in applying this teaching is to truly understand what root means. The root is represented by a law of universal validity that provides you with some practical guidelines on how to behave. Such law is common to all human activities but requires some contextualization in order to become useful. In Taiji, the root is contextualized through a number of principles, one of which being the tridimensionality of movements, that is: the ability to move in a number of opposite directions at the same time (forward-backward, upward-downward, to the right-to the left). The practice of Taiji also requires to develop the ability to conjugate other opposites among which: softness and hardness, tension and relaxation. In other words, the essence of Taiji is about learning how to keep opposites together, that is why it is also known as the boxing of supreme polarity.
Thus, the universal law from which Taiji derives its principles may be expressed as follows: the search for a dynamic equilibrium between opposite yet complementary elements (in other words, the yin and yang of the Tao).  If applied to everyday life this law may be contextualized as follows: to conduct a sound and happy life it is necessary to find a balance between isolation and sociality, giving and taking, pleasure and duty, etc.
Moving now to academic research, in order to derive useful indications out of this universal law I had to find along which dimensions the search of a dynamic equilibrium between opposite yet complementary elements could be contextualized in this field.
I approached this search by looking back at my ten-year carreer in research and tried to represent the most common mistakes I committed in terms of unbalances between two opposite elements. Below you find the eight dimensions I identified:

  •   Reuse of existing knowledge  vs.  original content production
  •   Abstraction vs. practical exemplification (the aim should be meaningful and convincing generalization)
  •   Precision vs. relevance (sometimes going beyond a certain level of resolution may provide little or no additional value)
  •   Correctness vs. clarity (of language) 
  •   Competence in a specific field vs. the ability to see things with a fresh look 
  •   Ideas generation vs. ideas execution
  •   Planning vs. adaptation
  •  Collaboration vs. competition (often called coopetition)

Although there is no expectation of exhaustivity, this list represents a first indication of useful aspects that researchers should keep in mind during their daily work. An important thing to stress is that each research endeavor requires to find a specific balance, and difference balances may be needed in different points in time (remember: we are after a dynamic equilibrium).
Finally, the proposed approach may also turn useful for managing discussions. As a matter of fact, in the western world we tend to adopt a dichotomic and alternative approach to problem solving. Some good examples are immigration and crime. In the first case we have commentators that are in favor of closing borders while others are more inclined to helping needy people coming from more disadvantaged countries. When discussing crime management, instead, some people are in favor of severe punishments while others believe that crime reduction may only be attained through the diffusion of education and culture. Of course, in both cases the solution may not be found in a single answer but rather through a mix of policy actions, nevertheless the need for such balance is rarely acknowledged in public debates. This attitude often leads to fruitless discussions. The approach proposed may be a useful tool to find a way out of the impasses generated by the fact that people tend to polarize their opinion by positioning themselves on one of the opposite elements failing to recognize the importance of keeping  the two ingredients in balance.
To conclude, the Tao (i.e.: the way) of academic research consists in the identification of a list of relevant opposite elements and their dynamic dosage throughout the different phases of any given research endeavor.

Enrico Ferro



  1. Thank you for the excellent analysis! I would say balance is not only the key for high quality research work, but also for a happy life!

  2. Admirable effort, but I find more enlightenment in contrast and disequilibrium theories. Try to read Cioran, The fall into time, the essay titled "The dangers of wisdom". And remember: chaos never died.


    1. Thank you for the suggestion, I will have a look at it.

  3. I definitely found my own unbalances: too much ideas generation & adaptation. Useful exercise!

  4. Bravissimo Enrico, una precisa analisi dettagliata e in linea con gli insegnamenti del nostro Maestro! certo che per mettere poi in pratica con successo occorre una determinazione che si scontra con la natura stessa delle persone.....speriamo non sia utopia immmaginare una società dove tutti cercano equilibrio dinamico: sarebbe fantastico!!intanto noi ci proviamo, nhé?

  5. Grazie Edda, mi fa piacere che ti sia piaciuto il post. Un abbraccio. Enrico.

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