The Familiar and the Unfamiliar

The Familiar and the Unfamiliar

February 15, 2011 Diary 0

People who know me and have worked with me are perhaps aware of my fascination with (and work in) qualitative research. I have nothing against numbers, I swear. I love mathematics, and, to some extent, statistics. But I also believe that not all questions can be answered by numbers; sometimes, we need a story to be told, and sometimes, qualitative research can do that.

I have been working in and on qualitative data for only two years. The thing that hooked me in the beginning was the chance to tell a story the way that it had been told. More specifically, I found that qualitative research is tasked to “make the unfamiliar familiar, and the familiar unfamiliar.

The exhortation is as accurate as it is encouraging. The best research reveals patterns or themes that we could ignore in our daily lives; it tells us that not all is known, that things that we once thought we knew intimately are actually strangers. The best research also brings the unfamiliar home, allowing us to know new things, to be illuminated on subjects that we either once ignored out of lack of interest, or refused to learn out of lack of maturity.

I have also found that the phrase could explain why some books become bestsellers and appeal to many, while others fall short (or simply fall). Some books make the familiar unfamiliar: they take the pedestrian things and turn them into objects of magic. That red telephone booth, unused and dusty, could be the entrance to an underground Ministry of Magic, so tell the Harry Potter books.

Other books can make the unfamiliar familiar, say, by revealing details about a government agency, explaining the workings of a museum, or even explaining the symbols present in various works of art. In both cases of juggling unfamiliarity with familiarity, readers are seemingly provided “insider information” – and what could make a book more precious and awesome than the sense that I, the reader, am privy to secrets that could either save the world or destroy it completely?

Whether it’s that rusty phone booth or that centuries-old painting, the best books can open our eyes to things we usually take for granted. To be hooked as a reader could well mean being inducted into a secret society whose knowledge is now at my own fingertips.