Dan Dixon’s “Analysis Tool or Research Methodology” chapter in UDH introduced the psychological phenomenon of pattern recognition in the context of DH. He explains that the DH field has an affinity towards finding patterns, but the field (and most others) have ignored “the nature of what patterns are and their statuses as an epistemological object” (192).
After very briefly explaining the psychology of pattern recognition, the systems view of the world that all pattern-based approaches take, and validating patterns as an epistemic construct, he discusses the occurrence of abductions and apophenia, and this was the section that I found most interesting. As I read about apophenia, I thought about my studies and what I’ve learned so far about the DH field, and I thought doesn’t this happen a lot?
So when I read Dixon’s conclusion, I really took note of one of the questions he posed: “Are we designing patterns where none existed in the first place and is there an unavoidable tendency towards apophenia instead of pattern recognition?” (206).
I think this is a valid and important question that might not have a straightforward answer. I think that, yes, the field does tend towards apophenia, but I think it can be avoided, or alternatively, it may even be okay. I can easily see how one could tend towards apophenia. I think it’s natural to preemptively predict an answer to a research question before research begins.
I also think that there’s pressure for professionals to validate their research within their field, and this may cause apophenia or simply slight manipulation to reach the desired outcome, such as removing certain words from a word count.
My problem with apophenia, or at least Dixon’s definition of apophenia, is with the idea of “ascribing excessive meaning” (202). How do we know when someone has ascribed excessive meaning to a perceived pattern?
Dixon does get at how we determine if a pattern is really there. He suggests that pattern recognition, by itself, is not a valid method of enquiry, and then suggests using inductive and deductive reasoning to prove abductive reasoning. Induction and especially deduction can invalidate a pattern. I agree with this, and I think that it is the researcher’s responsibility to fully account for the valid patterns that appear and be able to recognize when apophenia has occurred.
However, I also think that even loosely developed patterns that are formed from apophenia can be important (as long as it is acknowledged as such). If the researcher can create a unique and productive discussion from the barely formed pattern, it shouldn’t be cast aside.
Furthermore, a single pattern can have several different meanings, depending on the researcher, the research question, the field of study, the context, etc. What may be unimportant in one field may be important to another.
Because the main topic of this weeks readings is digital archives, I want to quickly connect the Dixon reading to the Parrika and Rice & Rice readings. Patterns play a significant role in archives. They help archivists group and organize items. They influence the way items are tagged in an archive. They influence the software and interface of the archival system. And the way that items are grouped, organized, tagged, and retrieved can force patterns that may not emerge otherwise.