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I gave a talk on the social and educational value of chess in Dallas, Texas recently. The person driving me to the event, John Jacobs, read on the blurb that I worked at the RSA, "a think tank in London", and asked, in a melodious southern drawl:  "I see that you work in a think tank. So what do you think about?"

I gave a talk on the social and educational value of chess in Dallas, Texas recently. The person driving me to the event, John Jacobs, read on the blurb that I worked at the RSA, "a think tank in London", and asked, in a melodious southern drawl:  "I see that you work in a think tank. So what do you think about?"

I gave the quick elevator pitch for our project (social networks are a tool than can be visualised and used to assist in community regeneration), but the real answer is that we don't just think, but also research and advocate. In fact the core tension in any think tank is between the rigour of your research and the relevance of your findings. You are obliged to pay allegiance to Truth, Validity, Reliability etc, but while you want the blessings of such celestial Gods, the success of your projects are typically judged by their impact on the terrestial Gods of Media, Funders and Whitehall. (And at the RSA we also want the participants in the research, the people 'on the ground' to endorse what we do).

This context explains the recent musings of our great leader, who accurately reflected the ambience of  a meeting yesterday in which the Connected Communities Team showed Mathew a few emerging findings, subject to some important qualifications, and he told us which of the 'findings' had traction, and which ones needed more work.

When you spend weeks collecting data and trying to make sense of it(especially social network analysis data), you realise that your 'findings' are actually constructed on a host of more or less problematic assumptions that are part of the choice architecture of any research project . But when you want to make a splash, and tell the world that you have a new model of social change,  there is an understandable tendency to gloss over such details and focus on the strength of the core message, even if the strong core message is based on tentative foundations.

You only realise how messy social research is when you start trying to do some, and although you may want 'evidence', what you tend to get is concepts that are contested, samples that are more indicative than representative,  methods that may or may not be replicable, correlations that may or may not be causal, and 'findings' that were created by looking in a particular way for a particular purpose.  As any honest researcher will tell you, respecting such tensions is crucial if the research is going to be informative, or provide the basis for action.

Such rigour is not easy because most research is timebound and opportunistic. It is a huge challenge to feel confident that you have tapped into some truth about human nature or the structure of society. For instance, at a recent RSA event, Christakis mentioned that it took 25 years to collect the Farmingham public health data that provided the basis for our interest in social networks, and 5 years and 5 millions dollars to analyse it.

So here is the nub of working at a place like this. If you are passionate about an idea, you can be a vigorous advocate for it, but as part of a project research team, you are asked to be a rigorous advocate. You are asked to push an idea, and, often simultaneously, asked to support it with evidence, even when it is in the nature of evidence to be equivocal and open to interpretation.

The challenge is that robust advocacy is unequivocal and passionate, while reliable research is equivocal and cautious. So is rigorous advocacy an oxymoron?  Or are there ways to feel at ease with the conflicting demands of rigour and relevance?

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