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on unexpected events Navigating the Sudden Research Opportunity of 9/11 karen albright One of the greatest joys of social scienti‹c research comes from discovering —and seizing—uncharted territory. Scholars are forever trying to do this in one form or another, most typically by identifying gaps in the literature and then building careers dedicated to ‹lling them. When it comes to breaking new ground, however, there may be nothing that can compare to the thrill (and challenge) of pursuing a sudden research opportunity. Capturing an unexpected event and harnessing its research potential in a social scienti‹c framework requires quick thinking and action: researchers in such instances must work on unusually uncertain terrain, navigating without the bene‹t of temporal perspective. The uncertainty of the terrain is further compounded by the lack of clarity regarding how exactly to go about such research. This is due, in part, to the dif‹culty of generalizing about sudden research opportunities. Not only is their timing impossible to predict, but they come in varying forms and contexts. Think, for instance, of the social and economic devastation following Hurricane Katrina, or the political and media backlash following the criticism of George W. Bush by the country music group The Dixie Chicks. Both are excellent examples of unexpected research opportunities that have resulted in intriguing social scienti‹c analyses (see, 164 e.g., Elliott and Pais 2006; Rodriguez, Trainor, and Quarantelli 2006; Rossman 2004), but they are also very different in substance and scope. Further, the suddenness of such events does not always enable application of the standard logico-deductive model favored by many in the social sciences , which can make the process even more dif‹cult and uncertain. Nonetheless, there is a great deal to be gained from pursuing research on an unexpected event, and this chapter is devoted to providing some guidelines to help you do just that. How you go about crafting a project from an unexpected research opportunity , of course, depends on the larger context in which that opportunity has emerged. If you have been looking for a test case for a phenomenon that you have already studied or have been planning to study, and this unexpected event ‹ts the bill, consider yourself lucky; serendipity has smiled on you. Because you will already have developed relevant research question(s) and identi‹ed appropriate theoretical framework(s) with which you can arm yourself as you move into the ‹eld, your investigation will likely be able to proceed in a relatively straightforward way, more or less following the aforementioned logico-deductive model. If, however, you do not yet have enough expertise in this area to know which theoretical frameworks would be most appropriate for your project—if, in fact, you were caught so unprepared by this research opportunity that you are not even sure what your research questions are—a different sort of experience lies ahead. Because the latter experience is typically much more dif‹cult to navigate than the former, this chapter will focus on how researchers can seize research opportunities for which they lack preexisting questions and frameworks. Throughout the chapter, I will draw on my own experience with a sudden research opportunity: a project on the aftereffects of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City, which I began, along with several colleagues , as a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at New York University (see Abrams, Albright, and Panofsky 2004). The events of September 11 (hereafter referred to as 9/11) could not possibly have transformed my scholarly horizons more suddenly; indeed, had I been asked on September 10 about my interest in the domestic effects of terrorism, I would likely have indicated little curiosity. Just a day later, however, both my professional and personal interests were transformed as I, along with my colleagues, began the laborious, consuming, and often frustrating process of trying to study this sudden and emergent event. In sharing here the lessons we learned along the way, I hope to help you minimize the frusOn Unexpected Events • 165 trations you may encounter when pursuing similarly unexpected research opportunities. In keeping with my research on 9/11, the chapter will primarily emphasize the gathering of original data using qualitative, rather than quantitative , methodologies, though it is certainly possible to gather quantitative data from sudden events as well (see, e.g., Rossman 2004). I will also, at times, reference some of the methodological practices advocated by proponents of grounded theory, which proved helpful to our...


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