Netla – Veftímarit um uppeldi og menntun

Menntavísindasvið Háskóla Íslands

Grein birt 20. septeber 2008

Greinar 2008

Guðrún Kristinsdóttir

Doing a research plan
– structure or chaos?

Contrasts and conflicts in the proximity of creativity

The article discusses the construction and value of the research plan and the necessity of research planning and research content. [1] The shortcomings of relying solely on organised working methods in this context are pointed out. The free rein and chaos that characterise the research process can be discussed using the following key words:

  • Interest and excuses

  • Time and development

  • Scientific revolutions

  • Flow and creativity

The author is a professor at The School of Education, University of Iceland, Reykjavik.


Carrying out research requires commitment to a basic set of working principles in order to succeed and, just as importantly, to gain and maintain academic credibility. Usually these working principles suggest that one must produce a research plan before the actual research work commences. In the research plan the project is described, delineated and the theoretical frontier articulated. The aim of the research is outlined, the topic’s significance introduced and placed in context, and research questions as well as the methodology to be applied are put forth. The research design is described, and concepts such as sample and population, as well as ethical considerations and how consent and other such issues will be handled, are all discussed. Finally, possible problems are addressed, as are financial considerations and the time-scale in question.

According to such a research model, one is likely to assume that it is easy to maintain a focus during the research process by working one’s way step-by-step through the various stages of the research plan. Sometimes the fact that something could go wrong in the research process might be mentioned, and that one must be prepared for such an occurrence.

In teaching the basic points of research methods, as well as providing guidelines on the formulation of a research plan, the following points are often emphasised:

  • It is necessary to have a fully formed research plan before starting the research.

  • It is important to follow one’s research plan as closely as possible.

  • All concepts to be used must be clearly scrutinized.

  • The problem is to put into words clear-cut research questions.

  • Once material has been collected, one has to analyse it all thoroughly.

  • One of the most important aspects of carrying out research is to be on one’s guard with respect to intangible ideas that could bias the research.

  • Once everything is taken into account there is no fundamental difference between qualitative and quantitative research.

  • Quantitative research is good as a predecessor for qualitative research as a means of formulating research questions.

We are all familiar with the points listed above or at least something similar. These points are in no sense exhaustive but rather an illustration of many of the factors that one must deal with within the research context. My main point here, however, is not to elaborate on the above-mentioned points but rather to discuss another aspect of the issue which is on the fringe of conventional ideas relating to research methodology. Among other issues, this is the necessity of giving the researcher free rein in his research work.

Those who agree with the points listed above might be headed down the wrong track and are in all likelihood in disagreement with some of the points I am about to make. Beyond the belief in the value of organisation, strict working methods, delineated questions and carefully-chiselled hypotheses is the everyday reality of the researcher that more often than not is characterised by insecurity, chaos, shortage of time and erratic attempts to get things off the ground. There one can find pieces of scrap-paper with varying levels of translated texts which at first reading appear to have filled the researcher with inspiration, but which later appear more everyday, plain or badly translated, if not incomprehensible. In many cases the researcher retains various unfinished drafts from different periods that remind one of the battles the protagonist in An Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo has against the bureaucracy. Let us hope that one doesn’t end up quite as badly as he does.

It is accepted that research contains an organised and precise methodology which allows the work produced to be considered scientific or academic (Skúlason 1987, Silverman 2000). This picture given is both true and false; it is in fact correct that a constant thread of academic principles should be present. However, the road followed is not always straight. Research investigations are prone to taking a winding path encountering many surprises along the way.

But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Can the bends in the road rather be seen as providing the inspiration for new ideas and unexpected insights? Here I will try to look behind the descriptions, project proposals and research plans to discuss questions relating to the source and content of the creation of knowledge.

The source of creative thinking

The issue at hand can be broken up into many different and fairly complicated questions, and naturally I will not answer them all but rather look at the matter from different perspectives. When I started thinking about this issue I found a few articles which relate to the concepts of creativity and flow, two concepts which relate to the fact that one thinks of something “new” or discovers something “new” in one’s search for knowledge. [2] This article is in many ways based on these essays.

In this context it is suitable to ask: What is the source of creative thinking and what strengthens it? What sort of conflicts do we land in and what sort challenges to we have to face? What is creativity and flow? Let us look at the concept of creativity.

The content of creativity has been defined in various ways. For example: it is a lifestyle, a search for adventure, the courage to go against tradition, freedom from an ideological straitjacket or an innovative contribution for the individual and the community (Klein 1990). A Swedish cancer doctor and member of the Swedish scientific community, George Klein (1990), maintains in a discussion that the word is almost synonymous with gaining a balance in one’s own life, that one infuses life with meaning by utilising creativity. He discusses the concept in general terms and in my interpretation his argument is such that it is synonymous with enjoying life. He also points to a narrower definition by Boman that maintains that scientific creativity comprises the search for unsolved problems at the right moment in time. This fits with Chalmer’s (1982) discussion on initiative, where he writes of the necessity to view the value of invention in relation to the context and time in which it is introduced. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was a major innovation and a courageous one in 1915 because at that time it was widely believed that light travelled in straight lines, whereas his theory was that time and space was relative and dependent on gravity. The same can be said about Copernicus’s astronomy in the 16th century which was daring in that it went against the grain of conventional ideas about the earth being the centre of the universe, although his ideas are not thought of as innovative in today’s context. Therefore when evaluating what is actually meant by invention, innovation and originality, the role of knowledge at particular historical times matters.

Here a more precise definition is sought in relation to academic work. Silverman (2000) discusses points related to this, where he examines the concept of originality in research. He suggests that it is usually expected that the researcher works carefully and employs critical thought. These are indeed important premises in order for the work produced to be considered scientific (Skúlason 1997). But we need to draw a distinction among the above concepts. Perhaps the expectation of originality in research is a narrower idea than the idea of creativity in general. However, it is far from the case that I wish to devalue careful working methods or the application of critical thought, but as one can see there is more than one aspect to the issue at hand. Interestingly, Silverman mentions a few cases where Nobel-prize winners quote Edison when they are asked about their genius. Edison is quoted as having said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. According to this view, innovation is not least the product of difficulties and hard work, almost blood, sweat and tears. Many writers refer to the importance of diligence and perseverance in the development of new knowledge and I will mention a few examples here below.

Romance and science

Anders Nässil (1990) maintains that there are first and foremost two opposing ideas at work in relation to creativity. One of these ideas is romantic in the sense that creativity is the result of a moment of rare inspiration; the other idea of innovation is that it rests on scientific foundations and can always be subject to verification through testing. Nässil claims to maintain an ambivalent position to these differing ideas and interestingly relates his position to the fact that he has completed two kinds of vocational training. He says:

The language teacher and the physiotherapist within me fight against each other
and cause me to swing in desperation between these two differing worldviews,
almost as Hamlet does. (Nässil 1990, 211). [3]

In his attempts to combine the two ideas Nässil claims that the attempt to do so is characterised by a hesitant search. The researcher must first deal with opposites or contradictions but look ultimately towards the complementary, in the direction of synthesis and wholeness. We follow Nässil’s reasoning once more when he says:

It is said that the brain likes opposites and it is clear that contradictory evidence tends to become inspiration for innovation. (Nässil 1990, 211)

This can be articulated in different ways: As the junction between the old and the new, the new becomes visible. In times of sudden change a new picture emerges; a slight change in the point of view can cause all views of certain subject to change. Nässil also points out that an everyday routine can sometimes cast light on its exact opposite. Ideas on innovation are therefore contradictory and not only within the academic context, these ideas are also discussed in relation to the creation of the novel, since there is often not a clear distinction between the work of the writer and of the academic.

Routine work requires discipline; one has to concentrate on the work at hand. Many will recall in this context Pasteur’s words, “il faut travailler” or “one needs to work”. He was heard to have mumbled these words to himself and was probably reminding himself of the importance of concentration. Many experienced scientists have been quoted on the importance of not waiting for their inspiration to be sent down from heaven.

On the other hand, chaos has been widely discussed as the fountain of creative thought. In this context, acclaimed authors, for example Kafka and Hemingway, are mentioned for their strange working habits. Chaos is also mentioned as a source of innovation during times of economic depression and insecurity, and that the violence of war can lead to innovation. Of this there are many examples, such as the contributions of educated Jewish refugees in the United States during and directly after the Second World War. Another thought in the same vein relates to insecurity of an existential and economic nature. For example, the writer Anthony Burgess started his writing career only after he had been diagnosed with a brain tumour and wanted to leave a writer’s commission for his wife.

From this it can be deduced that there are many different ideas and definitions being thrown around on what exactly constitutes the inspiration and fountain of fertile thought and creative power. Nässil reminds us of the frequently highlighted role of the dialectic between opposing phenomena as one of the starting points for creative thought.

Thus there are two ideas most prominent in relation to the foundation of creative thought. On the one hand there is constant deliberation, the cleaving of the stone that finally clears the way or demolishes the wall that appears to obscure all views. On the other hand one needs the challenge of contradictions, to constantly put oneself and one’s work in new contexts and thereby allow the emergence of new ways of thinking: to rock the boat, one might say. This can be inferred on the basis of the discussion in the essays to which I refer. Now let’s turn directly to a few points in the research process.

Starting out – concentration or excuses

During the first stages of research the following questions come our way: How should one go about things? Does it matter how one starts out? An Arabic saying goes something along these lines:

He who wants will find a way to do it.
He who doesn’t will find an excuse. (Nässil, 1990, p. 215)

We don’t need to look far to find a similar expression in Icelandic, such as a job started is a job already half done. To find the right way to begin a project can prove difficult for many people although referring to it as blood sweat and tears is somewhat of a exaggeration! One often encounters doubt in the academic process and not the least at the beginning of a new project.

The beginning of a project doesn’t always call for organisation; one should rather recall the words of various academics that emphasise the value of concentration and courage. It is important not to get too bogged down in the beginning stages and rather attempt to dive in as soon as possible. The two sayings are a reminder of how difficult the beginning stages can be and how easy it is to find excuses for not actually starting. Who is not familiar with that? One has to throw oneself into the pool but also be aware of its depth.

Professor Margrét Guðnadóttir recently made a speech in Reykjavík. She said something to the effect that in her work she and her colleagues had carried out numerous experiments, and when they failed it was simply a matter of course to repeat them. This is known to many since she is well known for her research. Margrét’s message in detailing this process of re-evaluating her experimental procedures was to highlight the value of continuing with one’s work despite the mistakes that might have occurred. Here again is a scientist who reminds us of the value of perseverance in the research process. I don’t doubt that the experiments that Pasteur and Margrét mention were carefully organised. However, many inventions are famous for having come about purely by chance and it is often a balancing trick to have some control over the chaos without the organisational plan tying one down too tightly.

On the other hand one may ask whether perseverance can become too consuming. Are constantly occupied academics first and foremost nervous wrecks and slaves to an all- consuming work ethic as some would like to maintain? Is it enough to be constantly occupied or can one be creative without that? The Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman once said that if one had the need to create something strongly enough, then one finds the means to do so sooner or later. [4] It is clear that the need to be creative and to have an interest is important. In fact, the value of interest is well known in our domain: we know that one can lead a horse to water but one cannot make him drink.

To fall in love with a method

Let us progress a little further and towards the question of how. How to choose a method – to design the research. I would like to discuss this using a short story. When I was a doctoral student I had an extremely interesting and invigorating teacher, Professor Bengt Börjeson, who later became the rector of the University of Education in Stockholm. We found that his courses on qualitative methodology posed more of a challenge for us than when he and his colleagues started teaching us quantitative methods. Some of us clearly believed that qualitative methods were the only true methodology despite the professor’s clear explanations of following the well-established rule: to allow one’s research questions, one’s topic, to govern one’s choice of methodology and research design. Some of us were not only enamoured by the professor’s teaching, but fell in love with qualitative methodology and its theoretical background of interpretative theory and of the Verstehen tradition which our teacher, educated as a psychologist, outlined for us vividly with references to psychological theories, existentialism and critical theory. However, a few students ended up in considerable trouble, such as one of my co-students who taped interviews with hundreds of subjects, listened to them all over and over and finally ended up counting the background variables from the narratives and analysing them using statistical methods. This process took many years and is a good example of a case where neither the right research design nor methodology was chosen from the start. This story could serve as a warning for the more romantically inclined!


The example above reminds us that time is an important factor in our discussion. While some mistakes are worth the time one puts into them, others can cause one quite a bit of trouble. In this context one can once again refer to Pasteur’s idea that toil was a premise for innovation. [5] Many others have concurred with this view, for example, Baudelaire flippantly remarked that working was not as boring as having fun. [6]

Everyone who pursues research knows that it takes time, and it cannot be said too often how quickly time flies once one has actually started. This is where one has to know oneself. The browser is for instance in a certain danger when looking for references. He will find many things of interest and will have difficult sieving out that which suits his purposes best. The perfectionist needs to control himself when it comes to refining his definitions. The linguist should not sink his teeth into proofreading his work at a point where his text is far from being fully formed.

Processing – beyond rationality

Ernberg (1990) wrote one of the essays on creativity that I read while writing this paper. He reminds us of the power of the subconscious on creativity. Concentration, says Ernberg, leads to the subject forcing its way into the subconscious and clearly directs itself at unresolved issues and thereby at the emotional and intellectual tension that is created between them. The battle with the issue at hand carries on at a subconscious level where rational thought does not feature. Ernberg points out, in accordance with Freud, that the intellectual conflicts in the research process are in some respects irrational and subconscious. More often than not research work relies on endurance and that is where the subconscious can provide added strength. The processing that takes places deep in the subconscious is a far cry from organised analysis but can be an important factor for innovation.

I would also like to add the thought that ideas often emerge while one is actually taking a break from formal work. Perhaps my words relating to scraps of paper and reminder notes were rather dismissive here at the start of my discussion and therefore I would like to underline the fact that it is sometimes when one is actually relaxing from work that one gets surprisingly good ideas. The diary on the bedside table, the notebook by the kitchen sink or in the jacket pocket during a long walk can prove to be extremely useful.

Now let us turn to the outside, to the environment in which research is carried out.

Is originality most apparent in traditional institutes of education?

Up until now my discussion has been from the point of view of the individual but in discussion on innovative knowledge the effect of the external environment is also debated. Under what sort of circumstances does creativity reach its potential? In this there are at least two sides to the discussion, one focusing on the freedom of the individual to find an outlet for one’s abilities for creative work, and the other on the value of cooperation.

In regard to cooperation, it is not necessarily likeminded children who make the best playmates. It is often maintained that differing individuals work well together in research. This can, however, be a delicate balancing act where the special characteristics of each individual need to be encouraged, as do fertile discussions and a common quest for knowledge of the group. [7]

Ernberg, who has been mentioned before, picks up on the idea of tension as a fertile means for encouraging innovation and relates it to the effect on the environment of the scientist. A good means of forming an opinion, according to Ernberg (1990), is to firmly uphold certain creeds, and to work with clear hypotheses. In addition, a good researcher, is one who approaches his observations without a set of presuppositions, at least up to the point where he is able to discover the conflict with a strict set of rules, theories and points of reference. Without giving himself such presuppositions and approaching the subject with an open mind, the scholar will invariably come into contact with the strict tenets of the academy. He is forced, so to speak, to face them. Certain matters of opinions are almost always in place. Each paradigm has its own limitations, there is no perfection.

Ernberg carries on with a short summary of the discussion of tensions created by testing alternative hypotheses; a subject discussed by Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend. Kuhn disagreed with Popper’s theory of falsifiability and with Feyerabend’s perspectives about the scientific method and advances in knowledge by suggesting making scientific changes a method on its own. Kuhn meant that normal science was essential to create a necessary tension between paradigm and facts. Science needed time to collect these facts within the dominating paradigm of each period.

In Kuhn’s speech in Salt Lake City in 1959 he did not doubt that divergent thinking, rejecting the old solutions and striking out in some new direction, was entirely proper. Some divergence characterized all scientific work. However, he wondered whether flexibility and open-mindedness had not been too exclusively emphasized as the characteristics requisite for basic research. [8] This was where he put forth his idea of “the essential tension”, suggesting that the ability to support a tension that can occasionally become almost unbearable is one of the prime requisites for the very best sort of scientific research. Kuhn described education in natural sciences as rigid and traditional. By this Kuhn revolted against the widely held belief that the development of creative people was hampered by traditional institutions of education. [9]

Of course one must think of the symbolic importance of institutions that attract ambitious scientists. But isn’t Kuhn’s opinion interesting here in Iceland where the opposite is usually held forth, since the emergence of new ideas which are often maintained in discussions in Iceland regarding development of the university level appears to differ from Kuhn’s ideas? Now someone might ask if his theory relating to scientific revolutions is relevant in our home environment and in our workplaces. This question certainly deserves attention since this discussion was first put forth in relation to a staff day on the strengthening of research at the Iceland University of Education. [10]

Everyone tailors a suit to size, and I am neither going to make prophesies about the development of research or about how far away our knowledge and science are from a scientific revolution! The discussion on these points is simply literal, revolving generally around content, conditions and presuppositions for creative thought and innovative knowledge as I mentioned at the beginning.

I have mentioned the value of organised working methods and institutions, and of disciplined thinking on the one hand and the value of chaos, innovation and challenge on the other. Here I could go on and discuss organisation that suffocates and chaos that exhausts. We could discuss organisation as a safety net and chaos as an incitement. One might ask what characterises these phenomena at work and in institutions as such. One might also consider how one can develop that creative power to establish and maintain an organisation with inbuilt chaos and more in that line. This I will leave for the moment and I will turn now to one more concept, which is flow.


In my discussion on how innovation relates to time and concentration one can mention one more point which is the rather peculiar state of mind which anyone who has become deeply engaged in a topic recognises. This state of mind that forms can be connected to what some speak of as “flow”. What is meant by this?

Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist of Hungarian descent, has written a book on the subject and defined flow as the following:

A change in the state of mind is formed when dealing with the excitement and
difficulty of facing a challenge /.../ characterised by perfect concentration alongside a
sense of timelessness and euphoria. (Mihály Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 8)

According to this, flow is apparent when, among other points, one loses a sense of time and space. This is particularly interesting, for as Nässil has pointed out, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint how ideas develop.

It seems to me that Csikszentmihalyi’s definition shows that one is alone with one’s subject in a different way than earlier and things start to happen. Is flow similar to feeling that the pen starts writing on its own? Is it flow when a hitherto unknown way of presenting and connecting information and ideas occurs? This is something that occurs after a long period of work, so once again it is work, or concentration, that matters.

Concluding remarks

In this article certain aspects have been teased out from the practical framework of research plans. It is maintained that they matter at least as much as the general organising principles that are usually discussed. An understanding of this and continued discussions can perhaps be of benefit for future work.


  1. The article is an extended version of a talk on the constructing of a research plan presented on a staff day at The Iceland University of University on 18 March 2002. Originally published in Icelandic in Netla, the Electronic Journal of Iceland University of Education September 10. 2002.

  2. See essays in Ödman 1990, see bibliography. In this paper the question of to what extent something is new in research is not discussed.

  3. Translations on direct quotations from Swedish are my own and were then translated to English

  4. See Nässil, 1990.

  5. See Ernberg and Nässil, 1990.

  6. See Nässil, 1990.

  7. Enberg, 1990, Philipson, 1990.

  8. See Ernberg, who cites Kuhn 1959, reprinted 1977. The essential tension. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 225-239.

  9. Kuhn, 1959.

  10. The Iceland University of University merged with the University of Iceland July 1st 2008 and is now named School of Education.


Chalmers, A., F. 1982. What is this thing called science? Milton Keynes, Open University Press.

Csikszentmihalyis, M.1990. Att uppleva “flow". [To experience flow] In Ödman, M. (Ed.) Om kreativitet och flow. [On creativity and flow] Värnamo, Brombergs, 38–49.

Ernberg, I. 1990. Språket et fängelse. [The language a prison] In Ödman, M. (Ed.) Om kreativitet och flow. [On Creativity and flow] Värnamo, Brombergs, 123–132.

Klein, G. 1990. Är vetenskapsmän kreativa? [Are scientists creative?] In Ödman, M. (Ed.) Om kreativitet och flow. [On creativity and flow] Värnamo, Brombergs, 50–64.

Kuhn T. (1959). The essential tension. Tradition and innovation in scientific research [The Third University of Utah Research Conference on the Identification of Scientific Talent, ed. C. W. Taylor (Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press 1959)]. Retrieved Aug 28th from

Nässil, A. 1990. Disciplin och skapande. [Discipline and innovation] In Ödman, M. (Ed.) Om kreativitet och flow. [On creativity and flow] Värnamo, Brombergs, 211–220.

Philipson, L. 1990. Den kreativa gruppen. [The creative group] In Ödman, M. (Ed.) Om kreativitet och flow. [On creativity and flow] Värnamo, Brombergs, 116–122.

Páll Skúlason 1987. Hvað eru vísindi? [What is science?] In Pælingar. [Explorations] Reykjavík, Ergo, pp.131–144.

Silverman, D. 2000. Doing qualitative research. A practical handbook. London, SAGE.

Smith, G. 1990. Testad kreativitet. [Creativity tested] In Ödman, M. (Ed.) Om kreativitet och flow. [On creativity and flow] Värnamo, Brombergs, 273–283.


I wish to thank Marín Rós Tumadóttir and Robert Berman for the assistance with translating this article to English.


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