Minkin: a play in several acts

Exits and Entrances
October 3, 1997

It is no surprise to research scholars to be told that academic publications rarely reveal much about the nature of the research process by which they emerged. There is, as the distinguished scientist, Peter Medawar, put it, an element of the fraudulent in most scholarly work: the finished product offered to the world obscures an important story about the true gestation of the work.

Since the mid-1970s there have been various attempts by British social scientists to reveal this other dimension to their work. However, the coverage of the research activity of academics in the field of politics has up until now not been very well served in this respect and if it does nothing else Lewis Minkin's work fills an important gap as far as political field research is concerned. But Exits and Entrances: Political Research as Creative Art does indeed do something else - something with a much broader significance in social science research. It gives us a distinctive analytical study of the creative process of the mind at work in research over a long period.

In his studies of the British Labour party, The Labour Party Conference (1978) and The Contentious Alliance (1991), Minkin has over 30 years emerged as the defining and creative scholar of his field, producing huge and seminal texts which have changed our understanding of the way that the Labour party worked over its first 90 years.

His analytical study in his latest work of the processes by which his ideas emerged and developed and of the interdependence of psychological and intellectual abilities in research work, draws from wide reading in the literature on creativity but locates it squarely within the subjectivity of the author's own experience of the practicalities and opportunities, exits and entrances, of the creative process in scholarship. He does this by an approach to his own activities that is reflective and introspective, appropriately distanced yet closely linked with personal emotional and motivational responses and with a range of autobiographical developments.

Minkin dropped out of school at the age of 15 with no qualifications or ambitions and a deep sense of failure. What he describes is the subsequent development of ambition - a personal project to understand and change the political world allied to an odyssey to develop the ability to think. Inspired as a mature student by reading the work of Brewster Ghiselin and alerted by his own observational vigilance about his mental activities this odyssey became, in time, an attempt to develop and build upon his own creativity.

Minkin's inner creative life as a researcher and writer is described in particularly illuminating terms in the coverage of what he calls his "theatre of the mind" - that assembly of functions and characters through which the creative process takes place. In this drama we encounter not only the Detective and the Pattern-maker, as well as the Player, the Explorer, and the Pilgrim, but also the Chattering Monkey and the Awkward Sod.

At various times in this theatre there are constant battles - sometimes between two different Pattern-makers, an artist and a realist, as well as between different kinds of critics - the Destructive Critic and the Creative Critic and an entire Vicious Circle of Critics.

What emerges from the conflicts and communications of these characters is an original work and a remarkably honest self-portrayal. It is one of many features which make this a valuable study. To an unusual degree among academics Minkin is prepared to reveal faults and weaknesses, and to dwell on the anxieties of the scholar at work - "the sleepless nights, the daily fights, the quick toboggan when you reach the heights". The "Vienna Panic" that he describes is both enlightening and very funny. Even more unusual the work begins and ends with the theme of failure - a bold theme in these times and a theme which Minkin views positively in motivational and intellectually creative terms.

Throughout the work Minkin offers us an insight into a variety of his personal methods. Perhaps the section which most academics (and particularly most postgraduate students) will find alluringly useful is the chapter where Minkin describes his various modes of heuristic thinking. These are interventions which seek to change perception, generate alternatives and enlarge possibilities in such a way as to generate the emergence of original insights. What he gives us are his personal techniques - in essence the tricks of the trade - in pursuing the creative activity of field research.

He is not claiming comprehensiveness in these techniques nor that there is one true path, methodology or mode of work. Minkin is a methodological pluralist and a believer that creativity can emerge in a variety of ways and around different methodologies. In his own work he is a classic lone scholar but he recognises that creativity can be produced jointly or in collective enterprise. The self-reliance that also marks his style of work is linked to a commitment to mutuality, not least in a convincing plea for a new sharing of experiences, a more open dialogue among research scholars about their personal creative processes, including their personal techniques of thinking. In leading the way he reveals much of his own methods in a way which will prove to be a godsend to a generation of research scholars. There is of course an acute dilemma in his account which is acknowledged in the study but might have been explored further. It is likely that only a scholar absolutely secure in the achievements made and acknowledged in a particular field could have the confidence to drop so much of the protective mask and reveal so much of the real working experience. And perhaps only a scholar with the time away from the increasingly pressurised nature of university bureaucratic obligations and the neo-Stakhanovism of the research assessment exercise would find the time to involve themselves in reflection and publication with this depth of self-analysis.

All of which reinforces the case Minkin makes towards the end of his study, where he moves away from his own work to discuss briefly the potentialities of universities as centres of creativity. In this he draws attention to what he describes as the degeneration of the culture of research in universities - the dangers of fulfilling quantitative targets and an over-preoccupation with the assessment of results. Here he gives some pertinent warnings about the dangers of ignoring the role of appropriate time and risk in the creative process. New government, research councils and research assessment exercise managers please note.

Exits and Entrances is a book to savour and stimulate for its insights into the nature of creativity not just in political research but in a wide variety of intellectual and artistic endeavours as well.

Arthur Lipow is lecturer in politics, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Exits and Entrances: Political Research as a Creative Art

Author - Lewis Minkin
ISBN - 0 86339 6364
Publisher - Sheffield Hallam University Press
Price - £13.95
Pages - 371

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