The labyrinth of research

Rod Pitcher (@RodPitcher100) is a PhD student in Education at The Centre for Higher Education, Learning and Teaching at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. The focus of his study is the metaphors that researchers use when describing their research.

The ornate textured surface of a bronze urn
Surface of an Urn by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

The labyrinth or maze is a very good metaphor for research. Solving the labyrinth and reaching the middle is similar to solving the problems of research and producing a result.

Finding a starting point to the labyrinth is not usually a problem, since one is probably standing at the entrance.

Similarly, finding a topic for research is not usually very difficult. Topics crop up in one’s work continually. The only difficulty is deciding which one to do first.

The labyrinth winds and meanders all over the place, often in circles, while one is looking for a way that leads somewhere. Some paths that open up have to be investigated to see if they lead anywhere useful.

Similarly, research will meander around the topic until one finds the opening that shows a path that might, hopefully, lead to a worthwhile result. One must follow the twists and turns to decide which ones will lead to the required result. Some of the openings will be useless but all have to be investigated to find the worthwhile ones.

The labyrinth also has many dead-ends that lead nowhere, where one has to retrace one’s steps and try to find one’s way back to the right path. Sometimes it will be difficult to return to known ground unless one has kept some record of the path one has followed to reach the dead end.

Similarly, research has many dead-ends which had seemed to be useful paths but then suddenly peter out to nothing. Sometimes it will be necessary to abandon a useful looking path which has proved misleading and return to an earlier strand of investigation of the literature or topic. A record of the work, as it is being done, will be useful to pinpoint a suitable re-starting point.

Sometimes the labyrinth has a hidden method of solving it. This might be a simple instruction such as “always turn left at any junction of three paths”. If one knows the code for breaking the labyrinth it makes the solution so much easier.

Similarly, research has its method. Although the researcher may favour a particular method, sometime changing to a different one will be worthwhile. Whichever method is chosen must suit the aims and required outcomes of the research. Selecting the right method is also important for achieving a valid and rigorous result. Floundering around without a reliable method is like trying to solve the labyrinth with no idea of what to do next.

If all goes well, eventually one will reach the centre of the labyrinth and gain the reward of a job well done. On the other hand, one might wander until one is thoroughly lost and require rescuing. It is as well to be prepared for failure and one should never be ashamed to seek rescue if one finds the solution of the labyrinth impossible.

Similarly, if the research goes well one will achieve a great result and be able to produce a journal paper or thesis. However, one should be willing to seek help if necessary. Sometimes, if the research gets bogged down, a helping hand in the way of advice from a colleague can help to sort it out and get one back on track. If all else fails the research can be abandoned and a different topic or approach tried.

Some labyrinths are much easier to solve than others. For instance, the walls of the labyrinth might simply be bushy hedges a meter high. Thus it might be possible to see other parts of the labyrinth and either spy out a possible solution or ask advice from other people who are nearer the centre.

So too, some research projects are easier than others. The ‘walls’ of the topic might be low enough to see where the research is leading or an overall view may be available that makes progress easy and steady. Such an overview will help to keep the research in line and help one to avoid going off in interesting but currently worthless directions.

I could stretch the metaphor further and suggest that having a journal paper peer reviewed or a thesis examined is like meeting the Minotaur, the deadly beast, half man half animal, at the centre of the labyrinth, but that would, perhaps, be unfair to the reviewer or examiner.


  1. as einstein had employed the idea of a vehicle made of light to conceptualize relativity, so do researchers nowadays utilize analogy to simplify their ideas. just wondering, does your research on metaphor involve the notion of ontological alignment?


    • Pikir.
      I use metaphors as an indication of the participant’s conceptions. By looking at the metaphor and what it compares to the topic under discussion I am able to understand the person’s ideas in more detail. For instance a person who speaks of the ‘field of research’ has a particlar idea of research that contrasts with that of a person who sees research as ‘a journey’ or a ‘labyrinth’. By analysing the impressions given by the person’s, sometimes unconscious, choice of metaphor I gain an understanding of their thinking about it, partticularly their conceptions of it as a practice. In other words I would argue that thinking of research as ‘a field’, ‘a journey’ or ‘a labyrinth’ involves different thoughts and images about the topic in the mind of the user. These thoughts tell us a lot about the person and their way of thinking about the topic.
      The same thing applies in cases such as the one you mention about Einstein. His choice of metaphor tells us something about him and his thinking as well as helping us understand what he’s getting at.


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