Monthly Archives: April 2013

Seeing the wood and the trees


Flying to Perth last week, I had the luxury of a window seat, which allowed me to look down over scenes that I’ve driven through in the past – seemingly endless ripples of huge sand dunes with long, straight 4WD tracks scratched into the surface of the earth…the crumpled boundary between land and ocean…the occasional silver-green serpent winding through tree-dotted river flats…it’s difficult not to wax lyrical when you see this fabulous land from so far above. I was mesmerized. The appearance of the landscape from the air is so different to the one you see through the window of a 4WD, juddering along corrugations or navigating a stony creek crossing. Moreover, stop for an exploratory break at the roadside, and unimaginable details is laid out at your feet – ants and lizards, paw prints and snake lines, plant life that combines toughness with extraordinary delicacy. A micro-universe of activity and colour.

Late last year I flew into Sydney as fireworks were being exploded over Darling Harbour, and had the city version of this experience. Living nearby, fireworks are a regular part of our ‘landscape’. I’m more than familiar with seeing the whole sky lit up, the soundtrack of whistling screams and time-delayed thunderclaps sending local dogs into a frenzy of distress. It hadn’t occurred to me that seeing fireworks from far above is quite different. Through an aeroplane window, fireworks are not only tiny (I looked twice before I realised what I was seeing) but they’re also silent.

The phrase ‘seeing the wood for the trees’ occurred to me when I was mulling over my ideas about perspective. I suspect that I’ve misunderstood this phrase all my life. Which wood? Wood as in forest, or wood as in timber? Growing up in a place where wood was something that might be put on a fire, and many trees together formed a forest or ‘the bush’, I thought the saying referred to being unable to see the fine detail (the grain of the timber) because of the distraction of the leaves, the branches…the shape of the tree itself. Of course, it now occurs to me (d’uh) that it probably means not seeing the bigger picture (forest) due to getting bogged down in the smaller image (trees).

In reality, every image or meaning in context comprises layers of perspective. Some of us intentionally focus on the big picture. We are policy-thinkers, astronauts seeing the earth from our orbiting spaceship. Others are immersed in the detail – case workers exploring and untangling messiness in search of tiny points of meaning that influence, stone-in-pond-like, increasingly wide spheres of someone’s life. Many of us try to manage multiple layers, from individual lives to their experience in the local and global social environment, without having our heads completely done in in the process. This is almost a definition of social work, however awkwardly explained.

As a social researcher, managing multiple and simultaneous perspectives is inescapable. We must incorporate big-picture theory and minute details of method, contextual issues and nuances of a single word in an interview. We must shift our focus from the forest, to the tree, to the roughness of the bark, and back again, constantly keeping them in balance, and enriching our understanding of each through the meanings we find in the others.

So, who said social research was the soft option? Double-blind randomised controlled trial, anyone?