Significant absences

By Gordon Rugg

In a previous article, I looked at the concept of infinity, symbolised by the circular Buddhist enso symbols in the banner below.

In today’s article, I’ll look at the concept of absence, symbolised by the Victorian racehorse in the banner below.

It’s an interesting concept, and a very useful part of the researcher’s toolkit, either as an elegant method of first choice for demonstrating sophisticated methodological mastery, or as a desperate last resort that might just manage to drag victory from out of the jaws of looming defeat.

Infinity and absence: A tale of ensos, zeroes, racehorses and unsleeping dogs…banner

Sources of original images are given at the end of this article

There are plenty of excellent books and articles about the concept of zero, and its enormous significance for mathematics, so I won’t go into that topic.

Absence has had less attention. It’s different from zero, although there are quite a few areas of overlap.

I’ll use two examples to demonstrate some advantages of using the concept of absence systematically.

The first, broader, example is the concept of significant absence.

This concept is well established in some disciplines; it’s a familiar friend in archaeology, for instance.

The most famous example is the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze, which is the one with the dog that didn’t bark in the night. Holmes correctly spots that the absence of the reaction from the dog is significant, and is an indicator that the crime was an inside job.

Some absences are not significant; for instance, if the dog in the story had been a quiet, friendly animal that didn’t often bark, then the absence of a bark in the night wouldn’t have told Holmes anything about who the criminal might be. Since, however, the dog was a distrustful watchdog, the absence of a bark in the night told Holmes that the criminal was someone that the dog knew well, which was why the dog didn’t bark.

In archaeology, the absence of finds is often important; it tells us about what was going on at a particular place. Some of the biggest prehistoric sites, for instance, such as Stonehenge and Pueblo Bonito, have a significant absence of ordinary domestic finds around them. The absence tells us that the sites didn’t have people living in or near them. Instead, the sites were special places that people travelled to from a distance, and where people might stay for a short time, presumably for religious and/or ceremonial reasons.

In research design, you can get some very interesting insights from what is significantly absent in your results. You might, for instance, have every reason to expect that you will find a particular result, based on the previous literature, but then you find that the result is significantly absent from your data. That can be a very good thing indeed, for an academic researcher. Sometimes this happens through design, where the researcher has a shrewd idea of what to expect; sometimes it happens by accident.

The classic example was the Michelson-Morley experiment in 1887. In brief, the researchers set out to measure the speed at which the earth moved through luminiferous ether. They found a significant absence of any evidence of movement (or of luminiferous ether). This was a complete surprise, and sparked a massive flowering of new ideas in physics, the most prominent of which was Einstein’s theory of relativity.

On a less noble note, if you’re into dirty academic in-fighting, a classic way of undermining an approach that you despise is to demonstrate that there’s a significant absence of improvement from using that approach.

For instance, cynics and unkind people quite often claim that there is a significant absence of measurable benefit from going through a teacher training course, or going to business school, in terms of professional performance afterwards.

On the social and political front, there are numerous significant absences in the media, in literature, in history books, and in most forms of high culture. Minority groups, for instance, are usually significantly absent in most of these places.

The same principle extends to research, where there are numerous significant absences in what is researched, often because of social taboos. For instance, sex is a significant feature of human life, but there’s a significant absence of departments of sexual studies in the vast majority of universities.

This absence has not gone un-noticed, and is one of the better points made by postmodernists and by sociologists of science.

The second, more specific, example I’ll use is the concept of silence ownership.

This concept comes from the field of discourse analysis. As the name implies, this field involves analysing discourse, including conversations between people.

One of the things that you find when you analyse conversations systematically is that people have the concept of taking turns in a conversation. This in itself is no great surprise. However, the turn-taking includes some less obvious conventions about what happens during a silence. Some silences are treated as pauses, where the person who has been speaking is temporarily silent; other silences are treated as endings, when the speaker has finished speaking. If you start talking during a pause, that’s generally perceived as rude, whereas if you start talking after an ending, that’s acceptable. So, the silence during a pause belongs to the person who has been speaking.

It’s a neat example of how there can be different types of silence, and different types of absence. Like the concept of zero, the concept of absence is powerful, in ways that aren’t immediately obvious, but that make a huge difference to the world.

On which edifying note, I’ll end, and wonder whether I should have included the quote from A Man for All Seasons about types of silence, or whether its absence is not significant.

Notes and links

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese

Sources of banner images:

“Enso” by Kendrick Shaw – Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons –

“The Adventure of Silver Blaze 09” by Sidney Paget (1860-1908) – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Overviews of the articles on this blog:





2 thoughts on “Significant absences

  1. Pingback: Getting an overview of the literature via review articles | hyde and rugg

  2. Pingback: Instrumental and expressive behaviour | hyde and rugg

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