addressing ‘the gap’ in the field

suad-kamardeen-760319-unsplash

One of the conventions of academic life is the work of justification. To justify. To say why we are going to do what we are going to do.

We regularly have to justify why we want to research something and why we ought to be funded to do it. We have to justify why the paper or book we are writing is important and why it needs to be published and read. Mmm. So familiar.

A very common way to justify academic work is by “finding the gap”. That is, you look at all of the work that has been done, and then ask what isn’t there. What’s missing. What hasn’t been done is then called “the gap”. You next design a study that is different from those you’ve found and you say that it fills the “gap”. The “gap” provides the research warrant, your justification.

Now there are various ways to justify researching in the “gap”.One approach is to say that everything else that has gone before is inadequate because it hasn’t addressed the issue that you have identified and clever you is going to fix things.

I see this a lot and I worry that it can sound like a not-particularly-collegial stance. That’s the danger with gap talk. You end up suggesting that everyone who has gone before you is a bit lacking.

So it can be helpful, in order to avoid a me-me-me-look-at-me justification, to opt for a bit of a list which recognises what has been done first. And then to make the gap justification suggest that you are adding to a worthwhile body of published work.

Here’s one version of gap talk that attempts to avoid making everyone else and their work sound below par. Below are the first two paragraphs of a paper entitled Skating stories. A sociology of sport analysis. ( Yes I’ve made that up) This paper uses the kind of gap talk justification that you often see in academic writing.

The two paragraphs are on the left-hand side of the table, my commentary on the right.

The emergence of Skating Studies (SS) took place in the 1960s, although a number of universities, including Ivy State and Liberal College, offered taught programmes in the 1930s aimed at skating event organisers. Since the 1980s, SS as a research field has grown internationally evidenced by the emergence of masters’ and doctoral-level programmes, dedicated research centres, the growth of full professorial level appointments and a burgeoning literature clustered around core areas, notably coaching. There has also been an exponential growth in the number of SS journals and emerging interest in the relative status of this new subfield linked to its impact and influence. Historical stock is now being taken of developments in SS over the last 40 years or more. This opening paragraph offers the context for the study (what Barbara and I call the location). It argues there’s  a sizeable field called Skating Studies and that people are now examining it and what it has achieved.

 

Yet, to date, there has been little in-depth, qualitative analysis of the emergence of SS as an intellectual field understood by reference to the sociology of sport. Previous studies have focused mainly on historical overviews (e.g. references) or the collation and analysis of quantitative data concerning accidents, audience numbers, participation rates internationally (e.g. references). Quantitative studies have been valuable in identifying general patterns of engagement and participant longevity. However, they have not offered fine-grained and in-depth accounts of SS as an academic subfield in all its disciplinary, organisational and intellectual complexity. Yet to date there has been little … this is a standard way of gap identifying. Here the gap is identified as taking stock from only two disciplinary perspectives – so there is a disciplinary gap.

 

You don’t have to do gap talk once you’ve established what work is left to be done in the field. How else might we work here?

Well, you might think of the gap as simply work not yet done. As an open space. And you can approach that open space as (1) a judgment on the field and those in it, as (2) the next place to be, or (3) as a place for more speculative work.

So next I’ve simply moved some of the sentences around and changed a few words. The original is on the left, my new version on the right. The new version is what I call the NEXT STEP approach.

Yet, to date, there has been little in-depth, qualitative analysis of the emergence of SS as an intellectual field understood by reference to the sociology of sport. Previous studies have focused mainly on historical overviews (e.g. references) or the collation and analysis of quantitative data concerning accidents, audience numbers, participation rates internationally (e.g. references). Quantitative studies have been valuable in identifying general patterns of engagement and participant longevity. However, they have not offered fine-grained and in-depth accounts of SS as an academic subfield in all its disciplinary, organisational and intellectual complexity. To date, studies OF SS have focused mainly on historical overviews (e.g. references) AND the collation and analysis of quantitative data concerning accidents, audience numbers, participation rates internationally (e.g. references). Quantitative studies have been valuable in identifying general patterns of engagement and participant longevity THE NEXT STEP IS TO BUILD A CORPUS OF fine-grained and in-depth accounts of SS as an academic subfield in all its disciplinary, organisational and intellectual complexity – IN PARTICULAR in-depth, qualitative analysis of the emergence of HES as an intellectual field understood by reference to the sociology of sport.

And of course, you could modify this next step version even further by saying A next step not THE next step.

And here’s another version. This is what I call the WHAT IF approach. I’ve had to do a slightly more extensive rewrite to make WHAT IF work, but you can still see the links with the original.

Yet, to date, there has been little in-depth, qualitative analysis of the emergence of SS as an intellectual field understood by reference to the sociology of sport. Previous studies have focused mainly on historical overviews (e.g. references) or the collation and analysis of quantitative data concerning accidents, audience numbers, participation rates internationally (e.g. references). Quantitative studies have been valuable in identifying general patterns of engagement and participant longevity. However, they have not offered fine-grained and in-depth accounts of SS as an academic subfield in all its disciplinary, organisational and intellectual complexity. To date, studies of SS have focused mainly on historical overviews (e.g. references) AND the collation and analysis of quantitative data concerning accidents, audience numbers, participation rates internationally (e.g. references). Quantitative studies have been valuable in identifying general patterns of engagement and participant longevity. BUT WHAT MIGHT WE LEARN FROM fine-grained and in-depth accounts of SS as an academic subfield in all its disciplinary, organisational and intellectual complexity ? WHAT WOULD in-depth, qualitative analysis of the emergence of SS as an intellectual field understood by reference to the sociology of sport ALLOW US TO SEE THAT THE LARGE SCALE STUDIES DON’T?

All of these three approaches – gap talk, next step and what if  – provide a justification for the paper. In each case the third paragraph will go on to explain what a finer-grained analysis using a sociology of sport perspective will offer and why that is important; the fourth paragraph will provide the precise focus and outline of the paper.

And in each case, this is a pretty standard bit of academic writing. There’s no breaking boundaries in any of the three options. But there are some interesting differences in the researcher stance that underpins each of these approaches.

The gap filler, no matter how much they struggle to be appreciative, starts from a deficit position. Here is what the field doesn’t do. They the gap filler is going to sort this out. They will fix this important omission.

The next stepper positions themselves as part of the field and about to make a positive contribution to what has gone before.

The what iffer is also positioned as part of the field but as someone who would like to do a little creative work to see what experimentation might have to offer.

None of these three options is wrong. They are simply different. In each case, the justification in and through the writing places the researcher in a particular position vis a vis their colleagues and their work.

And here’s the added important point. These three options show you that there is a choice in the way in which projects are justified.

And it’s entirely up to you which of these versions, or other ones you think of, that you opt for. Which researcher position you prefer to take. It’s your choice. You don’t have to do gap talk to justify your work if you don’t want to.

 

Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, deficit positioning, gap-spotting, next step, research warrant, stance, thesis warrant, warrant, what if and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to addressing ‘the gap’ in the field

  1. tiwarisac says:

    That was a useful piece Prof Thomson. Thinking from Ph.D proposal perspective, often it isn’t a choice. Ideally, I wouldn’t like to gap talk. But that’s how the admission and research teams are trained/prefer to see research pitches.
    Enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

    – Sachin

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for this. I have found it difficult to identify my gap without sounding judgemental of others research and while I will avoid plagiarising your work, it sums up what I want to say.

    Like

  3. niques86 says:

    Very useful and much food for thought. Thanks so much for sharing! I really resonate with the what if approach and I’ll find it interesting to look back at my previous work and perhaps cringe at the negativity in my tone when referring to what further work can be done in my field. Awareness is key🙂. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fariba says:

    That’s super useful. Thank you! I’m currently struggling to articulate the new perspective I’m contributing to a rich body of scholarship.

    Like

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