Explain why your research is worth doing … it might be obvious to you but it’s not necessarily clear to others. But it’s not just you who has to explain. All scholars have to justify why their research topic is important.
You have to create the warrant for your research when you write the proposal for entry to the PhD, when you apply for funding and when you write the thesis. You also have to explain the warrant for a book, a paper and a book chapter.
Now, your justification for doing a particular kind of research is often found in the wider social political cultural context. Or maybe in professional practice. There’s a problem that needs attending to urgently. And you’re just the person to do it.
However, all scholars also have to find where their research fits in, and fits with, existing scholarship. That means getting into the literatures. While you will have had a rationale for your research when you applied for the PhD, there is always more to add after you have immersed yourself in the literatures. And your university will usually make sure that you are able to mount an additional literature based argument for your research by having some kind of mini-exam (paper and viva).
So how do you add this additional literatures based warrant? It’s not uncommon to argue the need for a particular piece of research on the grounds of a gap in the literatures. No-one’s done it before.
I’ve written before about the risks and problems that gap talk can create. To sum these up – There usually isn’t a gap at all, but rather a little niche that you need to carve out for yourself. And there might be a very good reason why no one has done this research before – it’s really not at all significant and not worth doing compared to all the things that really do need to be done now. What’s more, gap talk research is incremental and generally isn’t field changing – its a small, contained contribution. Finally, gap talk can be pretty disrespectful to the field, making it sound as if everyone is stupid for not having thought about the topic before.
But if you don’t do gap talk, what can you do?
Here is one strategy for creating a warrant using your reading of the literatures. The strategy was developed by Karen Golden-Biddle and Karen Locke. They talk about three ways of locating your research in the field:
The field has up to now done this much, said this, shown this, argued this. That is all really important, good and worthwhile. However, there is still more to be done – a, b and c for example. This research is going to do a which is crucial to do now because… This research adds to the existing body of work.
This is a polite and appreciative stance. Humble in that it doesn’t claim to be superior in any way to others in the field. No hubris here.
The field has up to now done this much, said this, shown this, argued this. But they could/should have done more about a, b and/or c, given…. This research is going to redress this omission/balance the agenda by….
This is a more direct, assertive and critical stance. Inadequacy is a warrant you might take up if you were concerned with the field overlooking particular points of view, alternative perspectives, different interpretations. The researcher – you – will address oversights, introducing new theory or new sources.
The field has up to now done this much, said this, shown this, argued this. This is incommensurable with… other researchers could/should have done more about a, b and/or c, given…. Failing to address a, b or c amounts to ( something very wrong, bad ). This research will offer a better alternative approach by…
Incommensurability is a much more antagonistic approach, it passes judgment on the field for its ongoing failures to deal with something very important. The researcher is not only being provocative, but is also going to remedy the wrong-doing they have identified. Researchers who want to take the field somewhere else very often have to argue a version of incommensurability. The field has not been up to the task and really needs to take a hard look at itself and do something very different.
I like Gold-Biddle and Locke’s three categories because they force you to take a stand one way or another. You can’t hide behind an undefined gap and dodge saying what you think the field has done. Using one of the three categories means that you are obliged to say what kind of problem there is in the field and what you will do about it. And if you want to be critical of the field, you have two ways to go about it, one much more likely to raise hackles than the other.
Of course, you don’t need to use these categories at all. Or per se. But they are very handy thinking aides. You can use the three categories to help you think through the way you construct the warrant for your study. As you work on developing your research warrant, ask yourself
Am I saying that my research is needed because the field is incomplete, inadequate or incommensurable?
Much better than simply saying there’s a gap.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Thank you very much for this post, Prof. Thomson. As with your various other posts, this is also really helpful in opening one’s mind to critical discussions on their own research.
As for finding a “gap” or “niche” in the literature, I think that professional-practice-based research can provide another path at the beginning here, as the starting point is likely to be an issue to be solved or a status quo to be changed in the professional practice realm, rather than a “gap” or “niche” in the literature. Of course, the academic objective will still be making a contribution to the literature, thus opening up similar discussions on “how one’s research fits into and makes use of the existing knowledge in the literature” and then in turn “how that research contributes to the literature”.