Doing and Disseminating Meaningful Research
Rohit Kumar Abhimalla
Research Scholar, School of Management Studies, University of Hyderabad, India
Published Online: February 03, 2014
Note. This is a report on a panel discussion held at Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) on December 10, 2013. The panellists were: (i) D . P. Dash, Swinburne University of Technology, Malaysia (Chair), (ii) Vishwanath V. Baba, DeGroote School of Business, McMaster University, Canada, (iii) Peter Stokes, University of Chester Business School, United Kingdom, and (iv) Premilla D’Cruz, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, India. The panel discussion was held as a part of a doctoral colloquium organized by IIMA, during December 9-11, 2013.
The panel discussion was organised as part of a doctoral colloquium and the audience included several research students. The panellists were experienced academics from institutions of higher learning in Canada, India, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom, representing research interests in applied social and behavioural sciences. The audience included, among others, more than 50 research students at various stages of their studies in the social and behavioural sciences. The discussion started with the panellists presenting their individual perspectives on the topic of meaningfulness in research, comparing their lived experiences as research students themselves with their current understanding of the topic.
The discussion unravelled several dimensions of meaningfulness. The panel appeared to suggest that, our notion of meaningful research and our approach to doing and disseminating such research evolves over time, as we continue to educate and develop ourselves as researchers.
As the panellists traced the pathways of their own development as researchers, various ideas of meaningfulness emerged. For the purpose of this report, the ideas of meaningfulness have been divided in terms of their relevance to researchers at different stages of their development--early-stage, intermediate-stage, and mature-stage--although such a structure was not specifically mentioned by any of the panellists.
1. Early-Stage Ideas of Meaningfulness
At an early stage of development, researchers tend to be somewhat myopic, focused on ideals, and rather ambitious in their choice of research topics. Reflecting on their own days as research students, the panellists referred to the following early-stage ideas of meaningfulness:
(a) selecting research topics that would please their supervisors or other institutional leaders,
(b) being inclined towards grand questions which are intellectually appealing,
(c) looking for neat and rigorous answers to their grand questions,
(d) seeking to solve complex social problems, and
(e) aiming to be involved in major social or organisational change processes.
Naturally, as early-stage researchers progress through their work, their ideas of meaningfulness begin to change. Doubts arise in their minds about their own understanding of the selected topics while their vision of research becomes gradually more realistic. They begin to recognise research communities and research programmes outside their own departments, faculties, or institutions. Their ambitions begin to be moderated by the prevailing institutional and intellectual climate within which they must work.
2. Intermediate-Stage Ideas of Meaningfulness
At their intermediate-stage of development, researchers acquire a closer familiarity with the research process. They recognise the role of individual researchers within research communities and other social groups associated with a field of study. This leads to a reassessment of their past experiences and future directions, leading to possible adjustments to their research focus. At this stage, their changing image of research begins to take note of the points of connections between the clear logic of research on the one hand and the complex sociology of knowledge on the other. Ideas of meaningfulness at this stage could be related to the following:
(a) aligning the research focus with their evolving understanding of themselves as researchers,
(b) developing interactions with scholars and researchers beyond their own departments or institutions,
(c) being engaged with other researchers, research communities, and relevant social groups,
(d) seeking broader theories and conceptual frameworks to guide their research, and
(e) recognising the sociology and politics of knowledge.
Moving on from this stage, researchers begin to focus on achieving research outputs which would enhance their profile and secure themselves in a suitable research-based career. In pursuing these goals, they recognise the value of collaborating with others, developing a unique personal narrative through their research experiences, and undertaking projects and engagements that would increase their future prospects as researchers or research-oriented professionals..
3. Mature-Stage Ideas of Meaningfulness
3.1. Convergence of Scholarship, Productivity, and Influence
Passing through their stages of development, researchers acquire not only a broader understanding of their field of research, but also a more comprehensive grasp of research as a personal commitment and a social practice. As researchers mature, their grasp of research draws together the three operational domains involved in their work:
(a) scholarship (i.e., engaging with codified knowledge, process of inquiry, and conceptual imagination),
(b) productivity (i.e., producing outputs such as concepts, theories, predications, designs, innovations, etc.), and
(c) influence (i.e., bringing the outputs to bear on the actions, decisions, and policies within the world of affairs).
In drawing together these three domains, both rigour and relevance assume importance. While the expectations of rigour must be met in transforming scholarship to research outputs, the expectations of relevance must be met in translating research outputs into applications in the world of affairs. As the domains come closer towards each other, a more integrated picture of research emerges. The entire process of such research could adopt frameworks such as engaged research, integrative research, or transdisciplinary research.
3.2. Virtual Faculty and Network of Competence
Recognising that one does not have all the capacities and competencies required to perform all the present and future research tasks, mature-stage researchers tend to build their own “virtual faculty” beyond the confines of their own institution or discipline. They do this through collaborative linkages with wider national and international contexts, so as to develop and benefit from a “network of competence.”
3.3. Archival vs. Generative Contributions
Mature-stage researchers distinguish between two ideal-type contributions: (a) archival contributions (i.e., contributions to the research literature) and (b) generative contributions (i.e., contributions that generate new possibilities for action). Archival contributions may provide reliable knowledge but these do not indicate any specific course of action. In contrast to this, generative contributions are more focused on enabling innovative action. Such actions may introduce new phenomena, thus requiring new volumes of archival contributions.
3.4. Risk and Return of Research
Research projects have their inherent risks and potential returns. While risks manifest in terms of time, cost, uncertainties, and difficulties, returns arise in the form of unique results, highly cited publications, peer recognition, institutional support, and practical impact. Purely empirical studies or replication studies may promise low returns but involve low risks as well. In comparison, studies aimed at developing new instruments, theories, or methods would fall under the high-risk but high-return category. Mature-stage researchers exercise choice in shaping the risk-return profile of their projects.
3.5. Researcher Identity
Developing a researcher identity happens over time. Mature-stage researchers are aware of their developing identities and try to shape that development through their projects, writings, networks, and engagements. There are trade-offs involved, in terms of topics and domains investigated (e.g., between narrow specialised domains vs. broad policy-focused domains), methods used (e.g., experiment, simulation, statistical modelling, archival analysis, case studies, systems design, action research, etc.), publication avenues (e.g., prestigious academic journals vs. professional and public media outlets), and so forth. Naturally different individuals would choose differently, depending on their personal antecedents as well as opportunities available.
4. Challenge of Selecting a Research Topic
Ironically, research students must select a topic while their ideas of meaningfulness are still at an early stage of development. The panel dwelt on the following thoughts to assist research students at this stage.
Any topic could be located within a field of study. The field itself could be located within progressively wider fields. It is important to develop a sense of the wider background of the topic selected. Familiarity with this wider background clarifies what is known about the topic and what is still in question. Moreover, the wider background also clarifies the practical and scholarly implications of engaging with those questions and finding answers.
It is advisable to select a topic that resonates with the researcher at a personal level. This increases the chance that the researcher might sustain the long-term commitment necessary to achieve timely completion. Of course, topics do change in response to the practical circumstances of research as well as the researcher’s developing ideas of meaningfulness.
Once defined in sufficiently clear terms, research questions lead the researcher to consider relevant approaches and research methods. One must be mindful of the issue of risk and return at this point, minimising risks and maximising returns to the extent possible and desirable within one’s institutional and disciplinary setting.
5. Audience Interaction
Here is a gist of the questions asked by audience members and the responses by the panellists.
5.1. Short-term vs. Long-term
Q. If researchers become business-minded, would it not hamper the growth of knowledge?
A. There is always a need to balance the short-term and long-term objectives in research. A degree of business-orientation may be necessary to demonstrate practical relevance of research and attract resources and talents to develop a research programme. However, such a business-orientation ought to be moderated by the programmatic focus of research. When this process is well managed, the practical results can provide the new information necessary to develop the research program (e.g., by adding new evidence or counter-evidence, raising new questions, posing new dilemmas, etc.).
5.2. Rigour vs. Relevance
Q. In passion-driven research, does it become difficult to maintain rigour?
A. It depends on what kind of passion is involved. Blind passion can derail a project of systematic inquiry. But if it is enlightened passion, it can sustain research. In fact, all genuine research appears to involve a degree of enlightened passion. Practices such as peer review and research evaluation offer checks and balances to keep blind passion under control.
5.3. Qualitative vs. Quantitative
Q. Whether qualitative or quantitative research is more relevant to applied disciplines?
A. The labels “qualitative research” and “quantitative research” have been used rather loosely. Sometimes, research projects using qualitative data may subscribe to the same kind of research thinking as those using quantitative data (i.e., seeking to unearth some stable underlying mechanism that generates the observable patterns). However, some studies may adopt a different kind of thinking (e.g., seeking to clarify how a set of circumstances have been experienced by a group of people or seeking to liberate a suppressed voice that increases the breadth of narratives on a subject matter). Of course, the focus of a research project (and the nature of research questions) ought to guide the choice of a suitable type of research thinking. Sometimes, none of the common types of research thinking may be suitable; this is when a new type may have to be invented. Applied disciplines pose many research challenges which cannot be addressed effectively within a single (or a small set of) research thinking. Therefore, it is not wise to foreclose the philosophical and methodological options available to applied disciplines.
5.4. Curiosity-driven vs. Application-driven
Q. Can curiosity-driven and application-driven research coexist?
A. The space for pure curiosity-driven (or “blue-sky”) research is getting increasingly limited in industry, academia, and government. Research is expected to produce practical benefits. Of course, in specific cases, research maybe expected to produce new fields of study which promise future practical benefits. So, although the timeframes may vary, research councils, universities, and industry-based sponsors are definitely keeping an eye on the practical value of the research they may be funding. Of course researchers can pursue their curiosity freely as long as they do not have to justify the time or the resources spent on their pursuit. It is worth noting that applied disciplines offer many opportunities for combining curiosity-driven and application-driven research. Some of the mature-stage ideas of meaningfulness point towards such combinations.
5.5. What About Dissemination?
Q. What are the panel’s views on dissemination?
A. Research results as well as the stories of researchers must reach the relevant audiences. Peer-reviewed publications are a common avenue for sharing research results and research stories. We need to consider the visibility, usership, and impact of research publications. Depending upon the purpose of writing, a variety of avenues other than academic journals might become relevant, such as professional outlets, public media, and social media. Sometimes, video, images, websites, and such other forms may be preferred over the conventional written text. In the more engaged (or integrative) forms of research, ongoing communication must be maintained with the participants or communities involved in the research; this is not so much “dissemination,” but establishing connection, building trust, and searching for a more desirable future together.
Suggested Citation: Abhimalla, R. K. (with Dash, D. P., Baba, V. V., Stokes, P., & D’Cruz, P.) (2014). Doing and disseminating meaningful research. Research World, 11, Article S11.1. Retrieved from http://www1.ximb.ac.in/RW.nsf/pages/S11.1
Copyleft The article may be used freely, for a noncommercial purpose, as long as the original source is properly acknowledged.