Tuesday, March 02, 2021

The 4 Factors that Influence my Academic Research Projects


The world has many:

 (A) pressing societal problems. 

These societal problems fall into one of two categories: 

(A1) short-term societal problems (e.g. problems that could be resolved in the next decade or two).

Whereas other societal problems are pressing:

(A2) over the long-term (over the next century+). 

The world also has many (B) puzzling and intriguing predicaments, the solution to which will require depth, imagination and innovation in one’s critical thinking skills.   

Some societal issues are a combination of both (A) and (B), and still others are neither (A) nor (B), but makeup category (C)- issues that are not particularly pressing societal problems, nor issues that are particularly intriguing or perplexing.  

And as an educator and scholar interested in thinking about the origins, persistence and potential solution to different types of societal problems I try to always give serious consideration to the issue of deciding on which problems to focus my limited time, limited skills and limited energy on.

 My thought process has changed over my 20+ year academic career, and I take a different attitude towards different things I cover (e.g. a topic I might just address in 1 or 2 journal publications vs a more substantive engagement with in terms of a dozen journal articles over a decade and/or in a book). 

On the whole I think the following 4 factors loom large in my thought process.

(1) I look for problems that I think truly have a significant impact, both in terms of their scope (e.g. global vs just local) and the stakes involved (e.g. human health, happiness or wealth) and the duration of their significance (e.g. over the long run vs just the short-term).

(2) I also tend to pick problems that, while important, are typically ignored or neglected.  I am most intrigued by big problems that are not commonly perceived to be big problems.  That fact itself raises a host of interesting issues to consider.

(3) I am of course constrained by my own field of expertise, intellectual suppositions, biases, etc.  This means there are a long list of pressing issues it is better to let others tackle because they do have the requisite expertise.  But I also try to revise, update and expand my own expertise, when I feel it is important for me to dig deeper into an issue.  But at the same time I recognize that there are some significant problems I am not well positioned to address.

(4) there are also some intangibles at play- like my own intellectual curiosity and interest.  Some societal problems don’t really raise significant philosophical or ethical concerns.   It might sound somewhat perverse, but a big part of my attraction to theorizing about many of the issues I tackle is that doing so is, well,  fun!  They are issues that present a significant intellectual challenge to me because they require “outside the box” thinking, or the integration of empirical knowledge and normative theory, etc.  Some topics just really fascinate me, and motivation is key when it comes to academic research.  If you are not motivated to research a topic, no matter how important it is, you aren’t likely to do a deep dive into it, let alone sustain a research project over many years.  Having said this, (4) is closely aligned with (1).  I find it fun to tackle things that are important.  I don't see my research as a source of self-indulgence, but it does add meaning and purpose to my life which is why my passion for it still burns brightly after 20+ years.   

So distilling this down to a more concise description, my academic research interests are driven by:

(1)  Issues that I believe are pressing and important.

(2)  Issues that are somewhat marginalized within my discipline or policy making or at the societal level.

(3)  Issues that happen to fall “on my radar” (given my interests) and within my expertise.

(4)  Issues that engage and interest me.