Why do research?

why-research32THIRTY-TWO research staff crowded around a conference table late one afternoon to apply their combined intellectual might to a foundational question: why do we undertake research?

Intrinsic motivation, said Trevor.

Naïve idealism tinged with narcissism, said Barry.

Curiosity, said Peter.

The pleasure of being paid for a job you love doing, said Jian, the pleasure of contributing to your institutional prestige.

Promotion, said Hammadi.

The last one is interesting. I wonder if the points the others made – the one-liners presented above are brutal summarisations of pithy but well-reasoned arguments, please note – are not prettier versions of the simpler truth Hammadi captured.

Honestly, do we undertake research for others? Or do we do it for ourselves?

I am pretty certain I began mine for my own wicked self. What got me studying war journalism was my sense of inadequacy as a correspondent – essentially, it was a move to stand out amongst a fiercely competitive crowd of peers as a better-educated, more productive proposition who just might know what he is writing about. I continue with it primarily because I am convinced that if I marry my professional and academic sides, I would get the best of both worlds, enabling me not only to stand out in the said crowd, but do so with a smug ha-I-got-something-you-don’t-have smile on my face.

I guess this is primary narcissism, part of a quest for self-preservation, which Barry acknowledged in his presentation. I have a feeling, however, that there is more than a “grain” of self-love involved in the exercise. Most of us do what we do with far less altruistic motives than we care to acknowledge. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves a different set of questions:

How many of us would continue with research if there was no research remission?

How many, if it wasn’t linked to career preservation?

I am sure there are worthy souls out there, and more worthy reasons for why we do research, but I get the feeling that for many of us it is narcissism tinged with idealism rather than idealism tinged with narcissism as Barry suggested.

Aw, ignore me. It just might be that I suffer from NPD and think too much of my own argument.

Also read: Re-search? Pardon my French

Image: courtesy http://copyservices.tamu.edu/clipart/clip21/fsl1026.gif


  1. Barry · June 28, 2009

    Very crisp and accurate one-line summaries of motives, though I think these are not reducible as Chindu suggests. But they all need putting in the context of a major ‘pull’ factor as well as the ‘push’ one of career advancement: that is the big publishing industry which relies on large numbers of ‘research-active’ academics to fill its journals and book lists. Without this engine of over-production there’d be less of these activities we call ‘research’.

  2. Venkata Vemuri · July 1, 2009

    Well argued, but that’s true for any other vocation, or avocation, I think.
    But there are differences. Research in our field, J or Media or Comm, is quite different from research in genetics or physics or chemistry and the like where the results have immediate and palpable effects on the quality of life. Since when have journalists been able to write the ‘truth’ even though tons of research exists on the topic?
    Academic research, I gather, is a tool we use to fight a war of thoughts and ideas on a mental, rather physical, plane. It is a war between schools of thought with universities aligning themselves with one or the other school. It is war between academics who belong to those universities and therefore, those schools of thought. It’s hegemonic. And each school of thought is a public sphere of its own. Straight-jacketed, even. The self promotions, career advancements, upward mobility, networking, etc, are functional elements unique to each sphere. Those who straddle more than one sphere are either the neither-here-nor-there types or are genuinely research-minded.
    What is ‘research’? Each school of thought will have its own answer,perhaps.

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