Rejecting the idea of ‘finding the gaps’

As I write this, I am a feeling a bit sick and scared. Not because the cream cheese, salmon and avacado bagel I just ate lacked flavour, when last time I made one it was the best thing I’ve ever eaten (is it the salmon – it is a lot paler than the previous pack I bought, did the multiseed bagel overpower the flavours, was the avacado underripe, have my taste buds changed, am I dying?) but because I am trying to find the ‘gaps’ in the literature and formulate some central research questions.

The issue of a gap is an interesting one and one which I have decided to reject.

The problem with the gap-filling idea, Patrick Dunleavy author of ‘Authoring a PhD’ (2003) argues, is that 1) perhaps there is a reason why there is a gap, perhaps it is not an interesting gap and 2) perhaps this gap is so exciting that many other researchers will start filling in this gap before you can and then you lose the whole uniqueness of your project.

The way to avoid this second problem is to frame your question in a personal and slightly idiosyncratic way. He says “It is best to try and frame your thesis around an intellectual problem or a paradox, not around a gap. It needs to focus on a set of phenomena that ask for an explanation, which you can express as a non-obvious puzzle for which you can formulate an interesting and effective answer.” p. 23

He suggests you

  • Keep in mind the concept of ‘value added’. Keep an eye on how your work adds any value to the literature and research that has gone before. To what extent has it transformed, enhanced or differentiated what has gone before?
  • Think about what your answers to your question may be from the beginning. Of course as you collect and analyse your data you may not find what you expected, but view your thesis as a rough block of marble which you make a rough form before chiseling away at it to make a final sculpture.
  • Try to problematize your research question. That is “…set the answer you hope to give within a framework which will show its intellectual significance…” p. 23

So even though I feel a bit sick and scared, I can already see this rough form materialising which is very comforting and perhaps my food will taste nice again once I have relaxed a bit.

I just hope my final sculpture is not as horrific as this one I made at age 14:

"Argh, I can't formulate a clever research question!"

“Argh, I can’t formulate a clever research question!”


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