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What’s Wrong With Stating The Obvious?

Posted May 29 2011 11:03pm

By Megan Birney

During a recent visit with my boyfriend’s mother, she asked me the following question: So, what exactly are you researching for your PhD?  As a PhD student, I am quite used to answering this question and replied with a generic response about my investigation into the role non-native accents play in the relationship between native and non-native speakers.  She asked me a few more questions and then looked at me quizzically:  “Isn’t a lot of what you are researching pretty obvious?” she asked.  “Why are people funding you to do research about something we already know?”

I was completely taken off guard.  No one had ever asked me that before!  I responded by going into detail about how I hoped that my research on accent perception would advance our understanding of immigration issues and that my work could hopefully help improve the way that native and non-native groups communicate.  She didn’t look convinced.  And, to be honest, neither was I.  The worst part was that I couldn’t just dismiss her question on the basis that she isn’t familiar with the field of Social Psychology.  Her question was legitimate.

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times addresses this very issue.  Its author, Eryn Brown, explains that while critics argue that funding “obvious” research is a waste of taxpayer money, experts claim that such research is essential for influencing public perceptions (Brown uses the example of cigarette smoking.  While it may seem that it has been well established that cigarette smoke leads to poor health, studies proving this link are still needed in order to influence government policies on tobacco).  Brown also addresses the structure of scientific research as an industry.  Because research on established theories are more likely to be published and publication is necessary for a successful career, scientists may be more motivated to ask “timid questions” rather than take a chance on potentially ground breaking research that could also fail miserably.

While I could not find an academic article that directly relates to scientists’ motivations for conducting research, I think this idea of “obvious” research is important.  As the next generation of researchers in Social Psychology it will be up to us to decide which direction the field should go.  For instance, in the words of Brown, when does research stop being “incremental” and start being “inconsequential?”  Where do we draw the line between research that can be used for the common good and research just for the sake of research?  How could we make such a decision?  Is there anything wrong with asking “timid questions” and being motivated by potential publications?

As we think about our own upcoming research projects, it may be worth keeping some of these questions in mind.  After all, the impact of our work depends on how we answer them.  In the meantime, I’m going to get back to my research on accent perception.  But this time, I may try to make my ideas just a bit less “obvious.”


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