Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Article - Dr. Shyamika

Building a Research Agenda 

Dr. Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits (PhD)
Researcher at International Institute of Social StudiesErasmus University RotterdamThe Netherlands
My main areas of research are situated between the fields of Development and Conflict and the nexus of Development, Violent Conflict and Peace. In these fields, I often find the problems that demand scholarly attention are not ‘any other problems’ but ‘wicked problems’. Wicked problems are problems worth solving, but also problems that are difficult, impossible or seemingly impossible to solve due to various reasons (Rittel and Webber 1973). These reasons can be incomplete or contradictory knowledge; the sheer number of epistemic communities, diversity and competing discourses involved; and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. Thus, thinking in terms of ‘wicked problems’ from the very beginning gives the researcher the opportunity to be flexible and creative in the design process and eventually to build a robust, transformative and impactful research agenda that closely reflects the realities on the ground. However, pursing this path requires a great deal of intellectual stamina, cultivating a healthy attitude for serendipity and sometimes also brevity to walk around with a ‘black sheep’ label among the academic peers.

So, what are the implications of this orientation towards ‘wicked problems’ on the methodology? Do we have the necessary ‘tools’ to follow this path? Here, I have found the answers in the development of broader frameworks/approaches (i.e., Governance and Human Security) and new conceptual and theoretical categories. These allow me to break through the academic silos and engage simultaneously with multiple levels of analysis anchored in one framework. For example, my current research work investigating security sector reforms (SSRs) undertaken by the European Union is anchored in the broader framework of governance with an explicit normative-intellectual commitment to the human security approach. By framing broadly, I have been able to analyse these reforms from a top-down state-centric level as well as from a bottom-up community-centric level. While the top-down approach allows an analysis at the formal-institutional level, the bottom-up approach lends space for analysing the non-formal and semi-formal levels of analysis of the security actors and their security arrangements at everyday spheres of life. Combined together, they help paint a picture of ‘security governance’ by simultaneously privileging ‘broad and specific’, ‘State and community’ and ‘formal and informal’.  According to some critics, a broader approach means ‘sans-depth’. But I would argue it is the opposite, particularly if you are a creative researcher and your research agenda rests on trans-disciplinarity (as opposed to the conventional mono-disciplinary and even multidisciplinary approaches). Thus, balancing the breadth and depth of a research agenda and making sure that it is practical and implementable is a real challenge, a challenge that is worth embracing whereby the ‘artist in the scientist’ needs to be discovered. From an ethical point of view, if it does not help bring about the desired social change, a research agenda that is built on a mixed ‘broad-deep’ approach could at least help mitigate the negative impacts of the research on our research subjects, whom we have pledged to protect. Last, but not the least, to go further down this road, as researchers we must cultivate ‘perseverance’ in ourselves. It is not because the wicked problems require it, but because they also demand the researchers to resist temptations to sacrifice perseverance over other pressures such as deadlines, funding conditionalities and the unhealthy rewarding systems in the academia.

1 comment:

  1. This is an excellent summary of the dilemmas of studying wicked (rather than feelgood) topics. Indeed one is not always thanked by the academic community, with its innate conservatism and preference for waking up happy in the morning, for dealing with these wicked topics. I can vouch for the way in which perseverance, as you define it here, is anathema to the short-termism and self-seeking that has beset the academic market since a while back.