Academic journal article Rural Society

Great 21st Century Debates about the Usefulness of Research: Can They Help Rural Research?

Academic journal article Rural Society

Great 21st Century Debates about the Usefulness of Research: Can They Help Rural Research?

Article excerpt

Overview

The 21st Century has begun on a high iote of unease about the usefulness of esearch. On the one hand, there is a sense that the research superstructure has been appropriated by narrow economic interests that have turned many researchers into servants of these interests. This is suggested in both academic and popular commentary on the instrumentality of research (Furedi 2006; Perkins 2004). The pithy sentence on the back cover of Furedi's Where Have all the Intellectuals Gone? tells us that 'people with genuine learning, breadth of vision and a concern for public issues' have now been 'replaced by facile pundits, think tank apologists and spin doctors' (Furedi 2006). Across many disciplines, there is a shared conviction that 'honest research' faces insuperable political realities that work to undermine its effectiveness. The influential voices of Evans and Stoddart in public health policy join a chorus of others who feel that narrow economic interests make it difficult for researchers to go beyond narrow biomedical frameworks to address the underlying socio-politico determinants of health (Evans & Stoddart 2003: 378; Bell 2007b).

As some have suggested, in such a climate of neoliberalist attacks on the relevance of research, those researchers who argue that traditional quantitative and qualitative research methodologies need re-inventing can face a wall of hostility from their colleagues (Fox 2003). This paper aims to highlight the value of a reflective reinvention. It is based on the conviction that without such an effort we cannot hope to reinforce democratic styles of policy decision-making or client-centred practitioner approaches.

In doing so, this paper argues for an inclusive approach to the learnings of different disciplines about the challenge of making research useful. It suggests that we need to engage with the work of researchers in other disciplines who are actively debating and developing ways of making research more useful to policy and practice. What if the problem of research relevance is in part about the assumptions we are making about the problem of usefulness? What if these assumptions are disciplinary blind spots, naturalised by the language in which we understand the problem, that become illuminated or somehow less logical and taken-for-granted, when we look across the disciplines?

This paper tries to make these assumptions extant. First, it offers an overview of the assumptions and approaches suggested by the different debates in health about the usefulness of research: in translational science, in the epidemiology and biomedical clinical literature, as well as in qualitative approaches in nursing research, and in the scholarly health policy literature. Second, this paper summarises some debates about the usefulness of research happening beyond the health sciences, particularly in sociology, political science, and history, where there have also been some important and quite different discussions of how to better meet the needs of policy and practice. The most notable of these have been about developing case-based approaches: 'transdisciplinary' Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) and process tracing. case-based approaches raise the question of whether barriers to the take-up of quantitative and qualitative research evidence may be about the usability of the forms of information these two traditions deliver i.e. that we may need new forms of research information that reflect the configurational, synergistic complexity of 'real world' decision-making, mirroring its combinatorial nature. These case-based approaches aim to provide this kind of configurational information, in ways that engage with contextual complexity, especially in small-N situations. The paper concludes with broad observations about what all these debates collectively suggest about how to develop a better evidence base for rural policy and practice, and reinvigorate our research methods. Far from denying the political realities of research transfer, this paper poses the question of whether assumptions that we do not need to pay attention to research methodology are serving the interests of those policy-makers who do not want to pay attention to research evidence. …

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