Should it matter if Research findings are surprising/new?

June 17, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Had an interesting exchange recently during a launch webinar for the new IDS report, Navigating Civic Space in a Time of Covid. The headline finding is:

‘The pandemic brought the suspension of many fundamental freedoms in the name of the public good, providing cover for a deepening of authoritarian tendencies but also spurring widespread civic activism on issues suddenly all the more important, ranging from emergency relief to economic impacts. Research partners in the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA)‘s Navigating Civic Space in a Time of Covid project have explored these dynamics through real-time research embedded in civil society in Mozambique, Nigeria, and Pakistan, grounded in a close review of global trends.’

I’d skimmed the report and listened to the presentations. The broad findings were. States used Covid to squeeze civic space even further; the pandemic aggravated/highlighted existing inequalities; civic organizations fought back; everything moved online.

As far as I could tell, there was nothing new or surprising about these findings, so I asked the annoying question in Q&A – what’s new here?

What surprise have you found in your research?

Rosie McGee argued in reply that the case studies (from Mozambique, Pakistan and Nigeria) constituted a ‘concrete illustration and provided granularity and corroboration of what we were seeing.’ She and others tried to identify some surprises, e.g. the identikit similarities in how different governments cracked down on civic action; stigmatization of communities/individuals or the emergence of new actors such as medics in Nigeria. But to be honest, I don’t think they can really have found any of those that surprising.

I just mentioned this blog to the IDS’ John Gaventa in an early morning email exchange on something else, and got this off the cuff response:

‘The question is always: New to whom? Surprising to whom? You see this stuff every day. Many people do not. And also, repetition can build awareness of patterns. Three independent studies, in separate contexts, found largely similar points.  This helps us see the larger picture, and that’s important.’

I’ve been chewing on that ever since. A few thoughts.

If a piece of research confirms that we thought would happen actually happened, why is that a problem? As my colleague Irene Guijt pointed out ‘Sometimes confirmation is the finding. It’s part of helping to shape the discourse, multiple people seeing and saying the same thing. Surprise can be overrated’. Research should be about knowledge, not necessarily novelty.

But there is no question that a lack of surprises/novelty makes it much harder to get anyone’s interest in your work: journalists, other academics, NGOs are all more likely to click through if there’s a hint of novelty or man-bites-dog rather than just confirmation of what they already think.

And my experience is that you can almost always find something to say, a new angle, pull out something that, while not totally novel, is at least a bit striking.

If you don’t do that, is it because it’s not there or because you weren’t looking hard enough? If our assumption is that context specificity really matters, then if you see the same thing everywhere, does that say more about your priors than reality? That you see what you want/expect to see unless something new really bangs you on the head?

Or is it because of some other factor – maybe specialists in a given issue (such as civic space) are more content to confirm their ideas, rather than disrupt, whereas flighty generalists like me get bored easily and always need a bit of stimulus? There are downsides to both approaches, clearly.

And maybe Covid has had a chilling effect on this. In the past, I’ve found new ideas come from side conversations, often on the margins of work, or in the bar during a conference or on a trip. I often use that scene from The Wire where Bunk advises rookie detective Kima to keep ‘soft eyes’ that pick up unexpected clues in their lateral vision. And of course, all that has come to an end with Covid – we sit on zoom all day, in formal conversations about what is going on, so it is hardly surprising that accidental insights are in short supply. Maybe we should try and recreate some space that allows for that kind of conversation, but I’ve got a feeling it could very easily get very cringe-worthy!


And here’s the Soft Eyes scene. God, I love The Wire.

June 17, 2021
Duncan Green