What’s the point of research?

5 Sep 12

In my experience, there is a fairly widespread degree of scepticism amongst the general public (and even amongst some university academics) about the value of research.  It is rarely directed at medical research, although the whole climate change issue highlights that many people either ignore or dismiss even broadly consistent scientific research.  Once you get into social science research the doubts grow and I won’t even touch creative arts research (at this stage anyway).

You hear jokes about major research projects just proving what we all know anyway or confirming ‘the bleeding obvious’: kids who watch a lot of television do less exercise; crime rates are higher in poorer suburbs.  I used to chuckle along to these jokes but now that I’m working in the research environment I am seeing things differently.

Research has value because it investigates a problem or a question in a systematic way and with intellectual rigour.  The conclusions don’t necessarily ‘prove’ anything but they have more weight because of the way the process has been designed and undertaken (in other words, the methodology).

They may or may not support previous commonly accepted understandings.  If they support them, that’s all to the good.  What I’ve come to realize is that what often occurs through undertaking research is a more complex and nuanced understanding of an issue.  There is no shortage of opinions and generalizations circulating in society.  In my field, the media, you can easily drown in them.  What research creates is something more substantial – let’s call it knowledge.  It’s perhaps less dramatic, less entertaining, but almost certainly more useful for basing your ideas and future actions on.

The field of filmmaking is a case in point.  What is the difference between making a film for creative or commercial reasons and making a film for research?  In some respects, not much, except the films for research get no funding.  However, if there is anything to be learnt about filmmaking from the process, I would argue the conclusions in the ‘research’ film should be given more weight.  The film is being made in a particular way, what I would describe as a ‘context of inquiry’, which should allow more confidence to be shown in any claims for knowledge arising from the production process.

This could be contrasted with the mass of ‘how to’ material that is available to filmmakers, material often produced by experts but which can lack the systematic investigation of an issue and the awareness of concerns about bias and subjectivity that a well-conducted research process can demonstrate.

It would be good for the professional production sector to pay more attention to what is going on in the academic screen production  sector.  However, I suspect this is unlikely to occur until some ‘research’ films are made that have a broader impact on the public or explore some issues that the industry can really get excited about.


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