Bouncing Ball Research

Is research more like a vase or a bouncing ball?

Vases are pretty. They are wonderfully ornamental and can even inspire poetry. What they do not do, however, is leave a mark. They look good and are to be admired but that’s it.

Vase-style research is similar. It is admirable, excellent and might even inspire some other work. But, outside of the world of academia, vase-style research will leave no trace. Vase-style research represents all those papers that never make it out of the library and into the commercial, industrial or political world.

There is nothing inherently wrong with research like that. There are many good reasons why we need to papers that no one outside of a particular field of study will read. Sometimes research that behaves a lot like an ornamental vase can be the starting point for research that changes policy or impacts communities.

Still, vase-style research represents a way of seeing the research process. Vase-style research can grow out of a desire for researchers to retain absolute control over what happens to their work. In this view, we choose the research topic, we choose the method and we choose the journal. No one else, except for funders and journal editors, has any say over that process. It’s our research and we will decide what happens.

There is, of course, another kind of research. Bouncing ball research can happen when research suddenly seems to take on a life of its own and has effects far beyond what the researchers could have imagined. It’s the kind of work that involves communities from the beginning or looks to inform policy. It’s the kind of work that aims, from the very beginning, to make a measurable, obvious impact in society.

Yet, here is the problem. Work that does all these things often does so in ways that the original researchers could not have imagined. Take the old debate about whether interpreters should interpret out of their native languages. It’s an old favourite of Interpreting Studies debates that has now been picked up and debated on an interpreting blog. The control of the debate has now passed out of the hands of researchers and into the hands of the profession. And this is a good thing!

It is scientifically impossible to bounce a ball you are still holding. If you want a ball to make an impact, you have to let it leave your hand. Perhaps the same is true in research. Perhaps research can make its greatest impact when results and discussion are available for discussion in public arenas. Perhaps research has the greatest chance of making an impact when someone else, someone outside of academia sees it and decides to talk about it.

Again, bouncing ball research is not necessarily “better” or “more important” than vase-like research; it just behaves differently. One sits and expects readers to find it; the other actively goes in search of readers. One focusses on what other academics will think; the other gives weight to the views of people outside of academia too.

So what kind of research do you want to see?

Author: Jonathan Downie

2 thoughts on “Bouncing Ball Research

  1. Jonathan: leading questions, much? 🙂 You set up an odd dichotomy, try to problematise it a little, but I would argue that you don’t explore the problems with it sufficiently. I think all of my sign language linguistics research has different qualities of your ‘vase’ and ‘bouncing ball’ characteristics. But despite your attempts to say that there is nothing wrong with the former, this post very clearly comes out in favour of the latter.

  2. Yeah, you are probably right. I think this has a lot to do with my background and how I came into Interpreting Studies. Still, I did realise while writing this that the last paper I wrote was a vase paper on twenty-odd years of bouncing ball work. On the other hand, my thesis, which I hope has some bounce relies on a few bits of vase work. So I can see the point of both. I still have personal bias, though. 😉

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