Academic research is often described as an investigation. While accurate – we search for information, even truth – the investigation is more means to an end. Consider that an academic investigation, in contrast to a journalistic investigation for example, goes far beyond description. A journalist is mostly interested in gathering information to paint a precise picture of a given situation. They pose ‘what’ questions and, in the process, provide an invaluable record of and to societies.
Like the journalist, an academic pursues understanding. What is distinct, however, is that academic concern goes beyond what has already taken place: their investigations are informed by questions about how the world could be. Academics ask ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions that require analysis, the establishment of new links between hitherto autonomous factors, and the testing of hypotheses about the world. Their goals are not to report on the world but to challenge accepted wisdom, reorient thinking, and give shape to a future reality. A proactive vision of research is more suited to achieving these goals for there is little objectivity to them. Instead, academics learn about the subjectivities associated with data gathering, data interpretation, and data reporting. The skill is in understanding how to distinguish between the techniques and to deploy them convincingly.
For example, a policy researcher at the UK’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade could be tasked with identifying the level of foreign direct investment (FDI) into the UK. Information gathering is vital when establishing the nation’s agenda and we thank the policy researcher for their commitment to collecting and collating data about the attractiveness of the UK to international investors. Motivated by distinct aims, an international trade researcher at Queen’s University Belfast will pose different questions. They might examine the factors that impact on FDI flows into the UK, or the levels needed to maintain an acceptable balance between domestic and foreign ownership, or whether prohibition on the repatriation of profits will enhance domestic productivity. Each question is valid and will produce a useful portrait of the investment environment in the UK. Answering these questions adequately, however, demands far more than data collection-collation and it is the supporting skills associated with the investigation that postgraduate students should be pursuing during their degrees.