Modern attitudes to research: a different perspective

Over on his blog, Joe Nutt has deprecated some modern approaches to research:

Something which completely bemused me when I first left the world of academic English teaching and the scholarship that goes with it, for the world of educational technology, was what that ICT world seemed happy to call “research.” Over the years I’ve still never got used to it. The idea that someone can scribble a few inarticulate pages online, drag and drop a few minutes of video footage showing some exploited child enthusing about the latest gadget, and call it “research” just doesn’t cut it for me I’m afraid.

I’m an academic by training, and completed a PhD, though my career has since taken me in other directions, away from 19th century British electoral history and towards participating in 20th and 21st century British elections instead.

This is an area where there is no shortage of online commentary and analysis, not infrequently including YouTube clips. However, my experience is much more positive than Joe Nutt’s about the quality of this online work. Yes, there’s an awful lot of dross. Yes, there’s a lot of recycled opinions. Yes, there are bloggers who never seem to have an original or even slightly unusual piece of evidence to use. And so on.

But you want to know the details of what opinion polls are saying? People such as Anthony Wells regularly blog a quality of analysis that outstrips that you find from academics in their post-general election books.

Conversely, my impression of much of the academic research into elections, parties and public opinion might be technically very erudite – but is based on measuring what can be measured. The most skilled regression analysis is of very little use if it is only being deployed on an incomplete and misleading set of data.

It’s a problem I highlighted after attending this year’s EPOP conference:

Several of the papers were about measuring campaign effects. Since the early 1990s there has been a big shift in the academic consensus towards believing that local campaigning has an effect on election results. In other words, as someone like myself would put it – academics have woken up and realised what is really going on.

However, what seems to be the case now is that the lure of certain data being available in sucking academics into analysing that data, even when it doesn’t provide a firm foundation for the issues they look at. Most notably, the party finance figures published by the Electoral Commission are now regularly featuring in academic analysis. However, those figures only include donations above relatively generous limits and they only include local parties with large turnovers. For the Liberal Democrats, this means that the majority of donations and the majority of local parties do not feature in the published figures.

So whilst academic analysis seems to have caught up with understanding local campaign effects, it will be interesting to see whether having got that right, there is now a growing problem with getting party finance and its effects wrong.

What is the real shame is that there are great opportunities to use some of the facilities that the internet offers to bring practitioners and academics more closely together, with both benefiting from an exchange of information and views. However, amongst this section of academics at least, online participation is extremely low. Very few of those who study British electoral politics blog themselves or take part in discussions on other blogs for example. That is a big missed opportunity.

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