Post 2: Five crucial lessons for new sustainability transition scholars interested in the developing world

Guest post by Suyash Jolly on Doctoral research as a trajectory of successful and failed experimental initiatives:

Be pragmatic about choice of research questions and research problem

A common problem new researchers face while doing research in developing countries is also that they are often detached from the real world while writing their research plans in their offices and have little information about rapid developments happening in the field in developing countries. Sitting in our offices, academic concepts and theories from transition studies sound very interesting; however we have little idea about how practitioners and actors in the field perceive the problems, define them and solve them and whether they think in similar ways about the problems as we do.  Pre fieldwork stage, researchers tend to fantasize about many things which may not be the reality.

However their fantasies can turn into disappointments as they start doing field research and find that the world does not work exactly according to their interpretations and the conceptual frameworks they are interested in using. They can map a lot of empirical details with the conceptual frameworks but not everything they see in the field will exactly fit neatly into a conceptual framework. As most doctoral researchers have limited research experience they have to make crucial choices about their research based on what they have read in the academic papers and multiple discussions with their supervisors. However there is always an element of risk as the choice of research questions, aims of the research guides the data collection efforts which then decides whether new researchers can get rich data for publication in a good journal.

Developing countries experience a lot of economic, social and institutional challenges and these challenges also create opportunities for very new and though provoking research questions to work on both conceptually and empirically. Some examples include: Are socio-technical regimes in developing countries different than that in developed contexts and what kind of opportunities do they present for upscaling of promising experiments?  Why are some regions more successful in sustainable energy/mobility transitions while other regions fail? What is the real impact of transnational linkages on development of promising niches and whether the niche would have developed without these linkages?

While these are very interesting problems to research and many senior transition studies scholars have worked on them before, they are still challenging in terms of defining conceptual constructs in a different institutional context and applying them, getting access to rich data and coming up with a theoretically informed answer to the research question. Therefore you need to choose research questions and case studies which maximize the chances of writing a good paper and publication rather than choosing a question which sounds very useful for solving complex social problems yet create challenges in terms of publishing the study. It is therefore important to be pragmatic about choice of research questions and case studies to ensure there is availability of rich data in order to develop a good case study. A poorly conceptualized research question and research design will lead to problems during the field research and result in collection of poor quality data.  Field research is also an opportunity for us to get surprised and challenge our existing thoughts and fantasies which we had while conceptualizing our research.

Sometimes you might experience situations such as interviewing an expert for one hour but not being able to ask the right questions in order to get rich data. Many interviewees might not be interested in your research work, rush through the interview and not provide you with relevant answers. Such problems are part of field research and help us to improve our research skills as well as research design. There are even risks involved in terms of not capturing data which one initially expected during constructing the theoretical framework of the study and coming back from fieldwork disappointed.

A lack of understanding of choosing the right research question creates lot of problems during the research process and writing a good manuscript. The challenges become more complex when editor and different reviewers ask you to use a different theoretical framework, that change the paper completely and gathering new data might be required. It is always hard to go back to the field and collect the data again. This often results into a weak paper with whatever limited data we have and limited theoretical contribution.

You cannot always predict the fate of your research paper from the moment you start drafting them. Research papers get modified after several conference presentations and in order to convince the reviewers and editors of journals. Despite this unpredictability you can still make careful choices about the research question, research aim and choice of case study. You can be more strategic and make smart choices. Try to also seek help and support from senior scholars as they can help you guide through this complex process.

In the next post, I will discuss framing your research clearly and clarify your theoretical contribution.



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