Doing interesting research

Are you doing interesting research? I mean, are you doing research that academics outside of your field and non-academics will find interesting? If you do not know, or if you actually suspect that your research might not spark the interest of the crowds, do not panic. You might well manage to turn it around.

In a 1971 paper, Davis [1] set out to identify what made a theory interesting. His definition of the concept is based on an analogy to visual perception – the so-called “pop-out” effect from Gestalt psychology. This effect refers to how features of a visual constellation that differ from their neighbors in key visual characteristics will instantaneously grab the viewer’s attention. For instance, in the picture above, the one green dot among the set of otherwise red dots is immediately spotted by our visual system. Following this logic, an interesting theory is thus defined as a theory that “pops out” to our attention by contrasting with our current set of beliefs.

What assumptions are you questioning?

A first inference I draw from Davis’ study is that, in order to make our work interesting to an audience, we need to start thinking about it in terms of the assumptions that we are questioning. A pre-condition for this process is the identification of the target audience we seek to address. Is it other academics within our field? Managers of middle-sized organizations in Europe? Policymakers in the public sector domain? In my own research for example, the audience I want my findings to reach are policymakers, managers and project leaders within the Swedish healthcare system. In this context, relevant assumptions related to my research topic revolve around the positive impact of computerized systems on efficiency and patient safety.

What assumptions do your findings (not) support?

According to Davis, a theory needs to contradict an assumption held for true in order to be perceived as interesting. Once we have identified commonly held assumptions related to our research topic within our target audience, we should thus look into which ones of these assumptions are not supported by our findings. In my case for instance, my results suggest that computerized systems do not lead to increased patient safety – at least not from nurses’ perspective. This is because technical issues and wrong information entered into the systems are perceived as increasing the risk of mistakes being made.

Going a little bit further

Of course, this is not the whole story. For one, Davis explicitly focuses on only one specific type of theories in his paper, leaving open what makes other kinds of scientific findings and propositions interesting to a broader audience. The paper also describes some limitations to the approach presented above – for instance, the discarded assumption needs to be perceived as somewhat relevant by the target audience in order to spark interest.

However, I can definitely see the value of taking such an assumption-based approach when disseminating research findings, writing grant applications, choosing a research focus, etc. It seems to be commonly accepted for academic research to be limited to a very small audience of fellow experts within a field. What if we proved that assumption wrong?


Disclaimer: I read Davis’ paper in the context of an ongoing doctoral course on the Philosophy of Science and Methods in Multi- and Transdisciplinary Research. It is held by Anette Oxenswärdh and Jenny Helin at Uppsala University (campus Gotland) throughout the fall 2018.

1. Murray S Davis. 1971. That’s Interesting!: Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 1, 1971: 309–344.