Mind Your Gap

Mind your gap

_COLUMN_ door Marleen Buizer

Some metaphors work brilliantly well. Take tips of icebergs, or glass ceilings, or better still, the cherry on the cake. Other metaphors are less friendly. Did you notice, that war-terminology is on the rise?

I am not a fan of such terminology, because it normalises the military as a part of ordinary life. But then again, did you ever try to avoid those terms?  That is far from simple! ‘Battles’ are on everywhere, and the amount of things being ‘triggered’ is mind-blowing, as though a gun is fired, not to think of what is ‘entrenched’ or ‘on standby’. There are plenty of words that we use without even being aware of their military origin.

‘Battles’ are on everywhere, and the amount of things being ‘triggered’ is mind-blowing

But let me get to the point. There is one metaphor that just does not ‘land’ appropriately in my brain: the ‘research gap’. I need some serious help with this one. We are often told that our research projects should start with a research gap. I can perfectly imagine what that gap stands for when it concerns, for example, figuring out the x-th digit behind the comma of pi (π=3.14 etcetera). But with regard to a lot of what we do in landscape architecture and planning research I cannot help but wonder what that gap means and looks like.

Evidently, the ‘research gap’ as a metaphor is to warn us as researchers and students to do something new in our research, to add to the ‘knowledge base’ (another frequently used phrase). But, the gap is part of a narrative that fits only very partially with our research domains. It presents research and knowledge as reservoir or capital, or as sudoku that needs to be completed. There are hardly different, conflicting perspectives in this narrative, no changing contexts, knowledge is a singular term here not plural. The narrative belongs to a view that you come across more often in the natural sciences than in the social sciences, that understands research as a cumulative process. Like with pi. As soon as we know about the x-th digit after the comma, a gap has been filled and a new gap has arisen – and the search for the next digit is on. Context does not matter so much in this type of gap-filling, cumulative research. Pi is pi wherever you are.

The gap is part of a narrative that fits only very partially with our research domains. It presents research and knowledge as reservoir or capital, or as sudoku that needs to be completed.

The longer I think about the gap-metaphor, the more I think it is putting us, as planning, policy and design researchers, on the wrong track. More than in some other fields of study, to be led by a ‘gap’ in the choice of our research topics seems fruitless. There are no neat, clearly defined gaps that can cumulatively be filled with ‘new’ knowledge. There is a lot of research that we do that is extremely useful that does not have a clear gap. Rather, it may tie in with existing debates, explore a topic from a slightly different angle, or focus on a new context to contribute to a debate. Take a topic like the relationships between democracy, empowerment and designs of public space. There has been quite some research carried out on this topic. A mountain (or a hill) rather than a gap, I would say. Should I now refrain from addressing it because it isn’t a gap? To those willing to take up this topic I would say: congratulations! Although it is a difficult topic (and I haven’t even clearly defined it here), it seems to me quite relevant, in the middle of public debate and full of potential for some kind of action research. The knowledge generated from such a project is unlikely to fill a ‘gap’, rather it is contributing to interesting literatures and delivering ideas on what relationships can be imagined between democracy, public space and empowerment. It does not fill a gap in any cumulative sense as if building a wall or filling up a reservoir, but might offer a different perspective, might even deconstruct and still be highly relevant for the food for thought it renders.

To conclude, to those starting your research projects: mind your gap, question it, and try to look for hills or even mountains!

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