“What’s your research for?”

Over the last few months, several research participants have expressed an interest in the “why” of my research – what I’m hoping to achieve, what good I think it might do, if there’s any human behaviour I believe could be changed or encouraged by it, and so on. Their questions made me realise how little I’d really considered this recently: I’d started to take for granted, I guess, that what was interesting to me would be obviously relevant to others.

Crafting responses to my research participants’ questions turned out to be a great exercise in thinking through the way I justify my work, and particularly in thinking through how to express the more abstract value of the kind of research I – and perhaps other surgeons, too – am doing. So I wrote a post about this on my research blog, excerpted below:

Over the last few months, a few research participants have asked me variations of the same question, which is something like: What’s your research for? What do you hope it will change or inform?

It’s a good question, and one that, until recently, I hadn’t really given much thought to. On the one hand, I’m wary of overplaying the potential implications of my research, and it would be disingenuous for me to claim that I’m aiming to directly influence policy, or that I have some grand notion that my project is going to change the world. On the other hand, I do believe there’s value to what I’m doing beyond just the satisfaction of personal curiosity.

To some extent the project is about highlighting the potential good that swimming can do (physically, emotionally, societally), and recognizing the importance of the pool as a site for this activity – particularly through an exploration of the extent to which specific material aspects of the pool environment may help or hinder regular participation. So I hope that the research may shed some light on how people are using and interacting with indoor pools, what about the pool environment is important to them and encourages or enables a regular practice and what about the environment is discomfiting or discouraging.

I’m also interested in the way people experience places via their bodies, and vice versa – the way they experience their bodies via certain places. So I think there’s also an opportunity here for the research to illuminate ways in which habitual lap swimming changes or brings to the fore people’s awareness of and attitude towards their own bodies. I’m thinking, for instance, of the participant who told me that she likes what swimming has done to her body both in terms of what it can do and also what it looks like; it took exercise, she said, for her to learn to love her body. So the value here may lie partly in using an exploration of people’s relationship to their swimming bodies as a way of exploring what facilitates comfort in/with one’s body more generally. The body, after all, is the home we cannot leave, and the pool provides a uniquely intimate and anonymous environment in which to exercise and experience this home.

Fundamentally, though, I’m just fascinated by swimming pools as places, particularly given how banal they often seem, how ugly and purely functional and even unwelcoming the architecture and environment can be. So the project is, at its heart, about not only valuing the place of the pool – which may be easily overlooked – but also about valuing other everyday places more generally: it’s great to write about grander landscapes, but I think it’s also important to pay attention to the kinds of smaller-scale places that people encounter repeatedly in their daily lives.

 You can read the full post here – and I’d be interested in hearing from fellow surgeons who’ve grappled with similar questions!

Miranda Ward (PhD Candidate)

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