Making space for failure – article by Harrowell, Davies & Disney

An article about making space for failure in research in The Professional Geographer caught my eye in a Twitter post today. I’ve copied the title and abstract below, with a link to the article.

Making Space for Failure in Geographic Research

The idea that field research is an inherently “messy” process has become widely accepted by geographers in recent years. There has thus far been little acknowledgment, however, of the role that failure plays in doing human geography. In this article we push back against this, arguing that failure should be recognized as a central component of what it means to do qualitative geographical field research. This article seeks to use failure proactively and provocatively as a powerful resource to improve research practice and outcomes, reconsidering and giving voice to it as everyday, productive, and necessary to our continual development as researchers and academics. This article argues that there is much value to be found in failure if it is critically examined and shared, and–crucially–if there is a supportive space in which to exchange our experiences of failing in the field.

I really value the honesty that Elly Harrowell, Thom Davies and Tom Disney bring to their accounts of how hey dealt with perceived failures in their own research. It makes me think about all sorts of things from my own research.

First, it makes me think of my own shambolic and fairly short PhD fieldwork experience. In 2008, when doingwhat was  my first ‘proper’ fieldwork I was visiting lots of different labs and research centres, driving all over ‘Silicon Valley. I attended ‘meet-ups’ and open lectures at various tech campuses as a way of networking and recruiting participants. Two memorable things stand out: first – locking myself in a toilet in a large multinational tech company HQ and being unable to get out without someone calling security for me; and second, leaving my ethics forms in a different bag and then getting roundly told off by a research participant – which led onto an interesting discussion about their own research ethics.

If you are able to laugh at yourself I think it helps. This is something I’m honestly not that good at and remembering these things can be painful. However, as Harrowell, Davies and Disney all outline in their article – failure can be productive, it can lead to different insights and reveal things for and about your research you might otherwise not appreciate.

Second, the article reminded me of a theme in my PhD research, which I didn’t really pursue – lots of the people involved in tech R&D I interviewed talked about the hidden nature of failure, that it’s an important part of their work but that, because it doesn’t lead to reward, via papers and patents, it doesn’t really get discussed or made present. The sad thing about this is that several people talked about seeing projects at other institutions that repeated their own ‘mistakes’ or ‘failures’ several years later.

This is a common theme and there’s been some commentary about this in terms of ‘scientific progress’ – in the sense that if you don’t know that other people have tried something and it didn’t work then you may well unknowingly repeat an experiment that will fail. About eight years ago this was a theme also brought up in worries about the metricisation of scientific recognition and publications and a journal was proposed and set up called the Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine.

One of the key arguments for ‘open’ research, I think, is that, if set in the right context, it offers a space for failure. Two key parts of that ‘right context’ stand out for me: First, if you are not punished (in terms of reward and recognition and wider measurements such as the UK REF) for saying ‘we tried this and it didn’t work’ more people might publish ‘negative results’. Second, others need to be able to access that information and ‘open’ research promises a means of facilitating that…

Read the article: Making Space for Failure in Geographic Research

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