One of the key issues I seem to be running up against at the moment with the various projects I’m involved in is research fatigue. Basically, it seems to be the case that wherever I turn in the low-carbon energy field, potential participants have already talked to people from other institutions, participated in projects, or read about research being done elsewhere in the country on a very similar topic. The phrases “I was speaking to someone else from your university recently” or “have you seen the work by so and so, they were trying to do something like that” are fast becoming more common responses than “oh, that sounds really interesting”.
If one was being uncharitable, one could suggest that this is a sign the work my colleagues and I are doing isn’t particularly original, or that I haven’t really done my homework to find out where the gaps in the field are. However, I think (or at least hope) there is a bit more to it than that.
Loosely defined, the concept of ‘research fatigue’ refers to a growing weariness among members of society to taking part in a seemingly endless stream of research projects. It is not to be confused with ‘fatigue research’, an entirely different branch of study in physiology and structural engineering into effects of use over time on human bodies and metals respectively. Traditionally, communities or sections of society at high risk of exposure to research fatigue include those who have been subject to a high media presence, those in close proximity to a major research institute, or those seen as a ‘classic’ case study of a particular phenomenon. A former PhD colleague of mine told me a lovely anecdote about an NGO operating in Mumbai, who told an eager Masters student “sorry, we only do interviews with doctoral candidates and above now”.
Tom Clark (2008) wrote a fantastic paper on research fatigue in Sociology, in which he identifies several key factors contributing towards research fatigue: lack of tangible change resulting from participation; increasing apathy towards engagement; and the burdens on time, finances and organisation placed by taking part in research. After a particularly challenging morning trying to arrange interviews for one project, I typed ‘research fatigue’ into Web of Science, pulled this article up on screen, and spent the next half hour nodding my head page after page.
The more I think about it, the more it seems that the low-carbon energy sector in Scotland (and perhaps the UK as a whole) is at risk of exposure to research fatigue. Scotland is a comparatively small country – about six million people – and yet has a large number of high-class universities and research institutes doing work on the various social and political dimensions of environmental change. By contrast, the deployment of low-carbon technology projects has, with the possible exception of wind, been comparatively slow. Factor in an increasing number of honours and Masters students showing an interest in environmental sustainability (in itself very laudable and encouraging), and it quite quickly becomes apparent that the amount of research being done is at risk of significantly outstripping progress on the ground. The net effect of this is that the projects that are running, and the people living and working near to them, are being exposed to an ever-increasing number of researchers.
Does this mean low-carbon social scientists should just give up doing research on low-carbon energy until we have more projects, or we should cap the numbers of people ‘allowed’ to do fieldwork? No, of course it doesn’t. But it does, I think, mean the low-carbon research community in both Scotland and the UK needs to think a bit more carefully about how and why they are doing the research they are. Fired up by Clark’s article, I came up with the following action plan to acknowledge and work round low-carbon research fatigue:
- pool work if you can. Try to find out what others in your institute have been doing, where they have done their research, and who they have spoken to (remaining, of course, within Data Protection regulations at all times). If it’s possible, if there are similar projects on the go in the same geographical area have a chat with each other and if funding conditions permit, perhaps think about signing a Memorandum of Understanding to share data or work together;
- broaden the horizons of your work. Are there people who might have interesting things to say on the issue, but who just haven’t been acknowledged in work that’s been done to date? How might issues like climate change indirectly affect, say, old housing stock? I often find great enthusiasm from people who have thought a lot about low-carbon energy and climate change, but just haven’t been asked by the research community to share their views on it;
- be clear and realistic about what your project is going to do. Stakeholders with lots of experience of the realities of lobbying and decision-making processes may look on your project’s claims of ‘influencing policymakers’ with scepticism, whereas those with less understanding of the difficulty of influencing existing processes may become disillusioned if their expectations subsequently go unmet. In both cases, it is perhaps better to be honest and realistic about what you as a researcher are going to (try to) do with the data, and let people make a decision about participation based on that. A one-page summary of the project aims and goals can be helpful in this regard;
- respect and humility. It may well be the case that organisations who are tight on funds and staff do acknowledge the value of the work you are doing, but just don’t have the resources to participate to the extent they would like to in light of all the other pressures they face. This, I feel, is something we should use to reflect on how our work is perceived by society at large, and to acknowledge the limitations of what we are doing in the grand scheme of things.
Lastly, I think it’s important not to see research fatigue as a sign you are necessarily doing ‘bad’ or ‘unoriginal’ research. Of course it is important to reflect on why you are trying to interview people your peers have already spoken to, and whether you are attempting to re-invent the wheel, but there may be many other reasons completely outwith your control for why stakeholders, communities and individuals are cautious about participation. Striving to understand these reasons might tell you more about the problem your project is trying to solve than a full set of trouble-free interviews would.
*Clark T (2008) ‘We’re over-researched here! Exploring Accounts of Research Fatigue within Qualitative Research Engagements’ Sociology 42 (5): 953-970.