It is important when writing about research to get clear about the difference between research that is inadequate and research that is partial.
There are two concepts that are helpful in deciding which of these is the case. They are:
(1) Blind spots – these are the things the method, definitions or theoretical approach does not allow to be seen/said. For example, surveys are very good for answering questions such as how many, and how often. They are not very good at probing the reasons why this may be the case. Conversely, a small number of case studies may allow you to build really rich descriptions but does not allow you to generalise to scale.
(2) Blank spots – these are the things that are not yet covered by this study. All studies have a particular scope, location, are conducted at a particular time, in a particular context and with particular people and things… there are therefore plenty of other circumstances which the research doesn’t cover. These things-not-covered constitute blank spots.
Having blank and blind spots in a piece of research is not necessarily a problem. In reality, all studies have these. All research is partial. It can’t do everything, cover all possibilities. It is therefore not a sign of inadequate research that some things are left unprobed since no research can do this.
The problem comes when there is an ambit claim made for coverage. In reality, most researchers do acknowledge the limitations of their particular studies and make their claims for contribution fit these. In other words, they do not claim things that they evidentially can’t because of the blank and blind spots in the research design.
Research that is inadequate is very often where the method, findings and claims do not match. The researcher has asked a question and then they have claimed that they have found things that they haven’t – and indeed couldn’t because the method wouldn’t allow it. They claim that the findings can apply to situations where there is insufficient evidence to suggest they will, in other words they claim coverage far greater than the particular study will allow.
There is also of course sloppy research where methods have been applied badly – texts under-analysed or statistics misapplied or carried out inadequately.
New researchers often get inadequacies and blank and blind spots muddled up. While research which has blank and blind spots might be disappointing, it is not actually sloppy – it’s either under-ambitious or, in reality, more likely simply partial. It’s important in literature reviews not to suggest something is sloppy research when it is simply limited by its methods or scope/location/sample etc and doesn’t make claims to be more than it is. It is important always in literature reviewing to look for the ‘fit’ between the blank and blind spots and the claims made in any piece of empirical research.
It is also particularly important – no, it’s crucial – to be clear about the blank and blind spots in your own research and getting this crystal clear before beginning to write the last chapter of the dissertation when the claims about contribution to knowledge are made. It is often when bigger claims are made than can actually be justified – for example policy recommendations are made on the back of small studies with limited scope and particular samples- that examiners get punitive.
It is not a weakness to note the blank and blind spots, and there is no need to go on about them at length, or to be apologetic. All research has blank and blind spots and we just need to know what they are, so that we know what we are legitimately able to say.
The notion of blank and blind spots used here is based on: Wagner, J. 1993, ‘Ignorance in educational research: Or, how can you not know that?’, Educational Researcher, vol. 22, no. 5, pp. 15-23. Barbara Kamler and I have worked with/on it as a pedagogical strategy.