Anyone who’s made a visit to London and ridden the Underground has heard this warning on some of the older lines: “mind the gap!” The warning is issued because in some stations, when the train comes to a halt, there is a dangerous gap between the edge of the platform and the lip of the door opening. If you misstep, there’s a good chance of catching your foot in the gap and injuring yourself. Most decidedly, it is not an invitation to fill in the gap!
As Bob Hauser, a former graduate student colleague, said to me at a conference on sociological theory back in 1972, “some research can be said to fill a much-needed gap in the literature.” In other words, there was probably a reason the gap had gone unfilled, up to that point. The new contribution didn’t help matters. My former colleague’s remark comes back to me whenever I read advice from Journal editors about paper framing. They often encourage contributors to look for spaces in the literature where the paper would fit in. They recommend looking for overlooked opportunities left by omissions and gaps by previous scholars. But should we take their advice?
Anne Vorre Hansen and Sabine Madsen (2019) say “no.” In pursuit of the “gap” metaphor, they have published a book summarizing their interviews with eight leading scholars in the organization studies’ field on how to make contributions to the field. Based on their interviews, they identified two common threads: whether it truly was possible to expect that an author could identify a research gap, and whether trying to fill such perceived gaps constituted too narrow a focus on what a scholarly contribution should be.
They argued that “if we look at the insights from the interviews, the idea of identifying a gap in the literature is an illusion. A research gap sounds like there is an empty space waiting to be filled, whereas in inspired research, we draw on each other’s work, we discuss it, we think further, and we rethink it. Therefore, it might be fruitful to instead think and talk in terms of identifying research questions that are explicitly relevant to somebody… and that not only add to but also expand the existing knowledge base” (Hansen & Madsen, 2019: 153). Hansen and Madsen pointed out that the scholars they interviewed had often worked for years, even decades, developing their ideas and getting feedback to improve them.
Reflecting on their contribution, I offer two thoughts about the “filling a gap” metaphor. First, as an evolutionary theorist, I cannot believe in clairvoyance, especially in a low paradigm field like the social sciences. Who can know how their contributions will be assessed tomorrow? Retrospectively, we might identify what we believe to be the missing pieces of a puzzle. But what really matters is how our contributions will be received in the future. And that future, I believe, is almost totally unpredictable. Second, I recommend that scholars think in terms of what excites them and what motivates them to choose the problems they write about. How will they shed light on some mystery or deepen someone’s understanding of the problem or open our eyes to hidden miracles? Give up the pretense to “filling a gap,” and just do what turns you on.
Treat gaps the way the London Underground wants you to: leap over them!
Hansen, A. V., & Madsen, S. 2019. Theorizing in organization studies : insights from key thinkers. Cheltenham, UK: Cheltenham, UK : Edward Elgar Publishing, .
For some great advice on academic writing, visit Tim Pollock’s blog.