Last week, my grad course on Comparative Methods read about where research ideas come from and what makes research “good.” Almost everyone who tries to write on this topic agrees that the best research is “interesting,” and it is “important,” but no one knows how to teach this, nor does anyone have an operational measure of importance or interesting-ness that can be easily deployed to test whether something passes the bar.
So what to do? While there are no rules or definitions, I think that there are some principles that researchers can follow. Looking back on all the work I’ve tried to do, and all the work that I’ve read, here are ten that come to mind. A couple of these actually come down to admonitions about what not to do in the quest to make your research interesting and important (see esp. number 9), but the message should still be clear.
1. Most things that you think are self-evidently interesting are probably not interesting to most people, even those who work in your own little corner of your discipline. Write as if no one cares unless you explain to them why they have to care.
2. Do not motivate your argument through an appeal to what the literature says.
3. Labeling something a “puzzle” does not make it so.
4. “Puzzling” and “consequential” are different. People are more likely to remember consequential than puzzling.
5. Problematizing something is not a goal. It’s a strategy that you only adopt because it has some sort of payoff that you can demonstrate.
6. Your super-duper methodological advance must make a substantive contribution too.
7. Very few things have not been theorized to death already, so don’t try to pretend otherwise.
8. Your task is not to show that everyone else is wrong, your task is to show why the reader cares that you’re right.
9. Don’t oversell. My reading your paper will not contribute to world peace.
10. Sometimes, just sometimes, you can ignore these rules. But if you can, you probably don’t have to!