Why Do We Research?

John Witherspoon, President of the College of New Jersey from 1768-1794, played a key role in setting (what would become) Princeton on the course to become the renowned research institution it is today. Now, his statue watches over new generations of students as they journey into Firestone Library. 

If you are reading this post, you are likely involved in research. Unsurprisingly, I am too.  Yes, I’ve spent my fair share of long nights on the A floor of Firestone, reviewing sources and tightening up arguments. This week, I’m embarking on a new history research paper about the evolution of Native American spirituality from the 1830s to the 1890s, which I anticipate will take a fair amount of time. Reflecting on the work I have ahead got me thinking, why am I doing this in the first place? In fact, why do any of us research?

This question can really be broken into two parts: “What do we hope to achieve from our research?” and “What motivates us to conduct our research?” We think about the first question often, because in the academy, we have to justify what we’re doing to our professors, to funding boards, etc.  And in lots of research, one’s answer to the first question informs their answer to the second. Certain biologist friends of mine, for instance, study lab rat carcasses in the hopes of better understanding tumors, with the inspiring goal of curing cancer. In cases such as this, the aim of a project is to arrive at something with a concrete application so marvelous that it motivates the researcher to come to the lab each morning.

Similarly, in the social sciences, the motivating goal of research is societal optimization. Economists strive to understand how we as individuals, firms, and nations can most efficiently allocate our scarce resources to make the most of this precious life. Psychologists and sociologists analyze human motivations and behaviors, so that we can understand how we function and organize our lives accordingly. And, many political scientists and public policy researchers study our laws and systems of government with an eye toward tackling problems and implementing concrete solutions. Again, the noble aims of such research provide the motivation necessary to conduct it.

But what about research in the humanities? This realm of inquiry does not seem to concern itself with the material or technological advancement of humanity–the ‘goal’ is less tangible. This brings us back to the second overall question posed at the beginning of this post: what motivates us to conduct humanities research? 

Research can be goal-oriented, as discussed previously, or grounded in the process. Humanities research is often the latter: we hope to gain a personal appreciation for the immense value and power of ideas. The notion of truth-seeking, a common justification for more theoretical research, implies the high value of the truth being sought—after all, we wouldn’t spend long hours in the library “seeking the truth” if we didn’t think it’d be worth it in the end.

Regardless of our end goal (or lack thereof), rewards are built into the research process.  Before we can research, we must learn about our subject area. In the case of my history paper, I received background information on Native American life in the 1800s through lectures from various historians.  Grappling with their ideas, a vital part of my research, has been both a challenge and a reward. Indeed, as I learned while researching for this article, new findings in psychology suggest that learning makes humans happier. So, next time you’re dreading working on a research paper, try to remember that you’ll learn something, which will make you happier!

Finally, in addition to making us happier or providing us with a personal sense of meaning, research also expresses something about who we are as a scholarly community. Research is a collective enterprise, and thus everything we do as researchers exists in the context of our fellow researchers–who are often attached to universities. As participants in the university system, we are at the forefront a collaborative, decentralized experiment in personal freedom of thought and action dating back to the 13th century. This is just as true in the humanities as it is in the hard or social sciences, as we have a shared desire to bring the best ideas of humankind to light. And I think that’s pretty cool.

We all have our own private reasons for researching, too. As a student of history interested in public service, I hope to learn from the mistakes of the past by studying the intricacies of their causes and effects. The United States’ policies towards Native Americans in the 1800s were, in general, morally abhorrent–so studying them is actually a useful exercise in learning how not to conduct public policy. I encourage my fellow Princeton students to devote some time to thinking about the “big picture” of their research, also keeping in mind what we’re participating in as a social movement and why it matters. After all, the grades we receive on our research papers will soon fade from our memories—but these feelings of purpose, meaning, and connection to the academic tradition will be with us forever.

–Shanon FitzGerald, Social Sciences Correspondent