“Look, a squirrel!” Non-focus in qualitative research

This blog post is an English translation of a peer-reviewed journal article that has originally been published in Finnish in the journal Tiedepolitiikka [Science Policy]. We wanted to publish the English translation because we feel that the topic is valuable for any early-career researchers doing qualitative research.
You can cite the original article as follows (APA 7th):
Aarnikoivu, M., & Saarinen, T. (2021). Epäfokus laadullisessa tutkimuksessa. Tiedepolitiikka, 46(1), 27–39.


In 2018, one of the authors of this article, Saarinen, was sitting in the main hall of a Nordic conference, waiting for the opening ceremony. The start of the event was still quite a while away, and the performing artists were still doing a soundcheck on the stage. In the near-empty hall, the artist Frida Ånnevik, one of the most popular modern musicians in Norway, was doing a soundcheck for her latest hit single. This is how Saarinen reminisces the situation:

On the one hand, I felt like I was a privileged audience member in a private concert, but at the same time, I felt like I was doing something wrong, listening to music that was not intended for the audience yet at that point. But why was I thinking that the performance had to be “ready” or “meant to” be performed to a listener in a specific way? Why could it just not be an enjoyable musical experience? Because, from my viewpoint, it was enjoyable, and I could no longer enjoy the actual performance later quite as much anymore.

Even though research is sometimes an incredibly desperate process, why are all the changed plans considered as problems instead of an inherent part of research?

(Ennser-Kananen, Saarinen, & Sivunen, 2018)

Following this experience, Saarinen started an active WhatsApp discussion with a colleague who had stayed in Finland. Together, they started wondering why we always make research so hygienic by hiding away all the “false starts”—which are so common in music? Can research ever be “ready” before you can show it to your audience? Or is there a hidden curriculum (see McKinley & Rose, 2017, p. 3) behind the “polished” research product, whose purpose is to function as some kind of a gatekeeper of research: for research to be real and for us to be real researchers, we need to sweep all the difficulties and failures under the rug. Even though research is sometimes an incredibly desperate process, why are all the changed plans considered as problems instead of an inherent part of research (Ennser-Kananen, Saarinen, & Sivunen, 2018)?

In this article, we offer an autoethnographic (Ellis et al., 2011; Given, 2008) view on two research processes that combined applied language studies with higher education research (Aarnikoivu, 2020a; Saarinen, 2020a). Both processes were a result of two fairly unfocused and meandering processes. With these two views, we reflect on how the processes started, how they progressed, and how their essence only became clear to us after several discussions with colleagues, procrastination, and changed plans—in both cases closer to the end of the research process than the beginning. Of course, we acknowledge that focus also has its place in some stages of a research process. However, our aim is to conceptualise non-focus in qualitative research; to bring transparency to nonlinear, uncertain, and occasionally messy research processes. This article offers a methodological starting point for those qualitative researchers who want to tackle complex phenomena but do not yet know where to start and what types of questions to ask specifically.

We begin by problematising the role of research questions and methods in research by discussing some of the earlier research literature on the topic. Next, we briefly present the methodology used in this paper, autoethnography, and how we carried out our analysis. The methodology section will be followed by two reflections, which are both based on research processes finalised in 2020. In the final section of the paper, we bring these two reflections together by discussing how focus or non-focus of research affects research processes and possibly even research funding and decision-making.

”Where are your research questions?” Familiar and safe building blocks of good research

Already during the BA and MA, future researchers are taught to think in a way that, in research, one has to focus, create specific and concise research questions, and find answers to those questions by choosing suitable methods: that research questions guide the research process (Bryman, 2007). This line of thinking often continues during one’s doctoral studies, and research question related issues can often be found in many dissertation assessment criteria in Finland (see e.g. University of Helsinki 2020; University of Jyväskylä, 2019). For example, in the assessment criteria of the University of Jyväskylä’s dissertations, it is stated that to receive the highest grade, one needs to derive one’s research questions with distinction from the research problems, and that the questions have to be narrowed down and formulated excellently. Therefore, doctoral researchers are typically encouraged to create their preliminary research questions already when writing the first research plan draft.

It can also be risky for a researcher to leave research questions from research grant applications or articles. This is because, without them, it might seem that the researcher has not thoroughly thought about their research, or that their research does not have an aim. For example, in their “Academy Research Fellow funding” webpage, the Academy of Finland mentions research questions twice in relation to the research plan: One has to include research questions and/or hypotheses to the purpose and aims of the project, and later in the section “Research data and material, methods, and research environment”, it is said that “[r]esearch methods and how they will contribute to answering the research questions or confirming the hypotheses, or how they will support the chosen approach.” (Academy of Finland, 2021). When it is about one of the most prestigious research funding instruments in Finland, it is better to follow the instructions carefully, rather than say that one is not fully sure what kinds of observations and questions—and ultimately results—the planned data will offer.

Furthermore, different method guides and individual researchers often emphasise the importance of research questions, although there are some exceptions, such as researchers doing grounded theory (Bryman, 2007) or ones utilising ethnographic research methodologies. In linguistics, for example, Psathas (1995, p. 45) discussed “unmotivated looking” in the context of conversation analysis. In applied linguistics, similar problematisation has been offered by McKinley and Rose and their methods guide Doing Research in Applied Linguistics: Realities, dilemmas and solutions (2017). In the guide, the authors questioned many of the assumptions about mistakes and false starts of research that we have internalised (Ennser-Kananen et al., 2018).

As Bryman (2007) noted, these kinds of viewpoints are quite rare in humanities and social sciences, however. In fact, he questioned the kind of viewpoint in research, where we emphasise the importance of research questions and their role. He studied to what extent this type of view offers a descriptive or even a normative description in social scientific research. Based on an interview study, he distinguished two discourses: a particularistic discourse and a universalistic discourse. The first emphasised the importance of research questions regarding the later choices that will be made during the research process (see also Blaikie, 2000; Bryman, 2004; Creswell, 2003), whereas the latter supported the opposite. In the universalistic discourse, researchers reported doing research in the way they had always done it without connecting their topic with specific research questions right at the beginning. Some researchers reported switching between the two discourses.

Indeed, Bryman (2007) stated that the experiences and views of researchers on doing research and formulating research questions do not seem to correspond to the simple and linear picture that methodological guidebooks, for example, provide (“Research question → Research methods”, Bryman, 2007, p. 15). However, there might be other factors affecting the chosen research methodologies, such as research experience, field, journals of the field, funding agencies, and ideological reasons (Bryman, 2007). Thus, Bryman (2007) asked why so many researchers and methodological guides emphasises the importance of research questions. One reason he proposed was normativity; the aim of the guidebooks to provide advice on how doing research “should be”. This kind of rationality is likely very tempting to many researchers who are often otherwise in a highly precarious situation. This type of thinking is also in line with previous research: “if others are doing it like this, I also have to do it like this.” This, in turn, is connected to the hegemony of quantitative and positivist research in specific contexts. If one sees that it is easier to publish quantitative studies, a researcher might choose mixed methods research instead of qualitative methods only (Bryman, 2007; see also Guba, 1996).

If we fix our gaze into a specific kind of question too early, we might not notice something relevant and potentially interesting.

In this article, we specifically want to challenge the above assumptions, as interesting phenomena (in any field) might often be found as a result of a much more uncertain process. If we fix our gaze into a specific kind of question too early, we might not notice something relevant and potentially interesting (see Aarnikoivu, 2020b; Saarinen 2020b). Non-focus has also been observed to be useful in focus group work (Franz, 2011). By unfocused focus group work, Franz (2011) refers to “substantive discussion on topics not directly tied to the goals of the project” (p. 1380). A slightly more descriptive metaphor—although not a definition—is Pillay’s (2017) idea of focus and non-focus as two different ways to function, both having their own purpose: focus produces a clearly targeted spotlight, whereas non-focus helps with seeking something that is further in the distance.  

If we look at contexts beyond research, we can also see that non-focus and “aimlessness” is utilised especially in creative jobs (see e.g. Meacham, 2019; Tilley, 2019), such as in writing fiction. For example, Stephen King wrote in his famous book On writing: a memoir of the craft (2000) that he very rarely knew what kind of a plot his new book would have when he started writing it. Even though academic writing and research are quite different from fictional writing, they are both creative work in the end (McVey, 2008). Most researchers most likely have a great deal of experience with procrastination, contemplation, and uncertainty before their research topic becomes clear, or before they start writing, even though they do not necessarily recognise the importance of those feelings.

Data and analysis: non-focus in our own work

Autoethnography is used particularly in humanities and social sciences. It combines ethnographic research and writing and connects one’s personal experience to the cultural, social, and political. In autoethnography, the life and lived experiences of a researcher become an essential part of the studied phenomenon. Autoethnography can be considered as a sub-genre of biographical writing. Autoethnographic texts might resemble research diaries more than traditional research articles. It is indeed the written product that is often the most important result of an autoethnography. (Ellis et al., 2011.) One reason for the growing popularity of autoethnography is suspected to be the way we think about research: observations are no longer considered to be neutral or unproblematic. Furthermore, discussions on power and the writing process are more and more common among researchers (Given, 2008; see also Spry, 2001). According to Adams and Holman Jones (2008), autoethnography considers research as political, socially just, and conscious action. Ultimately, these questions are based on fundamental epistemological questions, such as “how do we know what we know?” or “who can claim that the research we do is valid?”.

As Given (2008) described, autoethnography is able to present different layers of consciousness, which again are connected to how we focus on research, or how one can step away from it. Thus, a researcher has to examine their topic from a wider perspective, as well as in more detail. This process requires reflexivity from the researcher as well as examining their motives so that they could make informed decisions during the research process. In this sense, Given (2008) considers researchers very vulnerable, because they have to observe not just other people but also themselves. As a result, the role of the researcher might obscure, which has also been widely discussed in ethnographic research (see e.g. Atkinson et al., 2003). Because of these reasons, we find autoethnography particularly suitable for conceptualising non-focus.

Autoethnographies might differ in terms of the following levels: “self” (auto), culture (ethnos), and process (graphy) (Ellis, 2004; Reed-Danahay, 1997). In this article they are visible as follows:

Self (auto): This article does not represent an autoethnography that would have been designed to be one from the very beginning. Instead, it presents two cases which we now discuss retrospectively with autoethnographic tools to conceptualise a phenomenon (non-focus) we observed in these two cases. Additionally, we aim to bring out our “vulnerable” self (Given, 2008, p. 48) by discussing those uncertainties that we have experienced as researchers.

Culture (ethnos): The ”culture” we explore in this article is the culture of doing research, becoming a researcher, and developing as a researcher—the one into which we gradually socialise as we do research work (see e.g. Anderson, 2017; Weidman & Stein, 2003).

Process (graphy): This article is a result of six years of collaboration, even though we did not know we would write this article until some months ago. Therefore this text represents two research processes as well as their joint product, as autoethnographies tend to do (Ellis et al., 2011).

Reflexivity and reflection have a long history in social sciences (May & Perry, 2014). In this paper, reflection, however, has a central role, and the results of that reflection form the course of the article (see e.g. Schindler & Schäfer, 2020). Our data consists specifically of four joint meetings where we reflected upon our earlier research processes, but also of those discussions we had had with our colleagues in research contexts and also in more informal ones. We had already recorded many of those discussions either as WhatsApp messages or as GoogleDrive documents. Furthermore, we discussed the literature that forms the second section of this article: how current literature understands non-focus, what it does not cover, and how earlier concepts, similar to non-focus, are connected to our own experiences. We wrote all these observations and thoughts into a joint document which we used as a basis for our analysis and this paper.

During our third meeting, we decided to focus on two major research projects (one from each), which we first analysed individually from the viewpoint of non-focus: How did the projects start? What kinds of challenges did non-focus cause during the process? How did we overcome those challenges? After our respective analyses we met once more and discussed each other’s analyses. We examined the similarities and differences and, based on the analysis, discussed what non-focus means in a wider higher education context and in the context of doing research. After these four reflection rounds and receiving the initial reviews of our manuscript we met for the fifth time to elaborate the relationship between focus and non-focus, the role of non-focus in the research process, and the more personal experiences that were connected to non-focus and our own ‘researcherness’. Next, we will present the results.

The challenges of non-focus for an early-career researcher (Aarnikoivu)

As we already mentioned earlier in this article, there are already some modes of inquiry that emphasise the importance of non-focus. For example, ethnography or modes of inquiry including ethnographic elements, such as nexus analysis (see Scollon & Scollon, 2004), strongly emphasise different stages of a research process instead of research questions themselves. The first non-focus case of this article is a dissertation on doctoral education which I finished in autumn 2020. In my work, I used nexus analysis, which progresses in three different stages: engaging, navigating, and changing the nexus of practice:

“In the first stage, the researcher maps out relevant social actors, places, events, and actions, which seem to be the most significant in terms of the studied topic. These observations guide the second stage of nexus analysis, navigating, which is the most long-lasting stage of nexus analysis. In this stage, it is important that if a researcher notices that some of the issues they mapped out in the first stage do not seem relevant after all, they ‘zoom out’ and re-evaluates the situation before ‘zooming back in’. In this way, the researcher does not “get stuck” in specific actors or actions, which again helps the final stage of nexus analysis, changing the nexus of practice: the researcher does not only do research and report the results but, with their own actions, aims at facilitating change in the studied settings.” (Aarnikoivu, 2020a, p. 110–111.)

In other words, nexus analysis is about mapping out, navigating, zooming out, re-evaluation, and facilitating change. All of these are active, analytical actions, which are part of almost any change-drive research tradition in humanities or social sciences. However, in my own work, these actions were not guided by a predefined set of questions but instead by my own empirical interest in doctoral education. The aim of nexus analysis is not to answer predefined questions but instead to ask new questions and bring change into the chosen research problem or phenomenon, which in my work meant issues of doctoral education. It is possible to occasionally include research questions into nexus analysis. However, what matters is the moment when one formulates the questions and how those questions affect the results. For example, in one of the four dissertation articles (see Aarnikoivu & Saarinen, 2020), we formulated two research questions. Before, we had gone through the data several times from different perspectives, trying to tap into what the data was actually about. Originally, we had wanted to examine the social action of writing meetings organised for doctoral researchers. In the end, however, we noticed that what happened in the meetings was not as relevant as what did not happen in the meetings: who did not attend due to different reasons related to technology or language use. This would not have been possible without carefully developing and considering the research problem.

I started adding made-up research questions into my presentations and funding applications because otherwise, I might not have received any funding.

Despite the inbuilt non-focus of nexus analysis, I remember tackling the problem of having research questions often during my doctoral project. Especially at the start of the project when I was presenting my research plan to my colleagues, many of them were puzzled by the absence of research questions. This puzzlement continued in conferences and occasionally also in the reviewer comments of my manuscripts. For this reason, I began to think that there was something wrong with my research: it was not planned well enough. As a result, I started adding made-up research questions into my presentations and funding applications because otherwise, I might not have received any funding—or even the initial study right at the faculty. These made-up questions allowed me to imagine that my research was progressing the way research is supposed to: systematically, guided by detailed research questions.

Ultimately, however, I only had research questions in one of my dissertation articles. But this did not mean that my dissertation did not have aims or an argument. So, the absence of research questions does not mean we do not want to achieve something with our research or that we do not want to offer new, valuable research-based knowledge for decision-makers. Nevertheless, by the time my dissertation went to pre-examination, I was unsure whether it was alright not to have research questions in one’s doctoral dissertation. By the time I submitted the final version and defending my work in August 2020, however, I was sure about my decision. In my lectio praecursoria, I openly explained that there were no clear research questions in the work but instead I had started generating data with an open mind, without strong presumptions of what I would find. Instead, I stated that a systematic, elaborate analysis forms of the theoretical and methodological concepts embedded in nexus analysis, with which the researcher “dives under the surface of the studied phenomenon and observes what is rising from the depths towards the surface. In case the water becomes too murky, the researcher might occasionally come back to the surface, take a few deep breaths, collect their thoughts, and dive again.” (Aarnikoivu, 2020c, p. 36).

One of the most important reasons for enduring and accepting this kind of uncertainty was probably the fact that both my thesis supervisors accepted my way of doing research. Without this approval, my “research question rebellion” would most likely not have been possible. One of my supervisors (the other author of this article) reminisces feeling relieved when the two pre-examiners of my dissertation (as gatekeepers of the doctoral process) accepted my approach. Additionally, one of the culminating moments for “acceptance of non-focus” could be considered to be my defence afterparty and a speech by a professor. He was one of those who had been wondering about nexus analysis and the absence of research questions a few years earlier. However, in his speech, the professor stated that now he finally understood what nexus analysis and its non-focus were about. So, accepting non-focus took me five years, but so it did for my colleagues. As a result, not only did I offer new insights to European doctoral education but also a methodological contribution to the fields of applied language studies and higher education research. In my dissertation, I encouraged researchers to question where their own research questions come from and examine what might be left unnoticed if research questions are formulated too early. Now, when I supervise students doing qualitative research myself, I try to emphasise that messiness and uncertainty are normal aspects of research.

Looking from the corner of my eye with alternate conceptualisations and procrastination (Saarinen)

Focus can be escaped not only by postponing the formulation of research questions, but also by various theoretical and practical approaches that purposefully divert the attention of the researcher. Naturally, the researcher’s gaze always determines the object, but at the same time, focusing one’s gaze on something specific also blocks ideas and concepts that are right outside our sight, or even prevents us from seeing other phenomena or explanations. As the second example of this article, we offer a topic where the focus on language has long interfered with my research and thinking on language policy and language education policy. If the subject of the research has been, for example, language education in municipalities, I have tried to focus on language education in municipalities. However, this left a feeling that something always escaped my grasp: focusing narrowly on a particular topic at hand seemed to interfere with the analysis of the multiple connections and layers involved in it.

Theoretically, counterfactual histories (see, for example, Wenzlhuemer, 2009) and concepts of political contingency (Eräsaari, 2015; Kauko & Wermke, 2018) have offered an alternate approach to my research. Counterfactual historiography made it possible to re-examine historical developments and their possible consequences (often taken for granted and as inevitable) and to dismantle the determinism often associated with history. The concept of political contingency, in turn, helped to break free from the shackles of political expectations and understand different alternative options (see Kauko & Wermke, 2018). Or, as Eräsaari (2015, p. 9) said, “new perspectives can detach, separate, or free us from the conditionality and attachments that are used without reflection of their underlying assumptions to explain, what we are, think and do”.

I began to think that procrastination in research is like recovery periods in physical exercise: if you are tired, you have to rest; if you feel lazy, you need to work out.

I had already previously noticed that academic procrastination (usually mostly discouraged in research as it distracts from focus!), may, at least when reasonably applied, also provide opportunities for creativity and act as a kind of incubator for creative solutions and interesting questions (Shin & Grant, 2020). Procrastination is often understood as avoiding of problems, and there exists a myriad of self-help tools for researchers suffering from it. However, reflecting on my background in sports coaching, I began to think that procrastination in research is like recovery periods in physical exercise: if you are tired, you have to rest; if you feel lazy, you need to work out. Similarly, procrastination may be harmful if applied only to avoid thinking. If, on the other hand, it allows you to shift your gaze away from the problem at hand for a moment and free yourself to look at the problem from the corner of the eye, it can provide a new viewpoint. A happy unintended effect of fruitful procrastination is that, while procrastinating on something, you often create some by-product (thought, idea, publication) that can in turn lead to new pathways and ideas.

In my recent book (Saarinen, 2020a), I sought at least a momentary non-focus by looking behind language (what we talk about when we think we talk about language) and history (how counterfactual histories help us unpack our deterministic assumptions about the nature of history). At the same time, I took advantage of the perspectives that had emerged over a long period of time and as a result of various procrastination processes, the interconnected nature of which I only understood afterwards. With the help of colleagues (see, for example, Ennser-Kananen, Halonen, & Saarinen, 2021), I had certainly realized already earlier that when we talk about language, we usually talk about something else, such as the speakers of the language or the structures of our society (Halonen, 2012). This, in itself, is a familiar consideration in sociolinguistics (see, e.g., Gal, 2006), but the operationalization of this notion in research is much more difficult.

Combining these perspectives (counterfactual histories and political contingency) and practices (seemingly random and unrelated studies) thus allowed a sideways look at phenomena and analyses that may otherwise have remained invisible. At the same time, I gradually began to realize how my tendency to feed my academic procrastination by picking up new ideas mid-air while doing something else, enabled new themes to emerge in my research. Most of the time, I made embarrassing fun about such procrastination and jumping from an idea to another, talking about “looking at a squirrel”. Only gradually I began to see its value as relaxing the brain. However, it is also depictive of the hierarchies in the academic world that emphasizing non-focus was made easier with advancement of my academic career: the more established I was, the easier it was to say out loud that research does not necessarily follow the straightforward success recipes that method textbooks offer us.

Next, I will give an example of the role of indigenous minority languages ​​in Finnish constitutional bilingualism and in Finnish language education policy. The non-existent status of Sámi, Romani, sign language, or Karelian has historically been easy to explain by the poor position of these languages ​​in language policy and legislation. With these languages ​​being given official minority status only in the 1990s and 2000s with legislative changes in the position of these languages, it has been tempting to think that changing the law will change their oppressed situation. In a counterfactual situation, for example, the Sámi languages ​​or Karelian might have been granted minority status, due to various historical coincidences, already around Finland’s independence in 1917. This example demonstrates that the weak status of these languages ​​does not ultimately depend on their legal status. (Ennser-Kananen & Saarinen, forthcoming.) This, in itself speculative observation emerged in combination with various seemingly unrelated observations of language, language policy, and society, that were born from previous procrastinations around language, language policy, and society.

This kind of approach also helped me understand Finnish constitutional bilingualism from a new perspective, possibly even a little better than before. The constitutional status of the national languages, Finnish and Swedish, ​​is challenged by various factors related to the historical, political, cultural, and economic interdependence of these languages ​​(Saarinen, 2020a). These intertwined discourses, in turn, make it understandable that the positions of both our national languages ​​and the other indigenous, autochthonous, and migration based languages ​​ have not been static—a language that appears threatened in one context may in another context turn out to be a hegemonic threat to others (Ennser-Kananen & Saarinen, forthcoming). In this way, the dynamic and multidimensional nature of language policy materialized. However, I would not have seen this bigger picture unless my good colleagues had not at some point become interested in the connections between the different, confusing, and messy ideas emerging from my procrastination, and encouraged me to write more on the subject. Academic procrastination is also a team sport.

Conclusions: How to normalise non-focus?

We suspect most qualitative researchers can find similarities between their own experiences and the ones we have described above. We do not claim that our experiences are in any way rare. Also, many of the themes we discuss in this paper, such as phenomenon-based approaches, contingency, procrastination, and creativity are not new in the context of doing research. However, as we state in our introduction, our aim is to conceptualise and thus normalise the non-focus of qualitative research. To accomplish this, we suggest not having research questions or creating them later, as well as procrastination. In this way, we want to encourage researchers to let go of the excessively systematic, linear, and overly hygienic methodological thinking, which most of us are encouraged to adopt from the very first moments when we begin our studies at a university. Moreover, we want to encourage researchers to present their researcher processes as holistic, humane projects which may not always proceed as planned but nonetheless—or because of that—teach us something new about the phenomenon we study and about ourselves as researchers. By no means do we want to replace focus with aimlessness—there is a place for both focus and non-focus in research processes. For example, focus is needed when finalising a research project or when thinking about societal implications of one’s research. For the stage where one thinks about their initial research topic and problems, we recommend more non-focused thinking, procrastination, and accepting uncertainty.

Learning to hide all the problems of one’s research process might lead to a superficial or safe dissertation.

Conceptualising and normalising non-focus would be particularly important for two reasons that become visible in our reflections: First, enduring and accepting imperfection and uncertainty would be important when doing doctoral studies, when an early-career researcher is only learning to do independent research and writing (see also Burford, 2017; Morrison-Saunders et al., 2010). Of course, this does not fit all research or all research stage—testing one’s hypotheses can be necessary fairly early in specific types of research settings. It might also be important to switch between focus and non-focus at different stages of one’s research. Learning to hide all the problems of one’s research process might lead to a superficial or safe dissertation. Therefore, it would be important for doctoral researchers to “grow” in a space where one could safely do one’s work without feeling pressured by perfect research questions or narrowing down one’s topic too early.

How could we then support non-focus theoretically or methodologically in doctoral education, for example, or communicate to early-career researchers that uncertainty, setbacks, and failures are inherent part of becoming a researcher, and are not really “failures” in the end? These themes ought to be discussed openly during doctoral education in different seminars and supervision meetings. If they are not, they can create extra pressure for early-career researchers in a world which already stresses competition. Furthermore, the way early-career researchers are taught to conduct research will likely transfer on to those who those same early-career researchers will later teach themselves.

Second, we argue that non-focus can be useful empirically. If one knows already at the start of the research process what kind of data to generate, it might cause one to choose methodologically unimaginative approaches, which in turn limits the results and creation of new knowledge. This is because we often see what we decide to look at and do not see what we decide not to look at. This, in turn, results in renewing and knowing more about what we already knew before (see also Saarinen, 2020b). Thus, non-focus might help in finding new perspectives and research topics. As Huutoniemi (2014) stated, problems do not exist objectively; instead, they depend on the values, interpretations, and expectations of different actors.

A more important question from the viewpoint of research and science policy is probably what safe research or focusing too early do to research. Do we end up doing “safe research” instead of actually presenting courageous, innovative ideas? How does focus—or non-focus—of research finally affect who gets research funding or what types of decisions are made in society? Is it even possible for unfocused researchers to obtain research funding without trying to make it look like their research is fully focused? Similar critical questions related to knowledge, knowledge production, and its steering have been asked by Ronkainen et al. (2014). They noted that knowledge production of Finnish universities is strictly tied to different kinds of strategic initiatives which necessitate measurable utility and impact, which again are tied to different policy programmes. As Ronkainen et al. (2014) criticised, this is problematic because not all utility can be measured or visible right away. Furthermore, they note that setting goals and research questions greatly impact knowledge and knowledge production: do we simply ask questions which the available funding encourages us to answer?

Ronkainen et al. (2014) suggested that societal knowledge production should be grounded in a wider need to understand specific phenomena instead of from a need for research or its utility to be instantly measurable. Our autoethnography has shown that this is not only possible in qualitative research but also potentially very fruitful if we accept that we do not have to focus too early. Therefore, we suggest that funding agencies (especially the ones funding humanities and social sciences) would be more flexible with their demands concerning research questions and would also accept research plans which approach a research topic from a more holistic viewpoint: Which phenomenon will be studied more closely? Why? How is the topic planned to be studied and how chosen methods or approaches potentially affect the results? What can the study not find out? Even though these elements are part of research plans already now, it is not always necessary to formulate specific questions so that a researcher could show that they have planned their study carefully. Finally, we recommend that researchers could continuously be dissatisfied with what they are doing and what they have discovered. This keeps one’s mind continuously active, brainstorming new ideas and observing new problems.


We’d especially like to thank docent, Academy Research Fellow Johanna Ennser-Kananen; docent, senior researcher Terhi Nokkala; and other colleagues we have talked to about these issues within the past years. We’d also like to thank the two reviewers who helped us to clarify our thinking.

Melina Aarnikoivu is a postdoctoral researcher at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research (FIER), University of Jyväskylä. Her research interests include doctoral education, academic writing, and wellbeing of early-career researchers.

Taina Saarinen is Research Professor of higher education at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research (FIER), University of Jyväskylä. Her recent research interests include language and internationalisation, new nationalism in higher education, and academic wellbeing.

Photo by Romain Vignes on Unsplash

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