A teacher librarian's learning journey

Gap-spotting & problematization (Sandberg & Alvesson 2011) March 19, 2013

Filed under: EER500 Introduction to Educational Research — Jennifer Baccon @ 1:38 am
  • Most common way to establish research questions is to spot gaps in the literature
  • Dominance gap-spotting surprising re. recognition that theory is interesting/influential when it challenges assumptions underlying existing literature
  • Assumption-challenging approaches are rarities
  • If innovative questions are not posed we will not generate interesting/significant results
  • Purpose – address new research problems, resolve controversies in the literature, could represent integration of approaches, challenge long-held beliefs
  • Little research has been done re. focus on how researchers arrive at questions although important “ingredients” often given
  • Gap-spotting unlikely to generate significant theory as approach does not question assumptions underlying literature in a rigorous way
  • Gap-spotting reinforces rather than challenges
  • Locke & Golden-Biddle (1997) contributions to research questions 2 processes – “structuring intertextual cohesion and problematization”
  • Intertextual – consensus of previous work reflected (synthesised coherence, progressive coherence, non-coherence)
  • Problematization – “problematizes” the given context as deficient in order to advance knowledge in the field
  • Research has examined key statements from researchers in uncovering the logic eg. “address this gap”; “extend this literature”


  • 3 basic modes of gap-spotting 1) confusion 2) neglect 3) application spotting
  • Confusion spotting – contradictions in the literature – sort through confusion and explain 0- search for competing explanations
  • Neglect spotting – most common method in this study – 3 versions 1) spotting an overlooked area 2) under-researched area 3) lack of empirical support
  • Application spotting – seeks shortage of particular theory – task to give an alternate perspective to further understanding – literature needs to be extended or complemented
  • There are combination also of the above
  • Should challenge some but not all assumptions for interesting/significant research – balance is needed between continuity and novelty
  • “Theory must differ significantly from the existing ones at the same time as it must be connected to established literature in order to be seen as meaningful.” SO


  • Foucault (1985) conceptualisation of problematization as an “endeavour to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instread of what is already known.”
  • Aim is to question the underlying assumptions in a significant way
  • Goes beyond minor critique/revision of a puzzle-solving nature
  • Problematization central in departing with inspiration from theory development

Dominance of gap-spotting

  • Calculative researchers – tenure, promotion, funding may well favour gap-spotting 
  • Seen as norms in the scientific field
  • 1) Gap-spotting is easy 2) uncontroversial and safe 3) tradition of knowledge accumulation 4) academia “is a crediting economy” 5) Institutional encouragement – Journals less likely to publish innovative research in comparison to lower status journals 6) Contemporary journal format encourage gap-spotting 7) It often makes perfect sense! 8) Problematization is difficult – question own assumptions as well as those of others
  • “Gap-spotting habitus”

Beyond gap-spotting

  • Critical confrontation
  • New idea
  • Quasi-problematization
  • Problematization – interpretive, political, linguistic, constructivist and postmodernism
  • Track-bound modes – confusion spotting, neglect spotting, application spotting
  • Combined track-bound and disruptive modes – critical confrontation, new idea, quasi-problematization
  • Disruptive modes – problematization
  • More disruptive modes need to be promoted and utilized to reach significant research

“Gap-spotting expresses faith in existing studies, and the assumptions on which they are based and strives to build positively on them. Problematization is more skeptical.It asks what may be fundamentally ‘wrong’ with the assumptions underlying existing studies, even those underlying one’s own favourite theories, and tries to challenge them as a key ingredient in constructing research questions.”


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