The univeral riposte to the “So what?” question

24 Feb

If I had a pound for every time I have given a talk and it has been met with the “So what?” question then I would be a hundredaire – at least. Usually, the “So What?” question is well-intentioned; audience members want to know how your research is original and what contribution it makes to the literature. Often we’re not clear enough on the original contribution – we’re too caught up in the weeds and detail of our research. We blast people with data but don’t take time to provide a rationale of why we think something is important. Occasionally, the questioner wants to show everyone that they are the smartest person in the room (and thereby the most insecure). They’re male, sit in the front row, and ask the first question. But generally, the “So what?” question is completely legitimate. If we are going to present our research we should – at least – indicate why we think it is significant

But often my research is not terribly original. In the entire world of the social sciences and the multiple disciplines that it entails, do many of us really come up with truly original ideas, arguments and results? Humans have been around for a long time and have been dealing with challenges – intellectual and practical – from the start. Do we really think that many of us are having thoughts that others have not had before? Sure, in my research I will come up with field data that is unique, but in the wider picture it is unlikely that I will make a breakthrough into a new paradigm. This is especially the case as many of us work in siloes, unaware that those in cognate disciplines have been working on a subject that interests us. Perhaps they have a different approach or use a different terminology – but it is essentially the same problem. I have often strayed into literature in Sociology or Anthropology only to find that there are library shelves bulging with works on the topic that I had thought was original in my particular corner of Peace and Conflict Studies.

And now I have come up with a universal riposte to the “So what?” question? And it runs along the lines of “You might be familiar with the work on X but it is new to me”. We cannot be expected to know everything (or indeed remember that we once read something). This is very much an intellectual journey, with lots of discoveries along the way, and if someone is frustrated that you do not know what they already know then … well … surely that’s their problem.


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