By Gabriele Bammer
What are interests and why are they important? How do they affect how problems are framed, understood and responded to? How do they affect how well those contributing to the research work together?
What are interests?
Interests will be familiar through attention paid to ‘conflicts of interest,’ ‘vested interests’ and ‘interest groups.’ Yet interests are challenging to pin down.
The common definition of interests as things that a person is curious about has some relevance for research. It needs to be rounded out by another aspect of interests, which is about having a stake in something and standing to gain or lose depending on what happens to that something.
For researchers, interests are generally a mixture of curiosity and stakes; curiosity to find out more, coupled with stakes in building on, and advancing, their own past work and careers.Their past work may be directly related to the problem or could entail building a theory or advancing use of a method. Stakeholders affected by the problem generally have a stake in improving the problem. Stakeholders in a position to do something about the problem generally have a stake in improving outcomes for the problem through their sphere of influence.
Researchers and stakeholders may also have other interests, including:
- curiosity about related issues, such as curiosity about how a particular stakeholder group operates (for example, researchers may be curious about how policy makers go about their work)
- influence stakes, such as seeking to increase their own power and/or to influence the actions of others involved in the research
- financial stakes, such as seeking to profit from involvement in the research or from a potential discovery
- reputational stakes, such as being acknowledged as a leader in the research or stakeholder group
- moral stakes, such as using the research to advance an ethical agenda, for instance, in decolonisation.
As these examples demonstrate, interests relate not only to personal conditions or stakes (self-interest), but also to principles such as cooperative social actions and justice.
Using positions to express interests
Researchers and stakeholders rarely express their interests – what they really want – directly. Instead they are more likely to articulate positions, which are solutions they think will meet their interests. In general, there are more ways that interests can be met than through the stated positions.
For example, in a large project with many components, a researcher with an interest in using a particular method may propose a specific sub-project that uses that method. Their position is “I want to do this sub-project.” However, there are likely to be other components of the large project where that method could make an equal or even better contribution.
In trying to accommodate interests in a research project, it is therefore important to get past stated positions to the underlying interests, as that will open more options for how the interests can be taken into account.
Differences in interests and how problems are framed, understood and responded to
The interests of researchers and stakeholders influence which aspects of a problem are considered, how the research is conducted and what kinds of actions are contemplated.
In research on illicit drugs, for example, criminologists and police will argue for attention to crime-related issues, whereas public health researchers and medical practitioners will argue for attention to treatment options and health-related issues. More specifically, researchers will want to further lines of research where they already have experience and publications, whereas stakeholders will want attention to issues that affect their lives (for drug users, for example) or work (for police or service providers, for example). Stakeholders in a position to make change happen, such as policy and other decision makers, will argue for attention to areas where they see openings for action rather than those where no path forward is evident.
Differences in interests and how well those contributing to the research work together
Working together effectively requires an understanding of the different interests at play, including being able to decode positions to uncover the underlying interests. These interests not only concern which perspectives and expertise are contributed, but also other challenges to working together, including:
- access to resources and direct financial rewards
- recognition of direct research contributions through, for example, authorship on publications and position in the author list
- appropriate recognition of unofficial leadership, caring for group members, networking and similar activities.
Understanding is an essential first step to being able to accommodate the interests of contributors in a fair way.
While the aim of this primer is to focus on understanding interests rather than incorporating, harnessing and managing them, principled negotiation, which is a way of dealing with differences in interests, is also useful for gaining a better appreciation of the extent and complexity of interests. This tool is helpful for better understanding the way in which positions and interests are intertwined, as well as the deep emotions often associated with interests. The original exposition (Fisher et al, 1991), as well as substantial follow-up work are helpful.
Such a tool is particularly important as there seems to be no available way to categorise interests making them easy to understand and deal with systematically.
A final word is to avoid attributing interests to someone else, especially when they reflect negatively on that person. Open respectful enquiry aimed at understanding and sharing interests is a better strategy.
Anything to add?
Do you have additional perspectives to share about interests? Have you found an effective way of categorising them?
Particularly welcome are examples and lessons from your research about how understanding the curiosity and stakes involved in interests helped in approaching the problem or how differences in interests affected the ability of disciplinary specialists and stakeholders to work together. Is there anything you wish you had known when you were starting out?
If you are new to this topic, is there anything else on understanding differences in interests that would be useful?
Sources and references:
The main sources, in addition to my own experience, are Weale’s (2000) exposition about interests and the work of Fisher and colleagues (1991) on positions and principled negotiation.
Fisher, R., Ury, W. and Patton, B. (1991). Getting to yes. Negotiating an agreement without giving in. 2nd edn. Random House Business Books: London, United Kingdom.
Weale, A. (2000 ongoing). Needs and interests. In: Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy. Routledge: London, United Kingdom. (Online): (DOI): http://dx.doi.org/10.4324/9780415249126-S040-1
Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is Professor of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at The Australian National University in Canberra. i2S provides theory and methods for tackling complex societal and environmental problems, especially for synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns, and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She is also a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange.
The Understanding Diversity Primer comprises the following blog posts:
This blog post:
6. Interests (May 26, 2022)