What motivates academics to choose certain topics, fields, issues, and questions for intense study?
Numerous factors are typically at play here.
Although serendipity may be an important motivation, in some cases the place where and circumstances under which a scholar grew up may affect investigators choice of research question to ask, answer or explore. Thus the socio-economic class in which an academic was raised, not to mention their race/ethnicity, gender, and dynamics connected to the place of origin (e.g., city, suburbs, county, region, country, etc.), can have subtle or direct effects on the range of topics that they wish to explore.
Alternatively a prospective scholars’ experiences during their graduate training (e.g., a supportive mentor, rejection from a particular program or college, etc.) can motivate them to choose certain topics to investigate.
Access to grant funding may also be an important reason why academics choose one subject or another to focus on. In other words, in this context “research interests” are less of a concern than proposals won versus those lost.
Then again, some disciplines are more appealing to some scholars rather than others.
More importantly, assuming academics are still active researchers, does the place that they currently live have an effect on the questions they investigate?
Although these interrelated questions can be applied to different types of investigators and fields, the relevance of where an academic lives to the question investigated may be more relevant for scholars in the social sciences, in particular Criminology/Criminal Justice.
Why might living relatively close to a research site/or population under study be preferable?
There are numerous advantages of living close to the research site or population under investigation. To begin with, living in or next to the place or population where you also conduct your research, means that the expenditure of resources and access may be relatively low. Physical proximity may also sensitize investigators to subtle issues of context. This is especially true of ethnographic research and related types of “insider” research where lived experience could be useful.
Why living close to a research site/population may not be possible or advisable?
Living in or close to a research site, such as a prison, barrio, favela, or ghetto however, may not be possible or advisable. The place might be unnecessarily dangerous, putting ones health and life on the line. In the case of carceral institutions, many are located in remote areas, and thus living nearby is almost next to impossible.
This proximity can also minimize the objectivity one needs to do thoughtful and unbiased scholarly study. Thus it may hinder “insider” researchers to being open to accepting alternative and important insights. For example, one or more of the ex-patriot Lost Generation writers, who moved to Paris during the 1920s, like Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, often remarked that it was much easier to write about life back in the United States, in a detached and objective manner. Thus, you don’t have to live in an impoverished area to write with an authoritative voice about what occurs there.
On the other hand, conducting research about a place that is a considerable physical distance from where the scholar lives presents numerous challenges.
This is especially true if an investigator has chosen to conduct an ethnography, where access to the research site may require long hours of travel on a regular basis.
The reality however, is that researchers may have little control over where they live. Many scholars are significantly bounded by geography. Why? Universities are located in a variety of locations; inner cities, suburbs, college towns. And not all faculty can afford to or want to live in the same neighborhood or city where they teach (e.g., San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, etc.), thus they have to live relatively far away from their work. Scholars may also be tied to a city, county, or region because of the needs, wants and desires of a spouse, children, or eldercare responsibilities.
If researchers can’t live close to a research site or population, what options do they have?
Unless the majority of your research is quantitative, analyzing data collected by others, or primarily theoretical work, then it’s probably important to have to visit your research setting on a regular basis. For a scholar this may be on weekend, holidays, and during the summer when they do not have to be in class or have on campus obligations.
The next best alternative is to have either knowledgeable and trustworthy insiders, whom you are in contact with on a frequent basis.
No research setting is perfect. Cost benefit decisions always need to be made. The challenge is to carefully weigh the predicted benefit (i.e., quality of the study, probability of completion, etc.) against the expenditure (e.g., time, money, necessity of securing a grant, etc.). This is rarely an easy decision for most scholars to make. But one they must carefully consider.