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The Difference Between Basic and Applied Research Is Time

Descending the ivory tower of research.

Key points

  • Basic research is often considered to have no societal impact.
  • Applied research is often considered to have no theoretical value.
  • When actual research is considered, the difference between basic and applied research is difficult to identify.
Jean-David & Anne-Laure via Wikimedia Commons
Rodin's The Thinker.
Source: Jean-David & Anne-Laure via Wikimedia Commons

Across scientific disciplines, psychology being no exception, a distinction is often made between basic and applied research. Basic research, as this distinction goes, is ivory-tower research, with no practical implications and no societal impact. Applied research is down-to-earth research of no theoretical nature and with limited practical utility. The former is theoretical; the latter, practical. The former is for true scientists. The latter is for true practitioners.

It is discouraging that such stereotypes are applied to research. But as with all other stereotypes, this stereotype, too, is a matter of a generalized belief hardly true to the facts.

I have never quite understood the difference between basic and applied research. And I have understood even less why one would be considered superior to the other. Whenever I conducted research that could be categorized as basic research, I received comments that such research had no societal impact and that practical research was, of course, more important for society. And whenever I developed a particular application, I received feedback that the practical value was appreciated, but of course, it had no theoretical universal value. I always struggled with the difference others were able to identify but I was unable to see.

Let me try to demonstrate my confusion by giving some examples from my own line of research. In one study, we estimated the longitude and latitude of locations in Middle Earth using Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. We took the names of the locations as they were mentioned in Lord of the Rings and computed how often they were mentioned together in the same context. A matrix of co-occurrence values was then transformed into a two-dimensional map that was surprisingly similar to an actual map of the fictional Middle Earth.

Basically, we showed that if locations are mentioned together, they are located together. That may be no surprise to linguists. Since the 1950s, we learned “you shall know a word by the company it keeps” as the linguist J.R. Firth told us. In our work, we showed that you shall know the location by the linguistic company a place name keeps.

Now, estimating the geographical location based on the way it is mentioned in language is basic research par excellence. It is has a universal value: We have also demonstrated it for the longitude and latitude in the United States using several years of newspaper articles from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times. We have estimated the geographical locations of cities in China using the entire body of texts in the Chinese version of Wikipedia, and for the geography of the Middle East using the entire Arabic Wikipedia. Theoretical, very ivory tower with seemingly no societal impact.

What we did for newspapers, Wikipedia, and fictional texts, though, we could of course do for social media. One could take a large body of tweets, Facebook messages, or LinkedIn posts, identify place names mentioned in those posts, and compute the context in which place names co-occur with other place names. As we did for Lord of the Rings, newspapers, and Wikipedia, such a social-media analysis would allow for a geographical map of places through the eyes of those who wrote the posts. This would, no doubt, be of interest to intelligence agencies, as it can help identify areas of concern or interest. Basically, the worldview for those in society with bad intentions can be identified. Identifying the geographical locations of places biased by those who used those place names in their social media posts would be very practical research with considerable societal impact—to be categorized under applied research, not basic research.

And if intelligence-agency work sounds too military, we could consider another practical example: We could help archeologists. We could predict the excavation sites of Indus Valley artifacts based on the Indus script. Using the patterns in the Indus script, we could estimate the geographic origin of artifacts from the Indus Valley Civilization with a relatively simple algorithm. We may manage to predict the relative locations of archeological sites on the basis of artifacts of known provenance, and we could further apply these techniques to determine the most probable excavation sites of unknown provenance. Estimating excavation sites on the basis of a particular script has limited functionality and is very practical in nature.

Let’s categorize the intelligence agency and archeology research as practical, but both of these cases of applied research would not have been possible had we not first done the theoretical work of estimating the locations using the place names in Lord of the Rings.

You get my point.

I would argue, and argue strongly, that all basic research will ultimately be applied. The question that I cannot answer is when the basic research will be applied. No one can tell. It could be tomorrow, or it might take a couple of years. But ultimately, the difference between basic and applied research is only a matter of time.


Louwerse, M.M. (2021). Keeping those words in mind: How language creates meaning. New York: Prometheus Books / Rowman & Littlefield.

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