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Knowing the Unknowable: the Search for Knowledge in a World of Multiple Truths

Posted by Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA)

30 Mar 2016

Some of CEPA’s researchers, Aftab Lall, Nadhiya Najab, and Prashanthi Jayasekera, followed a short course on social science research at the Social Scientists’ Association in Colombo. The class covers the evolution of social science research, and the philosophies that have shaped modern understandings of truth and reality. The course has helped them to reflect on what they do as researchers, and why they do so. This short blog series put together with the assistance of Anna Bassett-Boynton will follow their experiences in class, and share the knowledge they gain.

In this blog we begin to synthesize some of the ideas presented in the course so far, and consider how we as researchers can continue our search for knowledge in the face of relative truth. The scientific approach to social 'sciences' was originally pushed by thinkers such as Francis Bacon, Henri de Saint-Simon, and Auguste Comte. For them, objectivist and positivist approaches were the cornerstones of knowledge production. These modernist thinkers believed in knowledge that was purely acquired through sensory observations, creating legitimate grounds for objectivist ontology and positivist empiricism. (For more information on objectivism, positivism, and empiricism, see our first blog in the series link).

For the modernists, knowledge was produced through a social order of rational human beings: scientists. Through science, laws were made, and human actions predicted. Humans were considered progressive because of the advancements of science, and through science, the world was seen as progressing from darkness to light. Humans were considered rational beings, and science was considered the key to “purge the errors of the mind” (Bacon). Such thinking was seriously considered by the Nazis as they attempted to create an ideal race. The horrors of Nazism demonstrate the failures of unchecked rationalism. The thinkers of positivist tradition had, in a way, created a new religion from the scientific method.

This demonstrates the necessity of critical engagement with approaches to knowledge production and doing research. Without it, the investigative nature of research becomes compromised. We risk our methodology becoming ideology, thereby losing credibility.

The post-positivism that we have come to know today believes that a researcher must ‘engage’ to ‘interpret’, and add a subjective element to the social phenomena they aim to understand. Max Webber, for example, said that the purpose of social science is not just to describe, but also to understand how human beings make sense of their experiences. This engagement coupled with interpretation is what we have come to know as subjective ontology.

Similarly, phenomenology and hermeneutics are research traditions that encourage underestanding beyond what is observable. Phenomenology examines the meanings and motives behind human phenomenon. Hermeneutics is an extension of phenomenology, interested in human experiences at an in-depth level. It provides the foundation for interpretive and constructivist social sciences. Whatever is constructed can be deconstructed to understand the meaning behind certain structures such as the family. These traditions stress tapping into deep meanings, interpreting linguistic and non linguistic expressions. These approaches to research demand that the researcher not distance her/himself from the social phenomena they investigate.

But the question remains: how do we verify whether what we create is true knowledge? Does such a thing exist? Postmodernism helps us understand how there is no single truth, but multiple truths. A particular researcher’s engagement with the reality can (re)produce another reality, and each reality is subjected to interpretation.

So validity becomes an issue. How do you know if how you make sense of the world with your interpretation is valid? One such way is through engaging with theory, which is organised knowledge of social realities, and by giving importance to language and communication. This is why explaining your methodology and your worldview is important. Also important is opening yourself to review and critique by the academic community. However, one must be wary of the politics and privilege that comes with this community, examples of which can be observed through the north-south divide.

But before we police validity, it’s important to remember that truth is determined by the way in which someone engages with their subject. Truth therefore, is relational. And there are limits to knowledge production, regardless if you are positivist or a post-positivist.

Dr. Pradeep Peiris suggested the difference between journalism and research is theory. According to him, “without theory, research becomes a drama”. Research is political, and dominant ideologies from the Global North can influence our research due to reasons such as funding. It is important to be wary when adopting prescribed research designs, as the purpose of research is not just data collection, but also conceptualizing based on the context, influenced by methodology and philosophy. Research is not innocent. It is a political, economical, and a philosophical affair. Locating yourself is in these lines is important, as they will guide you throughout the research cycle.

Dr. Kalana Senarathna summed up the discussion by saying “Research or the idea of research is an uncertain thing. The philosophy that guides research can lead to disasters. But the need to gain further knowledge is a good idea, provided you know the limits”. At the same time, it is important to be careful with what you do with your research, as you can never know what the ultimate impact of your research will be. His advice was to take time before publishing and be certain you have confidence in you argument.

Lecturers:

Dr. Kalana Senaratne
Dr. Pradeep Peiris
Dr. Amarasuriya


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