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What is research?

Posted by Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA)

18 Feb 2016

A brief history of knowledge and the human struggle to achieve it 

Some of CEPA’s researchers, Aftab Lall, Nadhiya Najab, and Prashanthi Jayasekera, are following 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 reflect on what they do as researchers, and why they do so. This short blog series put together with the assistance of Anna Basset-Boynton will follow their experiences in class, and share the knowledge they gain.

What is Research? A brief history of knowledge and the human struggle to attain it

Before one begins to talk about research and engage with it, it is necessary to define our terms. Research, for the purpose of this discussion, is an institutionalised and formalised social practice for the creation or production of new knowledge. We do research for three reasons: to explain the world, to understand the world, and to change the world. And the last, to change the world, was most famously articulated by Karl Marx who said, “Philosophers have interpreted the world in so many ways, but the point is to change it”. Postmodernist feminist scholars have reworked it as “to emancipate the world”.

Human understanding of research and knowledge creation has evolved over the millennia. In the origin of Greek philosophy, rationalists thought that logical knowledge was the only correct knowledge. They followed a dogmatic way of creating knowledge. Using deduction, they only tried to prove what exists.
For example:
All humans are mortal;
Socrates is human;
Therefore Socrates is mortal.

Following this, empiricist logic gained ground, where generalisations were made based on what is observable. The empiricist demands that facts be objective. Facts should be observable, verifiable, quantifiable, and value free. The positivist school of thought derived its legitimacy from empiricism. Under positivism, knowledge becomes true knowledge when it is a representational view of the social world without any other mediation, such as theoretical grounds or researcher’s subjectivity. Under positivism understanding patterns and identifying tendencies is important to build, confirm, revise or negate hypotheses. Positivism is the epistemological basis of surveys.

On the other hand post-positivism contended that the positivist way of doing research was  inadequate. Post-positivism argues that human subjectivity is something the researcher must be actively aware of, as it is critical to understanding reality. In line with these developments, feminist scholars also say that a researcher must be reflexive, and must be guided by phenomenological and hermeneutical intentions. Earlier schools of thought described the researcher as someone who exists outside the reality of their subject. Post-positivism argues that the world is what the human beings perceive it to be, and reality does not exist independent of human mind. Post-positivism argues there is no single reality: there are multiple realities. Therefore, post-positivist social science is largely interpretationalist: it interprets the world in relation to human actors.

These philosophies of knowledge have ideological differences. Positivists argue that knowledge/facts should be value free while post-positivists disagree. The post-positivists argue that what we mean by knowledge is determined by our own values. That what we want to know, how much we want to know (the depth to which we will keep looking for answers), and how we want to know is determined by us. In short, to know is a subjective experience. Feminist scholars say reality is constructed through your language. Therefore, feminist scholars say, by changing the language you can change the reality.

We also looked at the distinction between the ‘research problem’ and the research question which is crucial for the architecture of the research project. Here your paradigmatic identity plays a role (for example whether you look through an objective/subjective optic, or inclined to feminism, neoliberalism or take an environmental perspective etc.). While there is one research problem (the centre of gravity, as Prof. Uyangoda calls it) you might have 3-4 research questions to help you unpack and operationalise your research problem.

This discussion brings to light how theory can help researchers articulate their layered 'experiences' and 'feelings' during the research cycle. It gives a way to express the process of self reflection/reflexivity in a universal language (amongst academics). The knowledge of theory provides tools to understand and articulate how and/or under what theoretical frame (positivist/ postpositivist or both) our conceptual framework, methodology, methods, analysis and even dissemination sit within or cross over between different theories. This might then help explain why research turned out the way it did.

For further reading:

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, The Archeology of Knowledge

Sarah Harding, Feminism and Methodology

Helen Longino, Science as Social Knowledge

Lectures were conducted by Professors Jayadeva Uyangoda, and Asanga Thilakarathne.

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