Sunday, September 22, 2013

Thoughts on Research Paradigms

In the last presidential election, Obama came out in favour of gay marriage. Even conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly (I think it was him) said that those who oppose gay marriage were on the "wrong side of history." Out of the three research paradigms we are studying ("positivist," "naturalistic," and "critical"), I was trying to argue, with limited time, about the general persuasiveness on popular opinion of each of the three, and how "positivist" research can have a strong role in social justice. I used the rapidly changing public opinion around gay marriage as an example where I think scientific research into the biology of gender and sexuality has had a profound effect on changing public opinion. It has been "facts" about gender and sexuality that have been more persuasive, I would argue, than people suddenly becoming more moral thinkers. If something is no longer an individual "choice," but just another genetic happenstance, then it becomes explicitly immoral to deny equality to those people. I certainly do not think of Bill O'Reilly and his ilk as "moral thinkers." In fact, Jon Stewart's The Daily Show spends a considerable amount of time lampooning the shifting moral principles of Fox News commentators. So what persuaded them that this issue now put them on the "wrong side of history"? I would argue that it is the persuasiveness of scientific research.

That conclusion does not diminish the "critical," emancipatory activism of the LGBT community in their struggle for recognition and equality, I don't think. I think the two paradigms have worked in conjunction. LGBT activism raised the issue to public consciousness, so that the scientific facts could then take root. After all, the scientific "facts" on homosexuality were already long established by Alfred Kinsey. So there needed to be an activist movement that would serve to raise public consciousness so that the facts could take hold. This movement is also in the context of a rapid change in Western moral codes that have become much more individualistic. Many societal moral prescriptions have been overturned since the 60s (homosexuality, divorce, obscenity) and continue to be challenged (drug laws, prostitution, etc.). In fact, even the notion of a "hotel detective" seems quaint.

Coming out strongly in favour of the persuasiveness of quantitative research also does not deny or diminish the "politics" of positivist research. Yes, positivist research may unconsciously re-affirm the existing societal power relations. As a person who grew up in the working class and a first-generation attendee of post-secondary education, I have a relatively de-naturalized, "outsider" view of academic culture. It does take long to realize how much conversation is "about" those who are considered uneducated and not "with" those who are considered uneducated. This view can lead to a classist perspective that somehow those who are not traditionally educated have a simpler, less critical worldview. It is as if, in this view, all one has to do is sit down with the average Fox News viewers and "explain" Marxism, for instance, to them and they will see the (critical) light. They are not ignorant of Marxism; it has already been digested in their worldview and rejected. This is not to argue that their worldview is not seriously wrong by any rational standard, but only to argue that their worldview, no one's worldview, should be considered any less "complex" than another's. This would seem to align with the view of naturalistic researchers, in that all socio-cultural studies need to have Geertz's "thick description."

However, and this gets more to the heart of my skepticism about critical theory, power relations in any society seem to have an Unconscious, in the Freudian sense. And like the Freudian Unconscious, we can never be sure if those power relations we recognize can get to the heart of society's power relations so that we can truly have equality or if those "critical" theories are only ones being thrown up as defense mechanisms to hide other power relations that are actually being strengthened (now, I think it's likely that like Lacan's notion of the Unconscious kernel, there is no there there, so I would not be too optimistic about finding any actual "heart" to society's power relations). What if "critical theorists" are just co-opted to better refine a more "just" coming technocracy that excludes and impoverishes even more. I'm skeptical that the small glimpse into the Unconscious of power that is afforded us by critical theory does not hide more than it reveals. And I think ultimately that's why "critical" research is the least persuasive kind. The ideological views they represent are already known and digested and explained away.

I'm arguing a bit here, I guess, for the deconstruction of "critical" sense versus "common" sense, a binary that I don't think Derrida ever deconstructed. In fact, for me, deconstructing the critical/common sense dichotomy, re-inflates the other deconstructed dichotomies into a field of pure indeterminacy that we cannot bound in any way by "pragmatic" line-drawing to determine what is the legitimate "field of play." Look at it this way, critically, Derrida deconstructed the nature/culture dichotomy through the incest taboo. Common-sensically, absolutely nothing changed. We still use nature and culture as categories of thought as if nothing has changed. In fact, I think you could argue that our "critical" sense depends upon an ocean of "common sense." Our Marxist critique depends upon stable categories of relations to capital but it is also shot through with the possibly elitist views of anyone who would undertake something called a "Marxist critique." In other words, there's something there that we call "nature" and there's something over there called "culture" and we use these categories of thought as if (I hope I would not be wrong to point to Hans Vaihinger at this point) they are stable categories even though, critically, we know they are not. We also "know" there is something called "rational" thought, and that concept may have some value, and that's probably why Habermas spend so much time trying to rescue the term philosophically.

So that's why I believe the naturalistic paradigm is more persuasive than the critical paradigm, but not as persuasive as the positivist paradigm. Those doing the descriptions, academics, no matter how thick, cannot account for (and are likely willfully blind to) their own relation to power. The researcher is still in the privileged position of researcher, and not subject. 

I could go on more about academia and cultural capital and being "in the true," but I think some things are better left unsaid.

So, in conclusion, I think the persuasiveness of each paradigm is inversely related to how strong an ideological grip has on the paradigm. Critical theory is avowedly ideological and therefore biased and therefore the least persuasive. Naturalistic descriptions attempt to account for ideology but are likely shot through with unconscious biases. So, while positivism and the scientific method are, of course, shot through with ideology and bias, it is the one method that actually strives to eliminate it, as much as humanly possible. Because of at least that attempt, I think it produces the most persuasive evidence. I think we need to act as if the scientific method is the surest way to acquire knowledge until something like the scientific method disproves it. I agree with the Dalai Lama when he said, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” I think we should all be prepared to test our beliefs in that way because the scientific method is the closest approximation we have to a system that removes bias and ideology from our thinking. I'm also well aware that the more "knowledge" we create about humanity runs the risk of producing greater, more efficient control over subjugated peoples. As I've implied, I worry about a coming technocracy, but, for now, I will behave as if the scientific method has the potential to liberate more than it subjugates. 

As confused as this post is, it represents an approximation of my views. Such is life when playing on a field of pure indeterminacy...where even any certainty in the idea of uncertainty is uncertain.

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