Friday, January 26, 2007

Pragmatism and Critical Realism

In my undergraduate education both of the departments I studied in were very applied. This applied approach was more pronounced in the sociology department but political science was not far behind. It is interesting to come to a completely different type of department. The focus of many in the department is much more theoretical and abstract than anything I am used to. I don't think I ever could have imagined having to grapple as intensely with the ontology and epistemology of all aspects of my graduate experience. While at some level I enjoy this new way of approaching research, in other ways I have come to resent it.

The resentment, I would imagine, comes largely from my past experience with research. I originally left biology, in large part, because I didn't feel like I could help enact the types of social change that seemed fundamental at the time. What I found in sociology and political science were the tools and methodologies that allowed me to identify causes of serious social problems. Also important was the idea instilled in us that we were responsible to work for the change we saw as necessary. The idea of praxis become extremely important for me. The idea that expanding our social knowledge is not enough. That social change is an important aspect and outcome of the research process seemed central to me.

This contrasts heavily with the post-structural debates that I am constantly aware of now. I have always supported the idea of being reflective of your work and looking at it critically. Though I never had any idea how far these arguments had been carried out. The ideas of post-structuralists such as Foucault as well as some Anthropologists that have rejected anything moderately resembling postitivism or even post-positvism are in some sense offensive to me. This is because many hold themselves as well as others to an impossible standard. Anything except a critical reflection on yourself is seen as either dehumanizing the social actors that you are studying or in fact furthering harm by imposing ethnocentric colonial ideas. This sort of subjectivism, for me, is more demeaning of the human character than it is empowering.

While we must always be aware of the possible harms and consequences of our research, we can't let it paralyze us. Though we must not rush blindly into action thinking that we can "save" others without taking into account their social context, we also can't stand back and let people suffer only because we fear we would inflict greater harm. How is it truly different to not do something out of apathy than it is to not do anything out of a sense of self-righteousness that stops a researcher from pursuing social change?

For me this issue has come to a head as I look around at projects that many fellow graduate students are doing. It seems that this fear influences many of their projects and they have become concerned only with reflecting critically on their methods and proving to their advisors that they are not doing anything remotely relating to a claim of truth or causation. In my view it has meant that they have lost sight of larger issues that are ever present. Issues such as hunger, war, politics, racism and crushing social inequalities are left by the wayside in an attempt to create a project free of controversy.

No comments: