Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What's the point of research?

Yesterday I was writing about the vast unconscious and how it is important to try to bring the premises we reason on into our conscious, reflective mind.

One point which is not often considered consciously is the basic point of research. What is research, and why are we doing it? What is the value in it?

The answer is not simple.
We often think in terms of a correspondence theory of truth--I had a friend tell me that science was to "discover facts"; the fact that he had (and still has) a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley reveals how this theory of truth is accepted by even those with a great deal of education and intelligence. As a natural scientist there is great value in seeing the research project as one depending on a correspondence theory of truth, but as science deals with the quantum world, and many different aspects of physics, correspondence theories become more and more problematic.

If you are working in the social sciences, in literature, history, the arts and many other fields, the idea of a correspondence theory of truth will serve you less well.
The very idea of a correspondence theory of truth--indeed, the very idea of truth--has been challenged by many philosophers of reknown over the past century. Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are two famed exemplars of this general debate. It would be considered naive, I think, at this point to attempt to work with such a vision in some fields, unless one were well-prepared to acknowledge and rebut the arguments of those opposed to correspondence theories. In the absence of a correspondence theory, one must seek some other theory on which to base research--undersanding other theories of research, e.g., hermenutics or phenomenology, can help bring focus to the purpose of research.

By bringing into conscious discussion the premises on which you base your research, and on which you write it up, ou being to develop a basis on which your whole work can be structured in a coherent fashion. By understanding what the purpose of your research is, and by understanding what you are trying to show, and how you hope to show it, you build a framework for presenting the work, and for working in the different pieces necessary to make the research proejct work as a whole.

I can't answer the question of what research is for you, because I think that different kinds of research will have different purposes. If you can give a clear purpose for the work, it can often help stay away from questions of epistemology--for example, if you assert that your research is intended to help clinicians work with a certain population, you don't need to worry about theories of truth. Or if you are going to develop an algorithm, or some technological device; or if you're doing any of a number of things, you can focus directly on your immediate purpose.

On the other hand some projects have a much more difficult time stating a purpose. For example a history. What is the purpose of a history? Especially we might ask what is the purpose of a history, when we know that histories inevitably reflect the historian's concerns? Having an understanding of what the purposes of other writers in history can help--how are these other writers grounding their work and giving it a sense of purpose? We can always present a history as a cautionary tale, or an educational study that helps us understand situations that we want to ameliorate. Or we could take a history as a story that educates us about a population: what are these people like and why? In that context, we might look at a piece of evidence as suggestive of ideas and attitudes that we have no direct evidence of--thus we might look at a bureaucracy and its policies as indicating or suggesting certain motives. We might not be able to substantiate the existence of the motive, but we can still infer it and indicate how the evidence is suggestive. Such techniques might please some and infuriate others. But my main point returns: as we make ourselves consciously address the question "what's the point of research?," we begin to have answers that can help us structure our research and writing efforts. To the extent that we develop a scholarly understanding that generates a theory of research, we can save ourselves from losing time wondering what it is that we're trying to do, ad we can also give ourselves an understanding that helps us explain our intentions to others--and sometimes a good verbal explanation can really change how your professor reads your work.

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