By Harshana Rambukwella –
Since this is a felicitation for one of Sri Lanka’s most prominent public intellectuals, let me say a few words about Prof Jayadeva Uyangoda before I proceed to talking about the book specifically. I first encountered Prof Uyangoda, as most of us probably have done, through his incisive writing. The first instance I can remember is reading Prof Uyangoda as a young undergraduate in the 1990s and coming across a critically perceptive observation Prof Uyangoda makes of a semantic overlap in the Sinhala term jathiya godanegima – he argues that jathiya godanagima denotes specifically the idea of developing the Sinhala nation, as opposed to the Sri Lankan nation – essentially folding the notion of nation into a mono-ethnic and mono-linguistic understanding. He then moves in typical fashion to link this semantic conflation of the plural notion of nation into a singular understanding to a dilemma in state-formation in post-colonial Sri Lanka and its political ramifications. This is of course one small example of Prof Uyangoda’s life-time’s contribution to the understanding Sri Lankan society, politics and culture. Subsequently, I have encountered his many writings on a range of topics including refreshingly original views on literature. It was much later in life, though, that I actually got to meet him and partake of his intellectual generosity. Prof Uyangoda’s eclecticism and the ability to connect the specific to the general or to find refractions of the whole in fragments and to then to re-connect these fragments to form a whole, I think derives from, for the want of a better word, a holistic approach to scholarship. Prof Uyangoda’s text Social Research I believe deeply ingrains this holistic approach and, therefore, makes a unique intervention into the fields of humanities and social sciences research in Sri Lanka. This is an ambitious book that spans an impressive epistemological canvass. It is, however, the text’s holistic approach, which historically situates the evolution of various epistemological approaches and their philosophical foundations that makes the book unique and important in the Sri Lankan context. Rather than a ‘dry’ account of methodologies and methods it provides us with a richly contextualized understanding of a range of approaches to research. It is also written in a very accessible manner making it ideal for teaching and learning – complex philosophical questions are deftly explained with clarity and economy of style.
What follows in my talk is not a review of the book in the traditional sense. What I will do is pick and chose some thematic strands I find relevant. I apologize to Prof Uyangoda and to the audience if this misrepresents the book in any way but I feel I have neither the time nor the erudition to do justice to the book as a whole. The key theme I want to pick out is the idea of being holistic. What do I mean by this? I feel that we currently inhabit a moment of deep crisis in the social sciences and humanities. Both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the world we are witnessing a paradigm shift, where market forces are increasingly determining both the value and direction of research and education. On the one hand universities are constantly under pressure to restructure their programs to be more relevant to market needs and on the other, funding for research in the social sciences and humanities is declining rapidly. This is even so in the non-governmental sector where pure research projects are very unlikely to secure funding. Only those with a significant interventionist component or the ability demonstrate some kind of measurable outcome is likely to attract money. Within this shifting context we also see the social sciences and humanities undergoing something of an identity crisis. We are increasingly moving towards a high degree of specialization in our disciplines accompanied by a kind of technicist orientation. For instance, in a discipline like economics there are a large number of sub-specializations. There is a similar trend in my own disciplines of literature and language. A field like English Language Teaching has a bewildering range of specializations with increasingly sophisticated methods being used to investigate various minute aspects of teaching and learning. I believe this trend is significantly influenced by the broader context of marketization described above and an attempt to emulate the hard sciences and to match their truth claims. By doing so, the humanities and social sciences can position themselves as able to produce tangible or measurable outcomes. In various insidious ways we are adapting to our new realities – perhaps an instinctive strategy of any species under threat. We want to establish our relevance and thereby secure our survival. But perhaps this is the wrong way to go about it. I propose that a careful reading of Prof Uyangoda’s Research Methods supports my premise.
One may ask what is essentially wrong with such an approach? Scholarly research has to adapt and change. Without such change it risks becoming irrelevant and fossilized. However, I believe the change we are witnessing is of a fundamental kind, where, with increasing specialization and a fixation on outcomes, the social sciences and humanities are losing sight of the big picture. Here I have to invoke an old fashioned word – the human. This is an idea that has been the subject of intense deconstruction and critique; and not without merit given its uses and abuses, especially in relation to colonialism. But the moment our disciplines lose touch with some sense of the human or perhaps the more neutral and open ended term subjectivity, I think we lose something profound. And this focus on the human I would argue can only be retained through a holistic approach – the two are inextricably linked. When we choose a particular methodology or method of inquiry we should know its intellectual genealogy – if not we risk deploying it in ways that are historically shallow and politically uninformed and therefore ultimately unconcerned with the subjective experience of being human. The humanities and social sciences are ultimately about people, either as individuals or collectives, and is therefore unavoidably subjective – in both senses of the word: subjective in the sense that such research can never be truly objective or neutral in a positivist sense and subjective in the sense that at some level it is about subjectivity. The lack of intellectual genealogy allows us to generate complex econometric models on the need to price water, for instance, sometimes with little thought to its human consequences or the complex ways in which it is integrated with the political economy of a particular society. In literature we can comfortably conduct an intricate deconstruction of a colonial text with no compulsion to connect it to our own circumstances. For, me the most enabling dimension of Prof Uyangoda’s text is its ability give us this critical genealogy of the approaches and tools that we use in our respective disciplines. Rather than an ahistorical and depoliticized view of research what we get is a rich and historicized view of the why and how of research methodology and its evolution. It pushes us to think beyond the facile quantitative-qualitative distinction often deployed in the teaching of research methodology and to engage with both the philosophical and political depth and richness of what we do – or, I guess, at least what we are supposed to do.
To provide a brief example of the power of such a holistic approach to scholarly inquiry, let me turn to literature, the field I am most familiar with. Eward Said in his ambitious sequel to Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism brings the imperial enterprise into the heart of English novel of manners typified in the work of Jane Austen. In a deft and intellectually brilliant reading of Austen’s Mansfield Park Said demonstrates that the moral crisis perpetuated in the novel by the absence of the master or father figure is directly connected to the colonial foundations of English material prosperity at the time. Said brings into focus the little noticed fact that the master is away in the Caribbean attempting quell a slave labour dispute when the moral crisis at home erupts. The genteel world of Austen’s aristocratic Englishness is suddenly pierced by the material reality of its colonial foundations. Said could make this wonderfully deft connection because he was keenly attuned to the politics of writing and his ability to place texts within dense historical, social and political networks. And this in turn derives from Said’s commitment to a practice of critical inquiry deeply informed of its own historicity. One of his key intellectual inspirations was the Italian scholar Giambatissta Vico, one of the first in the Euoropean tradition to make a distinction between secular and divine history – opening up a space for secular critical inquiry, a fundamentally liberatory intellectual move at a time when religion claimed sovereignty over both man-made and divine spheres of life.
The book itself
Research Methods begins with a similar historicized understanding of research and its philosophical bases. The introductory chapter introduces the reader to the politics of knowledge production and its historical antecedents. By referring to a recent Sri Lankan controversy on how divine intervention was claimed to have contributed to scientific knowledge production and the controversy it generated, the text establishes the deeply political nature of knowledge. Thereafter it moves to debates on the nature of scientific inquiry within the European tradition. In doing so the text also addresses the issue of technical specialization I raise above and how that in turn negatively impacts the wholeness of the projects of critical inquiry we undertake. Prof Uyangoda shows how specialization was partly the outcome of the institutionalization of knowledge production and how such specialization leads to a reductive understanding and deployment of research. A prime example of this might be the recent critique of the discipline of economics as it is currently taught and practiced. The BBC recently reported that in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, an influential group of academics have begun to revisit the teaching of economics in schools and universities across the world and are advocating and practicing a more holistic approach that looks at explicit intersections between philosophy, social justice, moral and ethical questions and economics, rather than a purely technically-oriented approach heavily biased towards quantification.
As already stated Research Methods is an ambitious book. It comes in ten parts and twenty seven chapters and therefore looks intimidating – in fact was I was quite intimidated by its actual size and weight and the range of its intellectual canvass. However, Prof Uyangoda has written the text in a manner that is easily accessible and in very readable prose. The text provides easy and simplified but not simplistic access to complicated philosophical questions about the nature and production of knowledge. Given the book’s intellectual range what I will do in the rest of my talk is pick out on a few themes that relate to what has been my overall thrust so far – the need for wholeness in research. The critique of positivist approaches to research and the exploration of alternatives was one of the areas I found most rewarding in Research Methods. Prof Uyangoda locates the emergence and influence of positivism within the scientific rationalism that pervades post-Enlightenment European society. He also links it to a series of social crises in European society and the urgency that many intellectuals felt in intervening in these crises. At a time when the natural sciences had triumphed as a secular alternative to the domination of theological teaching, it was perhaps no surprise that the social sciences, which were still in the process of emerging at the time, sought to emulate the success of the natural sciences by following its methodology. For instance, the Durkheimian insistence on the existence of social facts as things that exist outside and apart from the human subject who observes or studies them. This belief in an objective reality then leads to the possibility of scientifically analyzing society — the vocabulary of data-collection which permeates the social sciences today is part of this legacy. This was undoubtedly an important moment in the evolution of the social sciences as fields of disciplinary inquiry. The comparative data, for instance, used by Durkheim allowed generalizable claims about human behavior that were not possible earlier. But as Prof Uyangoda shows thinkers such as Max Weber had reservations about this empiricist/positivist orientation and attempted to combine the empirical with a phenomenological approach. However, in general positivism became the dominant and preferred mode of inquiry in the social sciences from the late 19th century onwards. While this made the social sciences influential and able to make truth claims about society with a kind of scientific validity that the humanities did not possess, this success as Prof Uyangoda’s text shows, and as I argued at the beginning of my talk, comes at a price.
The influence of positivism has been pervasive. In the Sri Lankan context I feel positivism’s social and political consequences are perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in how history, historiography and the discipline of archaeology (which in some ways spans the social sciences and the natural sciences) have intersected with nationalism. To a great extent both of Sri Lanka’s dominant nationalisms – Sinhala and Tamil – have defended their positions using particular versions of history which owe much to a positivistic notion that an objective truth about the past can be retrieved on the basis of ‘facts’. I am also grossly simplifying an extremely complex social and political problem here but I hope this example can illustrate what I would call the tyranny of positivism. At one level academic debates on the history of Sri Lanka and their factual veracity have been central to nationalist claims and on the other an extremely impoverished positivist understanding of history in popular discourse (to which unfortunately historians have also contributed) has played a role in sustaining and enriching narrow and exclusivist nationalist ideas about national belonging. When we look at Sri Lankan media it seems that everyone from journalists, school teachers and television presenters are experts in history!
I would also like to take one more example of the influence of positivism in an area I am closely connected to – research in English Language Teaching or what we call ELT. While now there is an increasing trend towards qualitative research approaches, which draw their inspiration from the constructivist tradition as opposed to positivism, much of the research in ELT continues to rely on a positivist emphasis on facts and data. Many classroom-based research studies for instance looking at various skills involved in the teaching and learning of English operate on the assumption that data is somehow ideologically neutral. It is often assumed that once data has been gathered and quantified it provides an objective basis on which to carry out research. The pre-test / post-test research design favoured by many of our students I think gives a kind of misplaced security to them that they are dealing with objective pieces of numerical information and therefore can avoid the messiness of things like ideology. Even when the research is on affective factors such as motivation there is always a desire to quantify and thereby achieve some kind of pseudo-scientific objectivity. This is of course no fault of the students but how we have also been complicit in propagating positivism as a favored research methodology. One of the things I constantly remind our research students when teaching research writing is that simply switching to third person/passive voice – the preferred narrative mode of social sciences writing – in no way guarantees objectivity. I think we have to sensitize students to the inherent subjectivity of the work we do in the social sciences and humanities and make them comfortable that their findings and our claims as social scientists or humanists are always partial and contingent.
Getting beyond positivism
Having discussed the intellectual and political genealogy of positivism Prof Uyangoda devotes much of the rest of the book to a detailed and accessible discussion of alternatives to positivism. He covers a vast range from hermeneutics, phenomenology to post-structuralist and post-modernist approaches. Of these the ones I am most familiar with are post-modernism and post-structuralism and I will restrict my concluding comments to these. I began this talk stressing the need for wholeness in what we do in the social sciences and humanities. I also argued that in positivist research, which operates within a framework of scientific rationality, this wholeness is lost. This does not, however, mean that simply rejecting positivism for other alternatives will guarantee a holistic approach. Both post-modernism and post-structuralism are radically opposed to wholeness and any notion of a unified human subjectivity. I am entering potentially controversial territory here but I want to argue that in some instances both these approaches have also suffered from a kind of methodological rigidity that characterized positivism. For instance, the notion of discourse deriving from the work of Michel Foucault has sometimes been used in ways that deny human agency and subjectivity in fact a critique argument sometimes directed at Edward Said’s Orientalism. Discourse in some instances can become an agentless, ahistorical, almost metaphysical force that impels and conditions individual and social action. Similarly in post-modern approaches there can be a bias towards abstract theorization – if the empirical/positivist tradition relied too heavily on data, here there can be a danger of decontextualized theorization that has no patience for the empirical. For instance, deconstruction which can be loosely categorized as a post-modern form of critique, can sometimes lead to a kind of abstract textual critique with little or no reference to context – in essence it can become a form of sophistry. While recognizing the radical significance of challenging unified notions of human subjectivity, especially in relation to the space it generates for marginalized subjectivities, I believe we should also not lose sight of the wholeness of things. Gender, for instance, cannot be understood in isolation of political economy, class interest or geo-politics. I also think it is probably a mistake to be fixated on some kind of methodological purity and it is perhaps more productive to be methodologically eclectic depending on the specific context of one’s study. I also believe that we should not be operating on some misplaced notion of unbiased or neutral critical inquiry. All scholarship (this is also probably true in the natural sciences as well) carry value judgments in some form or the other and in something like the social sciences and the humanities the explicit acknowledgment of our investment in the research we do is probably important and necessary for a more robust research culture to emerge. We should not think that the declaration of our affective, ideological or political investment in research is a negation of what we do – it makes it more human. I think Prof Uyangoda’s text achieves both of these – given its broad scope it gives us the opportunity to explore numerous methodological options and to encourage our students to do the same. At the same time the text clearly demonstrates the political unconscious (to borrow a term from Fredric Jameson) of research – it shows us that these methodologies are the result of contingent historical moments and that many social and political forces have shaped them. To me these are the two most salient features of this book – its broad and generous intellectual canvass and its willingness to take sides. These are qualities that I feel are also reflected in Prof Uyangoda’s long and distinguished career as an academic and public intellectual. His has been a career of intellectually agility – an incisive political scientist equally comfortable in literary critique as in political economy and a public intellectual who has never been afraid to take sides and speak truth to power.