Redefining academic research – capital or plural?

“University scientists still do most of the research, but increasingly the allegiance of many is to the ‘research centre’, a quasi-academic institution which draws its heat and light from the university, its directions from elsewhere.”

“Cooperative groups, from the great industrial concerns to small research teams, inevitably tend to rely on what is already acceptable as common ground, and that means established, specialized techniques.”

“Companion to the team project and planning by committee is the blight of ‘research design’. Instead of being joined together in a flexible arrangement which allows the scientist to follow his own side roads, project members are bound up in a highly detailed, prefabricated master plan of research.”

The above three quotes are not from recent blog posts regarding higher education, or reponses to EU policy initiatives, but  from William H. Whyte’s 1956 work, The Organization Man, in his chapter “The Bureaucratization of the Scientist”.  Though over half a century old, the concerns and criticisms expressed here are as timely as ever they were (with the addition of there being organization women as well as men…), and the problems that prompted such reflections still exist. Indeed, in one form or another, I have heard similar remarks made by researchers, academics, and administrators in the last few years of working in higher education. 

What is at issue is are the twin notions of specialization and efficiency. They seem to entail one another, and in an environment of cuts to education and research, well efficiency with the newly reduced funds that we do have appears to be a no brainer. It doesn’t even require discussion. Efficiency is the only game in town. This is, however, an intellectual betrayal, as we are always obliged to interrogate even those faits accomplis that we are landed with. In higher education, that means that often our decisions are made for us by those controllers of the public purse, the ministries of finance, or the exchequer, or departments of education and science. These matters of policy are far beyond my knowledge, but I wish to nevertheless engage these matters, so I will do so via another route.

What if the problem with our research isn’t that it is too specialized, but that it isn’t specialized enough? I am not saying this from the administrator’s or policy maker’s perspective. I am not taking about specialization in terms of content, but in terms of form (this inversion is one of the philosopher’s classic maneuvers, I admit). Why don’t we finesse what investigation truly is. We hear often enough of the ‘old model’ of what research was (pre-Vannevar Bush? pre-Newton? How old is old?), and that this – monolithic, entire. This was then replace wholesale by Big Science, and with this the age of the individual passed to that of the group. Except of course, this is nonsense, and a useful straw research group. There were laboratories where groups of individuals worked in concert or tandem. There were the various royal and learned institutions and academies (though these have of late mostly atrophied into sinecures for eminent – that is, research dormant – scholars and scientists, or changed into advocacy organizations).

We are told that the best forms are being developed now, and these are research centres and groups, pillars and themes. All effectively operate under the same assumption that coercing researchers into these authoritarian structures (and coercion is exactly what this is) is how to produce great research. But is it? Is it effective, or efficient, or even ethical?

I get the sense that a reconsideration of research is called for. It should be interrogated, rather than being uncritically “evaluated”. We in the arts, humanities, and social sciences get a bad reputation for ‘problematizing’ things, rocking the boat, biting the hand that feeds, and various other clichéd crimes of original thought. But this gadfly aspect of our disciplines is more necessary than ever. With this, we should be developing new ideas and structures of thought – but perhaps we have not been doing this. Perhaps then we should stand so accused of irrelevance, of uselessness, of inutility, since we have not been doing the thing for which we are primed. We haven’t had the courage of our convictions which saw us take the first steps of critique. There are other steps to take beyond this too. Critique does not preclude suggesting new theories, alternatives, solutions.

Here then is my tentative suggestion of a whisper of a proposal. In our various AHSS disciplines, we have convincingly argues against Lyotard’s metanarratives, against the coherent story of our discipline(s). And so we have broken down the Whig interpretation of history, the Enlightenment narrative of progress (never quite accurate anyway, according to Susan Neiman), the Western story of political superiority (Thucydides onwards), as well as finding cracks and fissures and interstitial spaces of resistance, subversion, rejection, and revolt. We have morphed disciplines beyond their own boundaries, to free ourselves into new spaces of inter-, multi-, and trans-disciplinarity. Accordingly, both content and structure have been pulled apart and recombined in new, or different, or alternative, ever more inventive permutations. We have what it is to research, but we have not – I assert – changed research itself.

Research remains unreconstructed. It remains monolithic, capitalized, big-R Research. At best, it is binary: good or bad, efficient or profligate, high-impact or low-(no-)impact, applied or “blue sky”. This is a curiously retrograde state of affairs. We now well know that there are feminisms, rather than one authentic authority on the matter. It is the recognition of the truth the hermeneutic philosopher Paul Riceour communicated throughout his career in the idea that meaning is created only through a conflict of interpretations.

I believe that reconsidering Research, and taking it away from the simple definitions – whether these be found in dictionaries, or OECD handbooks, or policy documents – is vital to doing good research. Only this way can we engage with those who would measure, or rank, or benchmark our research. Capital-R Research is a mythical beast, and as ever, the reality is far more diverse, and interesting than anything that can be conjured up in a simplistic definition. By setting out to delineate all the forms of research, all the plural researches which we carry out and conduct, we set debate on our terms.

This is not political maneuvering, but it is a recognition that nobody knows research better than researchers themselves. It means developing a new vocabulary that can be shared across the research landscape, bringing us closer – hopefully – to talking about the same things, at the same time. It means, for example, that if you are asked for the impact of your research(es), that you know at least those doing the asking do not have either unrealistic or skeptical expectations. It also recognises that research is contextual, that it does not take place in isolation, and by itself. All research implies researchers. These diverse researches suggested are as various and specific as the researchers carrying them out. Furthermore, by recognizing this we put faces to the decisions that are made elsewhere, by others, that affect our lives and our livelihoods. We make ourselves stakeholders in our own futures.

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