Friday, 10 February 2017

Developing My Research Philosophy, Part 1

Profile bust of Marcus Aurelius, Art Institute, Chicago. Photo:  CC-BY 2.0/Flickr user ryanfb.
Philosophy is something that has taken me a long time to arrive at. One might think that a Doctor of Philosophy would be all over it. But it isn't necessarily the case, and a PhD is far from the be all and end all of one's education. 

I have been attempting to develop my research philosophy for some time,. Recently, it finally struck me. While commuting, I listened to a podcast by Brett McKay at the Art of Manliness, featuring Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield, Angie Hobbs. If a professor of the public understanding of philosophy couldn't help me, then nobody could!

I didn't seem to have too much trouble with my teaching philosophy, and although I still think it is a tad verbose, it has been done for over a decade, and it still represents how I approach my teaching practice. Doing the same for my research was proving rather more elusive.

But recently, I have been studying Stoicism. Proponents of Stoicism claim that the philosophy is not about retiring to the proverbial mountain to dream up answers to life's meaning, but a practical way to live one's life. Of course, being an academic requires a healthy level of scepticism. The comic below provides a useful comparison of these philosophies to other philosophical approaches.
From Incidental Comics by Grant Snider CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
But what I have learnt from Stoicism is that philosophy, when actively practiced, provides a guide for living that sits "right" with one's nature. When I wrote my teaching philosophy, it was clear that what I wanted to be able to do was to do for others what my lecturers had done for me: to open my eyes.

It is only since commencing my PhD in 2005 that I really started to live the examined life. And, being little more than a lad from Penrith, it was not until 2006 that I first travelled overseas. If anyone tells you that class has nothing to do with such things, you should call bullshit immediately. It does, and in many ways it informs my work.

So before then, my desire to live the examined life was little more than an intention. Enthusiastic, to be sure, but in a way that those further along the journey would recognise as little more than the first part of the trip, where everything was exciting and new. My enthusiasm was not always well-received, especially by the more jaded of my colleagues.

Twelve years later, and four years on from the PhD, I am on long service leave. I have had to fight to keep the jade beast at bay. While trying to seek purpose and instill in others the lessons hard learnt, the mindless machine has churned away. I identify with Bruce Balden, the "teacher" on the Seven Up series.

Balden begins his career by wanting to serve as a missionary in Africa. He becomes a teacher and later works at a school in Bangladesh and in England at schools for less-privileged children. Balden's idealism has all but disappeared by 56 Up. He now teaches at an upper-class school. When quizzed about this change, he says something like: "I saw education as a slow, powerful force, like water dripping on a stone. What I didn't realise was that for many years the water was dripping on me".

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't stop it from being a cliché.

Last year, I attended a workshop on developing a research philosophy. I don't know when or who ran it, but my notes read as follows:
A. A research philosophy includes:
  1. How a researcher views the world
  2. Assumptions about human knowledge
  3. Assumptions about reality
  4. What constitutes acceptable knowledge
  5. What processes are used to create knowledge
  6. Conceptions of laws, such as generalisations
  7. Scientific method, where the research is not influenced by the researcher's values
B. This may include views about: 
  1. Induction versus deduction
  2. Positivism versus post-positivism
  3. Quality and validity
  4. Cause and effect
C. Leading to particular approaches such as: 
  1. Deduction: Theory - hypothesis - observation - confirmation
  2. Induction: Observation - pattern - tentative hypothesis - theory
D. Key issues include:
  1. Epistemology: Philosophy of knowledge
  2. Methodology: Practice of knowing the world
  3. Positivism: Empiricism, where the goal of knowledge is to describe or understand the phenomena we experience
  4. Post-positivism: Using triangulation to overcome our lack of objectivity, where understanding is a social phenomenon rather than something that is under an individual's control
  5. Research ethics
  6. Problem formulation
  7. Feasibility
E. It would seem that my research philosophy would tend to be a combination of positivist and pragmatist.
After typing out these notes, I was struck by the familiarity of the content. So I dug out some of my archives from the Graduate Certificate in Higher Education I completed back in 2006. In there I found the earliest documented record of my teaching philosophy from 14 November 2006.

In about 2002, I bought a second-hand set of Britannica's Great Books of the Western World from a café in Braidwood. Hutchin's introduction continues to fascinate me and informs my teaching philosophy:
What is missing is education to be human beings, education to make the most of our human powers, education for our responsibilities as members of democratic society, education for freedom. This is what liberal education is. It is the education that prepares us to be free men (sic). You have to have this education if you are going to be happy; for happiness consists in making the most for yourself. You have to have this education if you are going to be a member of the community; for membership in the community implies the ability to communicate with others. You have to have this education if you are going to be an effective citizen of a democracy; for citizenship requires that you understand the world in which you live and that you do not leave your duties to be performed by others, living vicariously and vacuously on their virtue and intelligence. A free society is a society composed of free men (sic). To be free you have to be educated for freedom. This means that you have to think; for the free man (sic) is one who thinks for himself (sic). It means that you have to think, for example, about the aims of life and of organised society (Hutchins 1959: v-vi).
So it would make sense that such sentiments, albeit difficult to believe in the current global political climate, would also inform my research. There is a story of how it ended up focusing on transport and telecommunications. But I must begin at the beginning.

My earliest work was a reaction to the changing political landscape. I was concerned about the reduction of civil liberties in Australia, and was then surprised to learn that Australian citizens, beyond mere convention, don't have any formal civil rights other than the right to be treated equally as economic actors in the various states, on the proviso that citizens (who, incidentally, do not get mentioned in the Australian Constitution) are of Anglo origin or members of a class of "good" immigrants.

All of this, when I put my mind to it, raised my passions and emotions and I could not ever be objective. In my workshop notes above, scientific method means that the research is not influenced by the researchers values. To be a political scientist, then, must be more than just reacting to or commenting on what happens during the "Two Minutes Hate" of the endless news cycle.

Academic activism posing as academic research is something that many of the political science professors I have high regard for, and have been fortunate enough to rub shoulders with, do not tolerate as either scholarly behaviour. I found myself unable to develop findings from research when I was so caught up in the passions and emotions of trying to comprehend how the world could be so unfair. And it doesn't take an academic to work out that the world is unfair.

That doesn't mean that academic research cannot be used to support a particular cause, unless of course we are producing policy-based evidence rather than evidence-based policy. And some academics promote ways to do both. But this is not for me.

In developing my teaching philosophy, I went back to what it was that made liberal democracy work best. And it is education of the Great Books kind. Saunders and Le Roy (2003: 9) make the case for Australia's political system functioning best when it is "reinforced by a vigilant and informed citizenry". To me, this is the essence of a system that now seems to be in crisis. Not because of the system, in my view, but because education on matters political has been increasing marginalised in the pursuit of consumerism.

So if my teaching aims to promote the liberal democratic cause, it follows that my research should have a similar purpose. Establishing such a purpose, then, is a good place to start.


Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Le Flâneur Politique by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Based on a work at politicalscience.com.au. Background image ©Depositphotos.com/ @redshinestudio