In Defense of ‘Against Research’

By Anjum Altaf

A polemical piece needs to be very finely tuned if it is to generate more light than heat. Against Research came up short for although the response exceeded expectations in terms of volume, the heat far surpassed the light. On the positive side, the knowledge that there is a constituency engaged with the issue gives me the motivation to try and explain myself with more care.

Despite the provocative title I should not have come across as being against all research per se. In the very first paragraph I stated that “I shall argue the case [against research] because I feel many of our problems stem not from a lack of new knowledge but from an inability to translate existing knowledge into action.” I highlighted the lack of relevant research: “there is not a single study on why all the knowledge accumulated through previous studies has not been translated into action…. Nor is there interest in any such study.” I posed a research question: “The question we have to ask is why does research have so little impact and what do we have to do to change the situation? This would be the kind of indigenous research driven by our own concrete realities and much more relevant to our future.”

I stated explicitly that I was “exaggerating somewhat to make the point that academic research is a particularly blunt instrument for social change in Pakistan.” And I argued not for abandoning research but for “an equal focus on getting the most out of existing knowledge and in making that knowledge matter.”

I clearly excluded research which individuals engage in to satisfy their intellectual curiosities and where knowledge gaps are obvious. I would also exclude the kind of basic research that pushes the frontiers of knowledge. My focus was on the policy-oriented social sciences and on those who look upon research as an instrument of social change. And I tried to make the point that it is proving to be a very blunt instrument and we need to re-examine what we are not doing right.

The issue is that most of our publicly funded social science research institutes have an implicit or explicit mandate to inform public policy and in this they are not succeeding. In this case doing more research or better research, regardless of how satisfying it is for the researcher, would not address the real problem. And the hope that if we nonetheless continue researching we would some day reach a critical mass that would make a difference is not convincing. Nor is the hope that when regimes change the research would find a more receptive audience.

My own diagnosis of the problem, to which readers can offer alternatives to enrich this debate, is that the demand side of the equation is very weak. Barring the odd exception, decision makers, when not swayed by political expediency, are used to relying not on scientific research but on common wisdom in the making of policy. More or better research would not make a dent in such a situation. Hence my recommendation to focus on making our presence felt by ensuring that our research findings rapidly become part of the pool of common wisdom.

The fact of the matter is that there is always a space in society in which ideas circulate. And there is never a vacuum in this space. When new ideas flowing from our research remain confined to the ivory towers, the space is filled with ideas from other sources, be they sermons, cassettes from seminaries, arm-chair pontification, old-wives tales, political platitudes, or whatever. And the other sources are much more proactive in using the space in people-friendly ways. The popular world-view about the causes and solutions of our problems is shaped by these ideas. In this connection I disagree with the claim that research is not meant for the lay person or that the onus for accessing it rests upon the user.

We need to actively contest this space of ideas. Only if our ideas are circulating in this space would they have a chance of being picked up at propitious times. It is the rare policy maker who would be perusing journal articles or working papers to search for new or better ways of doing things. And if, as researchers claim, our findings are so much more scientific, enlightened and robust, they should have no difficulty in competing in the space of ideas.

In concrete terms this does not mean that every researcher should feel obliged to disseminate his or her findings in a people-friendly form. This often goes against the grain of researchers quite apart from the fact that there are few incentives to do so. The institutionalised rewards are for publications intended for an audience of peers, a format that is not the best for reaching most policy makers or interested groups in civil society.

However, given that our economies are based on a sophisticated division of labour, we do not really need researchers for this task. There is nothing to prevent policy institutes from contracting editors at English and local languages newspapers to turn the executive summary of every research report into a set of op-ed pieces. Newspapers are looking for well-thought through articles based on something other than arm-chair speculation.

There are thousands of social science college students across the country deprived of good teachers and access to new research in digestible forms. There is nothing to prevent putting social science debates featuring the latest thinking on audio or video cassettes. There is nothing in the way of setting up speaker circuits with local schools, colleges and universities.

Our research and policy cultures have their own peculiarities mirroring the peculiarities of our society and we need to engage creatively with them if we want to make our ideas count. My contention is that for researchers interested in promoting social change and for institutes mandated to inform policy, a passive approach to generating research and sharing it with like-minded others is virtually equivalent to not doing research at all. We might as well pack up shop and go home.

This is the concluding part of the series. It appeared in the Daily Times, Lahore, in February 2004 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

 

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