Sunday, November 16, 2014

In defense of academic method and inquiry

The University of Manchester annually organizes a postgraduate conference in law.  (This year's was held at the end of October at the Old Trafford.)  It is an enjoyable all-day event, where selected doctoral students present their ongoing research in a supportive, semi-formal environment, devoid of the pressures of more rigid "peer-reviewed" conferences.  The "rules" are more relaxed, in that e.g. a presenter speaks for a full half hour whereupon there follows a fairy generous Q&A part.  As there were quite a few presenters, the session is divided into parallel panels, and the attendees chose to patronize the one in the morning and the one in the afternoon they envision to be of the most interest or otherwise stimulating.

Most of the ones I saw were highly thought-provoking and certainly worthy foci for academic inquiry.  There was one exploring "domestic violence" experienced by underage women in abusive relationships.  Another discussed the relevance of the current narcotics legislation--particularly the classification of substances--vis-a-vis the so-called "legal highs."  Yet another explored the utility of the concept of "money-laundering," both legally and societally.  (The latter evinced an interesting, if somewhat unconvincing, point that small-time money-launderers (e.g. street-level drug-pushers) sometimes proceed to invest their laundered funds into legitimate businesses.  Entrepreneurs'R'Us!)  One presentation though caught my undivided attention, and for all the wrong reasons.

A young man assayed to "reframe" the wanton, gluttonous riots that beset parts of Great Britain back in 2011.  In his view, apart from practically a given that the initial riots were justified due to the police killing an unarmed man, both those and the subsequent mushrooming riots were pretty much legitimate manifestations of indignation by--you can easily guess the part that follows--"victims" of "marginalization" and "disenfranchisement" of the, naturally, lower (lowest?) communal strata.

How did he figure that out?  Well, he interviewed those who had gotten arrested in the aftermath of the riots, and discovered that the preponderance of them had long had alcohol, drugs, domestic, etc. problems.  In a most unusual turn of events, they also happened to be "poor" and jobless.  Not only were they "victims" who were understandably (if not legitimately, at least not wholly legitimately) expressing their frustrations with the inequity and iniquity that is modern Great Britain, but the riots were not "mindless," as routinely portrayed in the media, nor were the rioters merely brutal thugs.  Indeed, an anecdote was proffered about how one scumbag--sorry, "victim" of "oppression" by the "system"--was about to throw a brick through the window front of a charity shop, when another "victim" thwarted him in that mission on the basis that their beef was with such faceless corporate pigs as the banks and big businesses.  Because, you see, vandalizing a Barclays or a Tesco is fine; a mom-and-pop store is apparently not.  (No explication as to the grounds for an objective evaluation of such conscience-based, hence totally normative, judgments was adduced.)

Rather prosaically and anticlimactically by this stage, quite a few choice words were reserved for the police and the government.  The latter (ab)used the ensuing prosecutions as a show of force, whereas the former engaged in unpalatable breaches of privacy and the hallowed "human rights" of the participants.  How exactly did the police do that?  Firstly, it plastered the faces of the suspects all over posters and billboards, including on vans driving around the city.  That, ladies and gentlemen, the presenter in short shrift repudiated as a revolting invasion of the suspects' privacy.  He then explained how the police was able to identify those it went on to apprehend by reason of their having had previous dealings with the police (read: they were "known" to the police).  Thus, the narrative goes, the police perpetuated the vicious cycle of "victimhood" of those who were (and are) already among the most "vulnerable."  Besides, does it not stand to reason that those who had already been chewed up and spat out by The System(TM) would be only too alacritous to rage against it, given an opportunity!?!  All that was rounded off with some statistics about the conviction, incarceration, and remission (reoffending) rates, the corollary of which was the "prison does not work."

That, folks, is an example of doctoral-level thinking.  One is tempted to weep uncontrollably in sheer despair.

If you could detect a soupcon of sarcasm and an overall casual tone in the foregoing, I congratulate you on your perspicacity.  True: I am finding it difficult to write about this with the detached severity reserved for academic discourse.  The reason is simple: With due respect to the gentleman in question, the above is dilettante hokum, in content and reasoning, more apposite to be found in a two-bit samizdat flier by a college Marxist appreciation club than the dissertation by a law doctoral candidate at a global-top-50 university.

The entire presentation was an orgy of the most extreme left-wing dogma, lacking even cursory mention of counterpoints and nuance, let alone a thorough treatment and critical analysis of the same.  The "novelty" of the whole schtick was supposed to be embodied in the fact that it sought to depart from the established tableau of the rioters as criminals and of the riots as brainless, meaningless violence.  It seems that--just as is the case in journalism--aspiring (and not just those!) academics make their names either by producing high-quality work or by being outrageous.

A county court judge who was in the audience ably rebuked the presenter for his assertion that "prison does not work."  She enjoined him about the use of prison not merely as a locus of rehabilitation (by extension, wherein appropriate treatment is rendered to ensure there is no remission to a life of crime) but also as one of punishment.  In that regard, prison indeed does work: The miscreants are removed from the society, protecting the latter from the former's continued pernicious malfeasance.

Then there is the matter of the candidate's very sketchy methodology.  Why did he not assay to interview those who rioted but were not arrested?  Could their motivation have been not pushback against putative "victimization" but something more trivial, yea, possibly wanton violence?  Come to think of it, what is the ratio of arrested vs. not-arrested rioters: How representative is the presenter's study group of Manchester's rioters as a whole?

But the presentation evidenced a much more insidious problem, one increasingly visible in academia.  It used to be the problem that students grew out of in the early stages of their undergraduate studies.  Now, apparently it is observable among graduate students and even among seasoned academics, and it is this: prejudice... - or, if more detailed an explanation be necessary: espousing and exhibiting propaganda and rhetoric in lieu of objective, impassive, neutral research and analysis.

It was readily apparent that the presenter had formulated his conclusions before he had even conceived of his research, let alone embarked on it.  Indeed, his dissertation is predicated on his personal dogma, not on the findings pursuant to extensive, comprehensive, analytical study.  Epistemological arguments about the plausibility or otherwise of truly objective research aside, striving to illuminate a research question by prejudging it and then weaving the argument retrospectively to fit the predetermined denouement is surely the very antithesis of academic inquiry.

Back when I was a lecturer in rhetoric and research, I always endeavored to impress upon my (mostly freshmen and sophomore) students the indispensability of approaching a research area and the subsequent processes with an open mind.  Sometimes a researcher knows a lot about the researched field, sometimes less, sometimes nothing.  Sometimes they think they know a lot.  Whatever the case, the scientific method is clear: One approaches the research as if one truly knows nothing, at least in terms of the possible outcomes.  The mindset ought to be: I do not know anything about how this will turn out, I do not know what I will find; I will therefore search wide and deep for the answers, wherever the search may lead me.

You do not include your opinions, you do not choose which evidence you like, you do not discard facts you dislike.  You are not down in the thick of it, participating in it or influencing it.  You are high above the fray, espying the goings-on you witness, describing them, and attempting to find as many possible explanations for what you see (i.e. you hypothesize).  You can use primary sources and your own experiments and/or secondary sources; but you keep digging in all directions, you keep asking questions, you keep wondering.  You then set about trying rigorously to at once prove and disprove your hypotheses, until one remains standing: That becomes a theory (in the academic, scientific sense), i.e. your conclusion.  Sometimes the conclusion conforms to your own intuitions and views; at other times it might not.  But the conclusions must at all costs be arrived at independently from your intuitions, opinions, prejudices, experiences, and other views, conscious or unconscious.

Basing academic work on opinion is an insult to generations of academics.  One does not require advanced education to put opinion on paper; rudimentary literacy skills are sufficient for such an exercise.  The whole point of graduate studies is to detach every facet of oneself from one's work.  Failing that, one does not end up with a thesis or dissertation worth its name, but with something not unlike an op-ed in Cosmo.

© 2014 Michael L.S.

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