Paradigms, Pragmatics and Politics

13 Apr

The past year has clarified many on-going issues in the field of educational research for me.

Ever since entering the field, I have studied how different forms of research methods and theories are deployed by colleagues to make whatever case it is they want to make.  In old parlance, Nate Gage framed most of the issues in the phenomenon as ‘The Paradigm Wars’ {Gage, 1989 #2708}.

Calling them Paradigms Wars is not a bad ways of beginning the discussion needed.  But it isn’t really quite right either.  On the one hand, using the notion of a paradigm presumes a level of internal coherence that often is simply not the case.  On the other hand, referring to the disputes as wars presumes the agents involved are consciously aware of some larger struggle beyond their immediate battle.  There is partial truth in both notions, but both are really only partial.

For example, the presumption of coherence is way over played.  I have seen many, many scholars blithely ignore blatantly obvious internal contradictions in their arguments or ostensibly theoretical stances.  Now we can’t all see every internal contradiction in our work.  We are, as far as I can tell, human.  But when scholars overtly deploy the name of a scholars called ‘theorists,’ in a manner that directly contradicts that scholars own works and dispositions, it is hard not to see that as little more than a shallow posturing.

This is really common among those who claim some form of ‘left’ or ‘progressive’ inclinations.  I am by no means the first to recognise this contradiction — I’ve helped more than a few scholars discuss this issue in their articles and thesis, and have analysed it myself.  But when, in 2018, I see would be scholars say ‘I’m Foucauldian’ as if that somehow eliminates any need to consider alternative perspectives or evidence, or political strategy, I am reminded just how easy it is for those self-declared conservatives to criticise ‘the left.’ The fact that neither Foucault’s own work nor the person ever took such a position demonstrates that not only is such a posturing incoherent, it’s bad scholarship.

Equally, the idea that there is a war clear is a one-sided perception.  Personally, I have no doubt that we are in the midst of a rising hegemony of individualistic, psychological based appeal to biological determinism.  This isn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last — but the current faddish appeal to genetic and neurological claims include a host of simplistic ideas that real geneticists and neurologists would recognise as way too simplistic to as be simply not true.  Amazingly this is still common among researchers using twin studies, while simply ignoring the known fact that the basic premises of that research design control for neither biological similarities and differences among (maternal and paternal) twins, nor the presumption of equal environmental influence {Rutter, 2006 #2125}.  So every time someone says ‘this gene causes that’ as a generalised claims, we know it simply isn’t true.  The logic of probability and the differences on generalised versus individual cases makes any such reasoning much more nuanced than you normally see among those who want to claim their own view has ‘scientific’ security  (remembering that notion — ‘scientific security’ — is itself an oxymoron).

But let’s be clear, most scholars who venture down this road are entirely unconscious about what they are doing. The literally do not see their own presumptions, nor do they see the history of this form of reasoning as the core of institutionalised racism.  In that sense, they are perfect examples of paradigmatic thinking — remembering the paradigms about which Kuhn learned from Canguilhem were never self-conscious organised paradigms.

And yet, even people who seek to find a middle ground slide into one or the other side.  When younger scholars attempting to take a balanced view make a turn to empiricism as if that too gives them reason to act like their authority is unquestionable, my frustration is compounded.  Sometimes this is funny and good humour.  It is fun to say things like ‘the good thing about science is that science doesn’t care what you believe.’ And that’s not entirely wrong either.

But it also doesn’t make the ethic clear.  And it is an ethical position.  That is, the analytical realists view that we have to presume reality exists independently from any knowledge claim — the core ontological position of realism — is a step too far for me whenever they forget to name that as a presumption and act like it is ‘reality.’  I am skeptical an any proclamations about ontology that aren’t more qualified.  But I am more than happy to agree with the realist opposition to anyone who thinks their chosen theoretical view MAKES reality as they claim.  Separate from any ontological claim, such a stance is pure hubris and reveals and ego MUCH bigger than my own.  And I know first hand how self-defeating that ego can be.


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