This paper was written as a take home exam for a class on the Philosophical and Methodological Issues in Development Research.
Question: "The responsibility of the intellectual is to tell the truth and expose lies." (Chomsky) Should development researchers do both or should they only try to tell the truth?
Research for What?
When Noam Chomsky (1967) stated that the job of the intellectual is to expose lies, he surely was referring specifically to academics and researchers, not just “a person possessing or supposed to possess superior powers of intellect” as per the dictionary definition. (Oxford English Dictionary 1989) Given that the intellectual is herself situated within the power structures of society that shape the notions of truth and development, it is impossible to separate the question of power from research and knowledge. Fundamentally though, the process of telling the truth, especially in the modern milieu of the academy, is methodologically identical to the process of exposing lies. The implied question is whether researchers should use the knowledge they have to merely state the facts as they see them or to use those inferences to positively change the structure of society.
This paper argues that while exposing lies and telling the truth are equivalent, the nature of truth itself is relative and thus all researchers should first examine their core assumptions before making scientific claims. However, with the assumptions defined, and the inherent value-based judgments acknowledged, the focus of development research should be to merely find knowledge that is as objective as possible within the confines of the researcher's reality. Thankfully though, research and the researcher herself are not one and the same, and the academic has an obligation to use her knowledge to change society for the better. This is in no discipline more relevant than in development.
The nature of truth and lies
While the idea of an objective truth has long been debated in philosophy, even in the hard sciences it seems clear that truth is quite relative. First, Einstein's theory of relativity casts shadows on the idea of objective reality. In the physical world, one's frame of reference entirely colours one's perception of the universe, with Einstein explaining how being in motion fundamentally alters the concept of measurement. (Miller 1981, p. 137) Aside from the astrophysical application of Einstein's theories, in quantum mechanics the same relativity seems to be at work. Heisenberg successfully demonstrated that the act of observing quantum particles alters their nature. Add in the corollary that it is impossible to know the velocity and location of a particle at the same time with any certainty, (Heisenberg 1958) and you have a fundamental critique of objectiveness.
The concept of objectiveness in philosophy and ontology is equally fraught with challenges to the nature of truth. Every person has a certain frame of reference that influences their interpretation of events. (Taylor 1994, p. 548-9) Easy examples include societal biases and entrenched discrimination against minorities, other races, genders or even people of other sexual orientations. And Marxist analysts have long decried the inherent class biases of both social systems and forms of academic thought, particularly methodological individualism. (Little 1994, p. 479) These biases set the frame of reference not only in a tangible sense, for example what type and kind of questions are included on a questionnaire (Truman and Humphries 1994), but also in the subconscious of the researcher herself. The mode of interpretation, the meanings derived from data, and the types of analysis themselves are all influenced by the frame of reference of the researcher. The accepted scientific method itself deeply influences the kind of data that is considered acceptable to consider and thus the kind of results that are able to be obtained. (Weber 1994 , p. 535) Given this inherently relative nature of truth, the concept of a lie, the opposite of the truth, must also be relative.
Despite the relative nature of both truth and lies, they are still, within our understanding of the meaning of those words, opposites. In telling truth, or given the subjective nature reality in claiming something to be true, one is automatically declaring statements to the contrary to be false. Galileo, by declaring the earth round, told the truth as far as we presently perceive reality; yet in doing so he was unequivocally implying that the earth was not flat. This is well captured by Foucault's analysis of the competing nature of truths, which he applied to the entire set of institutions that determine what the truth is. These institutions compete, meaning they fight to be accepted as the default paradigm for assessing the validity of statements. (Foucault 1980) Thus the competing paradigms in Galileo's case were the faith of religious doctrine versus the belief of physics and its proof via the scientific method. By proclaiming that one is valid, it necessarily delegitimises the other. With this in mind, Chomsky's division of 'telling truth' and 'exposing lies' becomes a semantic game of giving the same action artificially different linguistic description. The reason for making this artificial distinction is unclear, though perhaps Chomsky never meant for there to be a distinction at all, as a full reading of his essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” supports. (1967)
Impartiality in Research
With the notion that exposing lies and telling the truth are simply dialectic opposite sides of the same coin, the question should be narrowed to the topic of whether intellectuals have only the responsibility to tell the truth or whether they must also fight for the triumph of their system of truth, which according to Foucault is synonymous with a system of power (1980, p. 133). Before that question can be directly addressed, it becomes important to also look at the types of research and the implications of such. Given the above discussion of the subjectivity of all observation and the non-existence of an objective truth, one must determine how should intellectuals structure their research. No universal answer to this question is possible because the most appropriate type of discourse used for the research will depend on the accepted discourse of the society of the intellectual.
The goal of an academic or researcher is generally to win acceptance for her own understanding of the truth. Thus, she is competing with other, possibly orthodox or heterodox, systems of truth and knowledge. Most research is not oriented towards changing the fundamental nature of truth or power, it usually involves only small, incremental alterations.1 In order for the acceptance of new knowledge to happen, for a new truth to be adopted, it helps if the difference from the old orthodox notion is small and for the new idea to be couched in the discourse of the old while simultaneously rejecting some small portion of the accepted notion of truth. For example, a development researcher looking at the effect of trade policy on a sub-Saharan African economy should base her inquiry on the same discourses that structure other such research, probably empiricism and trade theory, if her findings are to be acknowledged by the system of academia as it exists. In fact, this incremental revision of knowledge is built into the system of truth as embodied by the scientific method that is employed in academia today.
So, the imperative is for a researcher to use the accepted practices, follow the standard procedures and achieve an outcome. This conformity, namely a demand for objectivity and valuelessness in analysis, is important for the researcher to gain acceptance for the findings of the research. But as Weber, an ardent supporter of the separation of politics from the classroom, himself admitted, science is not free from presuppositions. (1946 ) The result is that researchers must examine their assumptions, state them clearly, and try to minimize their influence on the research question at hand. While the researcher will have difficulty discarding their own subconscious, which undoubtedly influences their perception and observation of the world, she can at least attempt to be as objective as the constraints of the system of discourse and power will allow. The outcome will be research results that do not advocate a stance but attempt to describe a version of reality according to the researcher's frame of reference.
Activity in Researcher
Then what should the relationship be between the product of the research and the society in which that product is released? The research product itself should be non-confrontational in nature with the dissemination of the knowledge as value-free as possible while acknowledging that it exists within an overarching discourse that is distorted by power and bias. But, that should not constrain the social scientist herself from being active in the formation of an opinion on the correct course of action suggested by the knowledge. The fine line between simply interpreting data and using data for the purpose of advocacy is very difficult to judge, but the responsible intellectual will try to steer clear from stepping on the line. Yet, it seems that the appropriate action is for the academic to jump over the line from time to time.
The intellectual is responsible to both the academy and the method under which knowledge is produced. She works within a frame of reference, a discourse of objectivity. That is perfectly acceptable, but not entirely sufficient. The intellectual is also responsible to the society in which she lives and her own morality. To ignore one's own morality is not the hallmark of a 'scientist' but of someone divorced from themselves and society. The knowledge an intellectual produces is, or should be, valuable and useful to society, because she has specific information which others may not have. (Foucault 1980, p. 132) Development researchers particularly aim to assist in the development of an underdeveloped region with their research. This implies a desire to change and adjust the practices, institutions, and circumstances of that region. Advocating for change is part and parcel of the development business and if a social scientist has specific information that can facilitate and assist in this positive change, they have an obligation to contribute it.
Some may critique that the researcher's advocacy subjects the knowledge itself to scepticism, because people will question the impartiality, methodology and assumptions of the work. This fear has led most research to be segregated from advocacy, with calls for independence of researchers and stress on not having advocacy intentions impose themselves on the knowledge creation process. As demonstrated, it is impossible to have value-free knowledge creation, thus it becomes only a matter of degree, and of perception on whether there is enough separation. That makes the standards discussed – of clarifying assumptions and having a clear, rigorous methodology – all the more important. The researcher must attempt to conduct value-free analysis and only once the new knowledge is known should she use those conclusions for changing society.
Telling the truth and exposing lies are identical activities within the confines of the discourse of academia. By making a statement of knowledge, it necessarily invalidates mutually exclusive statements that have been made by others. So the question arises as to what should the intellectual do as they create research. The primary requirement is that the development researcher recognise and make clear the set of assumptions that they are creating their knowledge within. Because the observer's frame of reference inherently influences her perception of reality, she must strive to recognise those limitations and to reduce their significance. Then the intellectual can fill two roles, that of creator of knowledge and that of advocate based on the knowledge she has realised, but preferably not at the same time. While people's perceptions of fact are biased by the accepted discourses and power structures in which they operate, the development researcher is functioning to change societies to improve the lives of people in the world. It is not a task of the laboratory or philosophy but one of the field, and thus one must put aside the uncertainty of truth, use the best available methods to discover, as near as possible, the facts of the situation and finally to step out of the role of researcher and into the role of informed expert, before using the knowledge available to advocate a position.
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1 A discussion of revolutionary research and intellectual theorizing that challenges the very basis of the system of academic discourse by proposing radically different frames of reference for analysis is far beyond the scope of this paper. Thankfully, most development researchers do not find themselves in such a role, it usually being only in the purview of political philosophers, quantum physicists and purely theoretical sociologists.
copyright 2005 Peter Chowla