The Myth of Hardness: Public Sciences and  Jugglery

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The present world is dominated by a scientific world view which places undue focus on practicality mainly arising out of a market-oriented economic philosophy. Technological advancements have definitely helped the present society in many ways especially communication sector, education, health, travel etc. Of course, in this ‘new world’, basic sciences have become marginal and this has tremendous implications for education as well.

The division between basic and applied sciences have become more sharp than before in this new world. But even within applied sciences, there are gradations and different shades of this so-called practicality. However, what is being ignored is the need for ‘praxis’, a constant dialectical interactions between theory and practice and the utility of such interactions and mutual interplay for improving the quality of applications. As conceived by Aristotle, it actually reflects the human action on everything external to the body based on experience with different situations. The concept of praxis denotes ‘action that shapes the world’ which seeks to dissolve the divisions between theory and practice. Theory is a ‘self-reflexive discursive endeavour’ that seeks to interpret the world (Barker, 2006). Language forms an important component of this endeavour. “Language is the means and medium through which we form knowledge about ourselves and the social world, it forms the network by which we classify the world and make it meaningful. That is, language gives meaning to material objects and social practices that are brought into view and made intelligible to us in terms which language delimits” (Barker, p.492). This is also a major weakness in the current pedagogy practiced in many universities.

At the level of knowledge creation or in the so-called research fields, self-reflection has become a rare entity.  Many of us who practice and evolve appropriate methodologies for understanding the problems that human societies face know that it has become a mechanical enterprise. These are especially evident in areas such as public or human sciences where human responses, actions and human mind matter more than some devices or instruments. But we know, there is always the risk of branding such knowledge based on conjectures, theoretical intuitions and reflections as unscientific or such a knowledge may be identified as belonging to the powerless and oppressed outside the realms of science. This also leads to extreme selectivity in research topics which ends up in problems amenable to standard statistical techniques. Issues and problems related to workers in different sectors or studies on tribal populations living in remote places or even community-based studies are often ignored. Generally, it is convenient and comfortable to follow the ‘established ways’ and any deviation from such ways is considered as sacrilege. In other words, there is a dominant assumption of ‘hardness’ which is based on the belief that one can achieve more ‘scientificity’ and acceptance by presenting hard data. The dichotomy is reduced to hard and soft sciences and not between good and bad science.

It is the ‘most funny’ script drawn by some predecessors and it is not realized that such a script has been evolved by people who practiced the ‘science’ in a particular context and it is nothing sacrosanct. For instance, in many universities, sample size calculations and use of specific statistics (These are also predetermined in the script) are a must exercise for Masters theses and even Doctoral theses are also not spared (But no worries! There are statistical clinics and consultants who will do it for you for a hefty sum).  The whole predetermined script has to be religiously followed. Any effort to explore third ways is scowled upon. Recently, my suggestions regarding the use of ‘undertaking classes’ for a particular specialised group as  a technique of research primarily as a ‘way of knowing’ and the use of ‘abductive reasoning’ (courtesy Sherlock Holmes), a method of constantly moving back and forth between data and pre-existing knowledge or theories  (apart from inducive and deductive reasoning) were not wholeheartedly welcomed as they fall outside the existing known and repeated (and sometimes boring) research methods and techniques in human sciences! But, it is not realized for instance that the technique of ‘participant observation’ was developed contextually and later formalised by Anthropologists who wanted to understand unknown societies and their way of life as staying within the community was the only way to achieve this aim. Of course, the knowledge so generated was necessary to colonise them and State power was closely intertwined with such a knowledge generation.

What is assumed, in many instances erroneously, is that by adhering to such predetermined script, one can achieve ‘rigour’ in knowledge creation. Rigour in this case is scrupulously accurate and precise as Webster defines it. In any case, such a conceptualization of rigour has been called into question given the uncertainties that plague the world at the moment. As Ratcliffe and Gonzalez-del-Valle argue, such rigour is not shown during other equally important phases of research like conceptualization or theory selection (Ratcliffe and Gonzalez-del-Valle, 1988). What is argued here is not anarchy but a more value-critical and expanded approach to rigour especially in human sciences like Public Health where social values and public interests predominate.

In pedagogy, such a value-critical approach or the possibilities of third ways have been lost and over the years theoretical competence and reflections have also disappeared. The whole process of academics and the different levels such as teaching, exchange of ideas, reading, reflections and responses have become pedantic. Bulleted points matter more than ‘bullets’ that emerge from critical thinking. In other words, what is evident is  ‘mediocrity’ at all the levels. For instance,  Public health like many other human sciences is a ‘people’s science’ or ‘public science’ as its fundamental role is to generate evidence regarding health of the people and evolve policy options to address them. Given such a role, it should not allow itself to be reduced to a statistical ‘jugglery science’ as is the case in many universities.

Chris Barker (2006). The Concept of Praxis: Cultural Studies and the Leisure Industries. In. C. Rojek et al. (eds.), A Handbook of Leisure Studies. UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

John W. Ratcliffe and Amalia Gonzalez-del-Valle (1988). International Journal of Health Services, Volume 18, Number 3, 365-392.

(Professor K Rajasekharan Nayar is affiliated to Global Institute of Public Health and Santhigiri Research Foundation)




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