Thursday, 21 February 2008

Philosophy as social science

Once one looks, one begins to see instances of constraining codifications everywhere. Yesterday I read a social science PhD thesis and was reminded of the formal constraints of that group of disciplines, in the UK at least. This matters (to me) because philosophy is sometimes classified by universities as a social science and thus is governed by their regulations. (At my university, the philosophers are all housed within the Faculty of Health which is disciplined by social science.)

Social science PhDs generally share the same structure which includes clear separations between literature reviews, formulation of a research question, an account and justification of research methods, results and conclusions. There seem to be many models of research which can be plucked from the shelf (“I will adopt a grounded theory approach...”; “The thesis uses social constructionism…”; “Using narrative theory…” etc etc). By contrast, when submitting structured abstracts of papers to social science journals I’m forced, with some embarrassment, to write, baldly, ‘conceptual analysis’ for my research method. (I suppose I could say, rather more darkly, that I would spend some time “in the clearing”.) **

Most disconcertingly, this proliferation of names of models sometimes even applies to the justification for how one selects the reading to go into the literature review (“I searched the literature using the snowball aproach”). For a philosophy PhD, the ‘method’ by which one selects literature isn’t mentioned. As long as one has read the right literature (as determined by one’s examiners), no one cares whether one can justify the method of its selection.

I can see the point of the mechanical codified approach. It is an attempt to make sure that there is some sort of research question, some agreed method and an awareness of the literature. But it runs the risk of separating the literature review, the method and the results which may generally work well in the natural sciences, seems implausible in philosophy and is clearly under stress in some qualitative social science (where the justifications of method and results do not seem to be independent).

Interestingly, tacit expertise still finds a role despite the codifications as students and supervisors skilfully balance the general requirements of following the explicit rules with the local needs of their particular research project.

(** Does anyone ever, in these contexts, really try to spell things out and say something about being in the the clearing made possible by the fourfold unity of earth, sky, divinities and mortals? Wouldn't it be great to slip into the description of research methods something along these lines?:

The fouring, the unity of the four, presences as the appropriating mirror-play of the betrothed, each to the other in simple oneness. The fouring presences as the worlding of the world. The mirror-play of the world is the round dance of appropriating. Therefore, the round dance does not encompass the four like a hoop. The round dance is the ring that joins while its plays as mirroring. Appropriating, it lightens the four into the radiance of their simple oneness. Radiantly, the ring joins the four, everywhere open to the riddle of their presence. The gathered presence of the mirror-play of the world, joining in this way, is the ringing. In the ringing of the mirror-playing ring, the four nestle into their unifying presence, in which each one retains its own nature. So nestling, they join together, worlding the world. )