#change11 The Idea of Transformative Research: The Importance of Sense-Making and Conversation

Apostolos K’s recent post brought my attention back to Thomas Reeves’ article; Can Educational Research Be Both Rigorous and Relevant?  The problem with Reeves’ article is that it’s base in a positivist understanding of research that in turn is based in analytic philosophy.  It emphasizes empiricism when we need sense-making.  It encourages people to come to the research when we need to find ways to bring the research to the people who need it.  Here are a couple of distinctions I would make:

#1. Reeves ends by making the relevance – rigor distinction to be an individual choice, but they are 2 different things.

Rigor refers to the validity of one’s claims; how much do I believe the answers to the questions you are asking.  The type of rigor Reeves talks of is great for some types of questions, but there are many many other worthwhile questions and the validity of the methods we use to answer them are also different.  Every answer we need is not always answered best by a double blind random controlled trial.

Relevance refers to the resonance between the research and the contexts in which we want to use that knowledge.  Relevance comes from research that is part of a larger societal conversation.  The problem with a lack of research relevance is caused by a lack of a research conversation as to what the problems are and how best to address them.  Empirical evidence can’t replace sense-making conversations, but this is what positivist research attempts.

#2. If you look only at a narrow range of positivist research you can  see a relevance rigor distinction in this way.  As you control for confounding variables in a study, the more laboratory like it becomes,  the less it relates to settings where confounding variables are in play.  This is also the reason that much positivist research knowledge is of questionable use.  I think we need 2 things.  Many different types of research looking at a problem in different ways and we also need a collaborative and transformative conversation that brings different research and different ideas together and makes sense of them.  It is this sense-making that helps research resonate for many different people and makes this knowledge useable in differing contexts.  It is my hope that things like this MOOC can serve as the infrastructure for such a transformative conversation.  It is not that Reeves is wrong in specifics, but he is missing the transformative possibilities because of his narrow range of focus.

All of this reminds me of Richard Rorty’s early experiences in philosophy as he explains in the following:


When in 1950 I sat starry-eyed at Carnap’s feet, I actually believed that by the end of the twentieth century philosophers around the world would be bedecking their articles with quantifiers, talking the same ideally perspicuous language, trying to solve the same puzzles, adding bricks to the same edifice. But during my years at Princeton, watching the winds of doctrine veer about, and last yearns urgent new philosophical puzzles wither and die in the blast, I realized this scenario was unlikely to be played out in even a single university, much less on a global scale. Still, the realization that my Princeton colleagues no more agreed about when a brick had been added to the edifice of knowledge than about what counted as an important philosophical problem did not diminish my growing conviction the best of the analytic philosophers have done a lot for the transformation of the human self-image.

In various books and articles I have tried to tell a story about how the linguistic turn in philosophy both made it possible for the heirs of Kant to come to terms with Darwin and encouraged an anti-representationalist line of thought which chimes with Nietzsche’s perspectivalism and with Dewey’s pragmatism. This line of thought, running through the later Wittgenstein, as well as through the work of Sellars and Davidson, has given us a new way of thinking about the relation between language and reality. Thinking in this way may, at long last, do what the German idealists vainly hoped to do: it may persuade us to end discussion of tiresome pseudo-problems about the relation of subject and object, and of appearance to reality.

These analytic philosophers, I would argue, can help us get philosophy back on the Hegelian, historicist, romantic, path. This is the path that nineteenth-century neo-Kantians , Husserlian phenomenologists, and the founders of analytic philosophy all hoped to block off. The story I have tried to tell elsewhere about how analytic philosophy tried and failed to avoid taking this path culminates in the claim that human beings can, with the help of Wittgenstein, Sellars and Davidson on the one hand, and Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida on the other, get away from the old idea that there is something outside of human beings—something like the Will of God, or the Intrinsic Nature of Reality—which has authority over human beliefs and actions. It is a story about how certain intuitions we inherit from the Greeks can be undermined and replaced, rather than systematized. Whether or not one accepts or likes this story, it is a story of transformation, a story of the sort that Kierkegaard could acknowledge as having ethico-religious import (even though its import is radically atheistic).

My story, in short, is not about how to avoid analytic philosophy, but rather about why you need to study certain selected analytic philosophers in order fully to appreciate the transformative possibilities which the intellectual movements of the twentieth century have opened up for our descendants. The disciplinary matrix of analytic philosophy, despite the hollow defensive rhetoric with which it resounds, is one with which future intellectual historians will have to become familiar, just as they have had to become familiar with the disciplinary matrix of German idealism.