The Nature of Research: Inquiry in Academic Contexts
reviewed by Maike Philipsen & Jon Wergin - 2003
The Nature of Research by Australian scholar Angela Brew is a response to what many perceive as a crisis in the academy. Brew argues that academics have lost control over their research agendas to outside funding agencies, and so need to reclaim their work and devote it to “teaching society how to live.” Doing this will provide universities with a renewed sense of purpose and a powerful justification for being.
The book seeks to “illuminate more fully some of the taken-for-granted aspects of the nature of research” (p. 4), based on a variety of sources, including scholarly literature, the author’s own studies of the ways research is experienced in higher education, and discussions with scholars in various countries. It is organized into two parts, the intellectual and the social contexts of research. Part one (chapters 2 through 7) seeks to untangle what, exactly, research is; how it relates to scholarship; what rules it follows or challenges; how knowledge is produced; and what kinds of questions and problems it addresses. The discussion in Part two (chapters 8 through 12) centers on the common notion that research is a commodity; the relationship between research, learning and teaching; the implications of research being a discourse; and, finally, the directions in which research ought to be heading in a world of super-complexity, confusion, and ambivalence.
Brew found that research is nothing monolithic, but defined differently depending on the academic discipline. Some scholars may emphasize practical problem solving, others the end product, and still others the creation of meaning or personal journeys. The author observes that while changes may have occurred in epistemology, research practice itself has remained essentially unchanged for centuries. This tension must be overcome, she argues, and if research frees itself from old dogmas and instead embraces more creative approaches, academics might be better able to fulfill their central mission: to teach society how to live. While scholarship ought to focus on society’s most pressing problems, Brew contends, it often does the opposite: it engages in various forms of escapism by studying what is distant and socially unproblematic.
How, then, can this unproductive trend be changed? The author suggests that research must have both a personal and a social dimension, meaning that academics should help others solve their problems. In order to do so, emphasis needs to shift from the end product to the process of how we come to know. Rather than perfecting the “yoga of objectivity” (Skolimowski, 1984), researchers ought to increase their awareness of how the contexts in which they operate frame their perspectives and affect their actions. Such a “valid consciousness” means “playing with boundaries” and accepting research as a “highly moral procedure” in the sense that we come to understand the “mystery of our participation” in the production of knowledge. Only if academics think about how research can be life enhancing will it become possible to transcend the academy’s current “state of moral turbulence,” a state resulting from the failure of traditional research methodologies to pay attention to central questions of value (pp. 102-103).
An obstacle to refashioning academic research along these lines is the pervasive view that research is an economic commodity. Business thinking and practices dominate, and research is viewed as investment rather than process of discovering the unknown. Academics, competing for scarce funding, shy away from risk-taking and dutifully produce what the market demands and the funding agency pays for. This “trading variation,” Brew reminds us, may not be the best perspective because it denies the potential for research to stimulate individual as well as social transformation, to help us learn how to live, to be happy, and to be wise.
Brew does not, however, believe all academic research to be either self-indulgent escapism, at one extreme, or a knee-jerk response to external economic interests, at the other. Juxtaposing “traditional” and “new” forms of inquiry, Brew observes change in some corners of the academic universe, where research is being developed that combines a social with a personal dimension. Selected non-traditional theses, for example, blur the distinctions between knowledge and knower or the objective and the subjective worlds, and seek to develop an engaged research consciousness so essential if research is to fulfill its ultimate mission: to teach us how to live. Teaching, she points out, provides the raison d’être for research because the very purpose of research is to teach people about their world. Despite their very obvious connection, higher education has separated research and teaching to the point where they operate in “contested space” (p. 145). Nevertheless there is hope, Brew argues, because the academy is also moving in directions conducive to a more intimate relationship between research and teaching; it is recognizing, for example, the importance of students’ lifelong learning or ‘authentic’ assessment (p. 150).
Looking toward the future, Brew contends that academics need to change the discourse of research, meaning the language, narratives, and images both shaping and expressing the very nature of research in the academy today. Too often, she argues, research is couched in the language of the natural sciences; the word ‘science’ is used synonymously with the word ‘research.’ Research is embedded in a gendered or ‘masculinist’ discourse, dominated by the way male scientists think about inquiry and nature. The discourse is colonial in that it is filled with myths of rescue and redemption, and research is often expressed in sports or war metaphors (“field of study,” “research target”). Thanks to postmodernists and others who question the validity and usefulness of such writing, the discourse is changing. The power of grand narratives has been questioned as has the language of scholars’ “impersonality.” Academics are beginning to include themselves in their analyses and to become more open to the knowledge the reader might bring to the table. Brew finds that academic writing, which used to be about telling, is becoming more about transforming (p. 169). Such transformation is not always pretty; indeed, critical action within a system characterized by an “emphasis on performativity, competition, and the accumulation of dubious rewards” (p. 184) necessitates courage, and here Brew cites Veronica Brady who says about academics that “we ought to be difficult people” (Brady, 2000).
Brew’s book comes along at a time when academics in many countries feel beleaguered by agendas not their own, blackmailed by tight purse strings, or plain tired and cynical given the never ending challenges to their professionalism. The Nature of Research promises a way out of the conceptual deadlock gripping those of us who are struggling to envision an academic future that does not require that we either separate ourselves from society or sell ourselves out to it. The author’s central message is that academics ought to think about how they can be of best use to the common good, specifically a better way of life, and it is a message well taken.
But it is also a message that is sabotaged by conceptual contradictions, factual distortions, and a presentation style that obfuscates more than it clarifies. Early in the book Brew writes of the “despair of postmodernism,” something that gets in the way if “the world’s problems are to be solved” (p. 8). Not only does the latter statement carry a paternalistic tone, but Brew also contradicts herself later when she uses a distinctly postmodernist perspective to characterize a “masculinist” discourse, a perspective which is sure to find ethnographers, historiographers, and creative artists puzzled and outraged by Brew’s attempt to paint what they do as dominated by natural science paradigms. In addition, Brew pays little attention to the burgeoning field of practice-based research, in which academic professionals are increasingly defining research problems on the basis of problems encountered in practice, and do not feel constrained by “scientific” paradigms or sexist language. The author also largely ignores academic history in her arguments about the increasing “commodification” of research. At least in the US, control over research agendas in the natural and health sciences has been in the hands of the federal government and private industry ever since 1944, when a government report called “Science: The Endless Frontier” (Bush, 1945) recommended substantial governmental investment in scientific research, to be carried out primarily in research universities. External domination in other areas is less clear-cut. In fact, one could argue that free scholarship in the arts and humanities has been possible because of federal support. The National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities have provided ways for scholars to investigate topics on the fringes or those which might be politically unpopular, to a much larger extent than private foundations have.
Brew writes in a style that some will find off-putting. For example, her discussion of the distinctions between “research” and “scholarship” is a confusing jumble of abstractions. For most people, “research” is the act of discovering or reinterpreting knowledge through structured inquiry, while scholarship is much broader, a way of being or “professing,” like professing faith or love for someone. Occasionally, as we noted already, Brew also slips into a noblesse oblige attitude about the society the academy is here to serve. Her claim that academics should “teach society how to live” is an especially egregious example. Academics do in fact have a unique role to play, but we should not be so arrogant as to think that the fate of the world depends on how we choose to conduct research! If the author had stuck to her central message, that “academics ought to think about how they can be of best use to society and, specifically, to a better way of life in that society,” her book would have been considerably more compelling and provocative.
Still, Brew’s book raises an important challenge for those of us who struggle to balance the intellectual interests that drive us and the reasonable demand that our work be socially valuable. It is all but impossible to reach consensus as to what constitutes the “good life” or who should ever make such a determination. The role academics can and should play in all of this, it seems, is to a) consistently remind themselves and the general public that the good society is at the heart of the scholarly endeavor and b) to invite others to participate in that conversation.
Brady, V. (2000). T ransformations of the expectation: the quest for the internal combustion of higher education, in R., James, J. Milton, and R. Gabb, (Eds.). Cornerstones of higher education: Research and development in higher education, Vol. 22. (pp. 5-11). Canberra: The Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia.
Bush, Vannevar. (1945). Science: The endless frontier: A report to the President on a program of postwar scientific research. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Skolimowsky, H. (1984). “The model of reality as mind,” in Van der Merwe, A. (Ed.) Old and new questions in Physics, cosmology, philosophy, and theoretical biology (pp. 769-788). New York and London: Plenum.