Any Colour You Like; defining the terms of modern science

This week a joint post from us!

Recently I have noticed an increasing trend towards generalization in much student work, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and have some concerns this represents a gradual shift in terms of the level of scholarship and academic discrimination. Overall this seems to have been more evident over the last 10 years of so with the advent of postmodern approaches in my discipline. In the worst instances initial proposals for thesis work basically take form of “This is a problem, so I am going to talk to a bunch of people to see what they think and find out some stuff.” The latest trend of this I seem to be seeing in student writing seems to be “To explain this I call upon …” and I have to admit I have struggled to resist the temptation to add “…the power of Grey Skull.”

I was always a Thundercat man myself! However, in a similar vein, one thing that is increasingly happening here is that students are ‘retrofitting’ their work to theory. They carry out their research and then come up with statements such as “Vygotsky agrees with this” to which I normally write something like “That’s a bit of luck then!” (we’re far  more brutal with our feedback comments here in the UK…)

This isn’t a fault on our students side as we seem to have got across the idea that different theoretical perspectives must be acknowledged and no perspective is value free, but then also the principle that they are all equally valid, and you can choose any one that suits you. Students have been indoctrinated to always identify a specific theoretical perspective. Indeed, faculty incessantly ask them, “yes but what theoretical perspective are you going to use?” However, students often write “I  am going to use the XYZ lens” but do so to satisfy their professor, and then proceed without any attempt to explain why this is a  useful approach, give any justification, or consideration of alternatives. It actually reminds me a bit of the old BBC Play School TV show of my childhood where the story teller would say “today, children,  we are going to look through the round window.” Now, I know many postmodern scholars would nod sagely, and say “yes, exactly so!” but I must admit from an epistemological stance find this somewhat exasperating. In taking this approach what we are effectively doing is dumbing down the nature of scientific enquiry into a generalized descriptive melange, rather than a consideration of competing explanations, and discriminating arguments.

Allied to this, particularly at doctoral level, I have noticed a trend for students to write biographical pieces about themselves so you can see ‘where they are coming from’. This may have some validity if it actually related to any adopted theoretical stance , e.g. “Growing up in a working class area of the inner city forged my radicalism etc” but it rarely ever seems to. I agree with Bernie, you can’t just put ideas out like vegetables on a market stall. Sometimes,  I get the distinct impression that we have made students afraid to nail their colours to the mast, either because they don’t feel sufficiently confident with their approach or that they actually feel that they don’t have the depth of understanding to defend it. Increasingly students fall to citing another study that used their selected  approach or that the results justified the means. ironically this is even harder to defend academically.

Now in the dark and distant past of our undergraduate studies in Portsmouth, Roger and I had rather an eccentric lecturer who used to wear academic dress to lecture in (most of us thought he had either been sent down from Oxford/Cambridge, or was a big Batman fan, as no one else in the institution did so).

Yes, I remember him describing some environmental issue on the Yellow River, but doing so in Cantonese as he felt the local concerns didn’t translate well into English! We all thought he was, well, a little more than eccentric Bern, but looking back perhaps he was just ahead of the curve – sorry I digress…

Anyhow, I recall once him reprimanding me when I asked a question saying “”Define your terms young man, define your terms!”  Well, he did have a point, as if we are not specific we run the risk of obfuscating our meaning. Lets take the specific example of the use of the terms concept, construct and variable. These are not really interchangeable terms, which we can choose at will to describe phenomena but have specific meanings in the process of theory development.

Concepts are mental representations of things that allow us to share experiences and draw conclusions about the world. Concepts are also sometimes construed as abstract entities. They are expressions of an abstract form derived from generalization from particulars. For example, the concept of pain can be inferred from the observation of specific instances and records using inductive and abductive reasoning. Pain is a good example, as it remains a highly active area of research today.

To develop our concept into a form that can be explored further we need to describe it in some terms that can be analysed in detail. This leads us to the development of a construct or representative framework to describe the phenomena in measurable terms.  In science a construct is really a concept that has been deliberately adopted for a special scientific purpose. It has identified elements that can be measured (as the theoretical element itself cannot be directly observed or measured). The neuromatrix theory of pain, or intelligence is both good examples of constructs.  The actual elements of the construct are defined in specific terms that can be measured and these elements are known as variables. E.g. nociceptor potentials, or intelligence quotient (IQ). Once we have a construct with variables our theory can be tested though hypothesis generation and deductive reasoning to develop a theory that is substantiated by evidence.

Indeed I would agree with that, certainly distinguishing the terms ‘concept’, ‘construct’ and ‘variable’ and that these lead to generating hypotheses and then to testing (in what ever way is deemed appropriate).

In this way we can see the focus of empirical scientific work is really to generate and establish theories that can explain phenomena, and be used to support predictions of future events, or do other useful things. If we don’t define our terms carefully, consider arguments for the best explanation or choose a theoretical framework that we find appealing or fashionable without considering alternatives or justification, my concern is we move away from doing anything practically useful and into the realms of intellectualization for its own sake.

I agree,  justifying your stance  and terms carefully supports systematic and rigorous interrogation of the collected data. Data is only as robust as the methods used to collect it and the conclusions to any work are only as strong as the analytical processes that are used. Every step in the chain of rationale should work. If we employ an “I’m going to talk to a few people and find stuff out approach” as Bernie called it earlier, we really throw out any justification for how we might practically use those data, and what meaningful conclusions can be drawn. Also, foraging through a mass of interview transcripts and pulling out quotes to support a preconceived particular view is not systematic analysis. I fear that students often opt for such methods, not for any deep allegiance to post-modernism, or to any specific qualitative approach,  but rather that its perceived by some as an easier option, primarily because they don’t consider the complexity of the analytical methods that this requires. When students come to me with such project ideas I always asked them “How are you going to analyse this?” and most times the response is a blank expression. Perhaps in future I’ll add “…by the power of Grey Skull?”

To be fair to our esteemed students the blame lies with us, as it is our fault if, as academics, if we have taught them this sort of thing is acceptable. We only have our selves to blame, after all we shape our students behaviours in our own practices. Define your terms (although preferably not in a foreign language)!

Bernie and Roger