Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

A flexible model for research in the human sciences

It often happens that postgraduate students and I have conversations about the question, how to go about doing research in the humanities and social sciences (the “human sciences”). And I’m not only talking about methodology (which is not the same as method); methodology is closely intertwined with epistemological (knowledge-) and ontological (being-) questions, and cannot be separated from them. Hence, far from being able or willing to give them a kind of “recipe for research”, I urge them to be flexible in their approach, because social reality is infinitely complex, and one “recipe” will not work in every research situation.

Nevertheless, there are guidelines, or ideas, that can be kept in mind when embarking on research for essay- and article-writing, as well as for master’s and doctoral dissertation-writing. The ones below by no means comprise an exhaustive list, but they are a starting point. One could sum them up by saying that research in the human sciences is carried out in relation to a guiding or central idea, rooted in a specific experiential and/or scientific field (such as literature, anthropology or psychology), which is explored and interpreted in terms of one or more theoretical grid(s), and confirmed or, on the contrary, falsified by evidence from experiential reality, which could result in certain social or scientifically-founded actions. What does this mean?

By “guiding idea” is meant an insight of some kind, expressed as an educated guess or hypothesis, such as, that economic and social inequality is more likely to give rise to conflict and to psychological problems in populations than equality. It should be obvious that, to be able to formulate such a hypothesis, one must already know something of the broad field in question, in this case social and critical psychology. Hence, the central idea will unavoidably be rooted in some or other field of inquiry (even, in the case of very original research, if it does not yet have a name). This brings another important feature of research in focus, namely what has been called “theory-laden perception” in the philosophy of science.

This simply means that, to be able to discern some interesting feature, such as an anomaly or a puzzling phenomenon, in experience, one has to look at social reality armed with some low-level (or more advanced) idea or “theory”, in terms of which you understand and interpret the world around you. The 17th-century empiricists were wrong in assuming that knowledge starts from a “tabula rasa” or clean slate; Aristotle was actually right when he argued that, for knowledge-acquisition to take place, there has to be some kind of knowledge or assumption already, and that one modifies this in the light of experiential evidence as you go along.

An excellent example of theory-laden perception concerns Sigmund Freud’s famous reference (in Beyond the Pleasure Principle) to the “fort/da” game his grandson was playing while the child’s mother was away. Until then, Freud had explained human behaviour by means of the “pleasure principle”, which means, broadly, that we avoid discomfort, pain and suffering as much as possible to gain psychic “homeostasis”. Then he noticed his grandson playing with a cotton reel, which the boy would toss into his cot while uttering the word “Fort!” (“Away!”). Then he would pull it back out of the cot again while exclaiming “Da!” (“There!”). Being a scientifically- oriented person, Freud looked at the boy’s actions with “theory-laden perception”, and immediately realised that they posed a dilemma for the “pleasure principle”, because he understood the boy’s game as a way of reassuring himself that his mother (represented by the reel), who was away, would return (hence pulling the reel into sight again). This meant that the boy was not avoiding the pain of his mother’s absence, but instead reminding himself of it repeatedly. This led Freud to formulate the theory of “repetition compulsion” as expression of the fundamental “death drive”, which is ultimately served by the pleasure principle.

In his response to what he observed of the boy’s actions, Freud’s guiding idea was that it must be significant for a theory of human subjectivity that individuals would repeat things related to unpleasant experiences over and over in certain situations; hence his theory of repetition compulsion as manifestation of the death drive. And putting this idea to the test has confirmed its continuing relevance: after a traumatic experience, people repeat certain words or actions over and over, demonstrating the working of the death drive, which includes the attempt to return to a former psychic state. Think of the way that the images of the imploding twin towers of 9/11 were played over and over on television in America – clearly, it was a collective trauma.

The example of Freud also shows that his idea of the significance of repetition in behaviour, which was partly rooted in his observation of a boy’s actions (experience), and partly in his own scientific field, was subsequently interpreted by means of a new theory (which entailed the modification of his earlier theory of human behaviour). Furthermore, it could be “tested” in a wide variety of cases where compulsive repetition is involved, and a means of addressing the more pathological cases among these therapeutically could be devised (action).

Of course this is just one example to demonstrate what I meant by the sentence, near the beginning, where I described what social-scientific research amounts to. There are endless other examples, which may vary somewhat, but which would, I believe, display the features of research described here. It will be noticed that I have not indicated any specific order of proceeding with such research – the order can vary immensely from one researcher or scientist to the next. Sometimes a theoretical reflection, instead of a particular observation of an anomaly (like Freud’s grandson’s behaviour), could trigger the formulation of a guiding idea; sometimes it could be another idea from an earlier phase in history, that could give rise to it – such as the idea of the “atom” from ancient Greek philosophy that gave rise to modern theories of the atom. This is what I mean by flexibility. I repeat: the research process could be understood in very different terms (for example in Deleuzian terms, one of the “features” of which was demonstrated in my Freudian example, namely the creation of “new concepts”), but this is only one angle of approach.

Some educators and researchers are more strictly formulaic in their approach, arriving at some kind of recipe, which I find too restrictive. But for some new researchers it seems to work. I prefer flexibility, because research ideas come from so many sources: everyday experience, discussions with students and colleagues, workshops, conferences, experiences in nature, even from dreams – many of Descartes’s novel ideas in the 17th century came from his interpretation of his own dreams.

When it comes to actually presenting your research – in a lecture, a conversation, in images or in writing – I would suggest flexibility too. Sometimes it is striking and attention-grabbing to begin by relating or reconstructing a specific, paradigmatic experience, without letting on what you are driving at – such as an experience on a mountain, where you come across a rare species of chameleon, and are prompted by its rarity to think about natural species-diversity, and the rate at which species are dying today because of global warming. This contingent experience, reconstructed imaginatively for an audience or readers, could serve as a dramatic introduction to a paper on the natural and social costs of climate change.

You could have started such a paper in a less dramatic way by listing the statistics on species extinction over the last five years, for instance, before moving on to the terrain of complexity theory to demonstrate that living ecosystems can only “tolerate” so much species-loss before they start unravelling. But the dramatic story about encountering a beautiful and fragile member of a rare species is, in my judgement, far more effective – it will lead you to all the more scientifically sounding stuff, anyway.

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    • Maria Marquez

      C’mon! If we’re really talking “flexibility” we should be approaching anarchic research; perhaps of a Feyerabendian “against method”-variety, perhaps (more likely) of a Deleuzian kind, spinning ideas, functives, concepts and percepts on a “thousand plateaus” of virtual perception, inviting infinite actualizations….I’m sure you’d agree, but would not want to be prescriptive about that to prospective students, who would be frightened off instantly, right?

    • Bert Olivier

      You know me too well, Maria – you remind me of those lengthy debates we had at Yale! Sure, a more anarchic approach to research is possible, which both of us engage in frequently, but – as you know – mainstream philosophers and other people in the human sciences don’t take to it very well, as shown by the remarks one gets from some reviewers of such unorthodox articles that one submits to journals. Sometimes it works out though, even if only because some reviewers are receptive to ‘innovative’ work.