Research: Incest or Insight?

By Blum, Albert A. | Contemporary Review, January 1995 | Go to article overview

Research: Incest or Insight?


Blum, Albert A., Contemporary Review


When I was a faculty member at a large American university. I used to amuse myself at graduation ceremonies by looking at the titles of the dissertations. I did not understand many of them; others appeared unimportant, still others were so similar to the topics of the previous year that I was able to identify the professor who was the sponsor of the dissertations. Nearly all of them reflected the belief so common at universities that a Ph.D. candidate should study as narrow or inconsequential a topic as possible, be non-controversial, and not reflect any real insights or new ideas but instead foster the incestuous relationships that too often exist between graduate advisors and their graduate students, not only in America, but throughout the western world.

What is so frequently true of Ph.D. dissertations is also true of academic research in general. Look at most professional journals and unless one is among the initiated, one frequently cannot even understand the titles of the articles in them. One quickly discovers that the denseness of the language in the title reflects the denseness of thought in the article and that what is being published is usually just a minor revision of what had been published somewhere before. And the main reason for all of this dreariness and lack of imagination is that potential authors want to have their article published or their dissertation approved. The peer review process, the method by which articles are usually chosen for publication in many journals, often insures that much of what is published is a mirror image of the views and style of those who do the peer reviewing. They usually also make up much of the educational 'establishment' and are the main Ph.D. sponsors in the various disciplines.

This incestuous relationship starts, as I have mentioned, with the Ph.D. programme where the candidate, placed under the care of a sponsor, often finds himself manipulated (or he manipulates himself as a means of getting ahead) so that he does research on a minor aspect of the field or a methodology in which the sponsor is interested. The end products are a Ph.D. dissertation which results in a minor, and, at best, a small incremental increase in knowledge in the field and in articles, often co-authored with the faculty sponsor, stemming from the Ph.D. dissertation. That the relationship is consensual does not make it less incestuous.

Moreover, the Ph.D. candidate quickly learns some practical truths. If one wants to move ahead in academia through publications, one has to do research not in an area in which the candidate might be interested, but in an area in which senior professors are interested. The Ph.D. candidate learns also to choose a subject acceptable to these professors who serve on editorial boards of journals. The peer review process and the research process are supposedly objective but are they? And why does the research process as followed in academia so often lead to a lack of imagination among its followers?

When one examines the research process, no part is completely objective. Personal judgements permeate the research process as we shall see. The first step in the process is the choice of a topic. As I mentioned before, the choice is made for a host of personal reasons. First, a Ph.D. sponsor or a colleague (preferably senior to the potential author) may be interested in a topic. Second, the topic may be part of a fad. I was once asked to head up a national study of research dealing with employment and training policies supported by the government. I was informed that one reason I had been asked to head the programme was that I was one of the few people in the labour field who had not applied for a grant to study this topic. Others in the labour field had turned from labour relations to the study of employment issues and poverty, not only out of concern for the topics, but also because 'poverty' provided funds for research. (For example, one researcher told me that he would study poverty as long as the government provided funds for him to stay at good hotels.

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