Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

"People Come and Go but We Don't See Anything": How Might Social Research Contribute to Social Change?

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

"People Come and Go but We Don't See Anything": How Might Social Research Contribute to Social Change?

Article excerpt


Theory is always for someone and for some purpose [... ] There is, 
accordingly, no such thing as theory in itself, divorced from a 
standpoint in time and space. (Cox, 1981, p. 128)

The theory-practice divide is present in many social science fields (see Cox, 1981; Hill & Beshoff, 1994; Kurki, 2006; Smith, 2002). For instance, many highly ranked journals place an emphasis on theory--some even expecting to see evidence of a "new" theory before accepting a paper for publication. In development studies, such discussions previously centred on the divide between indigenous and scientific knowledge, particularly around who speaks for the poor and what knowledge is deemed legitimate (see Agrawal, 1995; Briggs, 2005, 2013; Chambers, 2013; Watts, 1993). Although development studies is currently informed by the rich experience of many practitioners, the discussion of whether it should be focused on theory or practice and the practical relevance of development research has happened before (Black, 1991; Narman, 1997; Schuurman, 1994).

These disciplinary divisions are obviously arbitrary, but the debate still remains in many fields over the real essence of research--whether for theory development, policy-relevant outcomes, emancipation or a mix of these elements. Even though critical theory is often contrasted with problem-solving theory with the latter having some hegemony over the former, it appears that a praxis-oriented researcher might need to embrace elements of both to achieve their objectives (Andrews, 2013). This suggests that politics and theory are inseparable since in most cases they are both embedded in complex relations of power (Duvall & Varadarajan, 2003; see also McMichael, 2012). In fact, the aims of critical theory are as practical as problem-solving theory even though "it approaches practice from a perspective which transcends that of the existing order... Critical theory allows for a normative choice in favour of a social and political order different from the prevailing order..." (Cox, 1981, p. 130). It is often the normative aspects of social research that point to ways in which positive change can occur. While mainstream development research has often maintained a normative stance by claiming to be practice-oriented, this cannot be taken for granted since it is evident that years of "practice" and interventions have not necessarily yielded immense benefits for the purported beneficiaries of that endeavour (Andrews & Bawa, 2014; Collier, 2007; Escobar, 2012).

Inasmuch as theory is relevant, one needs to examine its purpose. Theory for the sake of theory may be useful in some circles but in the context within which we conduct our research, we have noticed the utility in being accountable to research subjects in ways that help in possibly transforming their lives for the better. The argument here is that praxis-oriented research enhances the potential of marginalized groups to become empowered. Empowerment here implies acquiring the necessary skills to influence decision-making, but it underscores power and agency as "it also facilitates individuals/community to see that they are capable of constructing and using their own knowledge" (Cordeiro, Soares, & Rittenmeyer, 2017, p. 400). In essence, social and development research should be conscious of and proactive about its contribution to this kind of positive social change. While a number of activist-scholars already pursue the change agenda, many social researchers are unable to make this endeavour a key aspect of their work for a number of reasons--hence the frustration in the statement "people come and go but we don't see anything" noted in the title of this contribution.

In the first place, our respective positionalities as male and female "diaspora researchers" going back to collect data on a topic of interest to us partly helps us to understand the statement captured in the title of the paper. …

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