Where our thinking comes from

Recently I have been thinking a lot about theory, and how people make sense of their lives. In my undergraduate psychology days, I was taught the scientific method of theory. Theory was the foundation of everything we did – we used theory to guide the research we would do, and we did research to test theories. Data could either support or contradict a theory. In the case of a contradiction, we knew we had to revise either the theory or our research methods. Being trained in a very positivist paradigm, we were told that what we did was science, and you could not trust anything else. To know, to find rules that we could use to predict the future, was the whole purpose of research.

And so starting a PhD in education was confusing, particular with my main supervisor coming from a very philosophical background in terms of what research is, what research does. It took months until I truly understood what ‘positivism’ meant, that my training represented only one way of doing research, that the philosophies behind this training were exactly that – philosophical approaches, alternatives, a particular way of knowing. My understanding of the scientific method was that it was the only way of knowing.

I have begun reading some of Walter Mignolo’s work in the last couple of weeks. He writes about modernity and coloniality, and how they inform each other. What has been fascinating to understand is what he calls the geo- and body politics of knowledge. Understanding how epistemologies (or ways of knowing) are connected to geographical locations; how colonisers took with them these ways of knowing as they moved across the world; and how these ways of knowing, particularly Western science (or the concept of Reason that came from the European Enlightenment), have played fundamental roles in the justification of Europe colonising the rest of the world.

Writing about my undergraduate training brings Mignolo’s work to life for me. He speaks of the hubris of the zero-point epistemology – a supposed detached and neutral point of observation. A way of knowing about the world that conceals its geographical orientations. The same way that I was taught to know about the world, through the scientific method, claimed to be detached and neutral. There was no speak of origin. There was no concept of politics. Science saw itself as non-racialised. Science claimed to just be, to just know.

Understanding that the scientific method is just one way for knowing about the world is incredibly liberating. Mignolo calls this delinking – choosing to no longer participate in the colonial mentality, which is ineradicably linked to racism. I read a paper just this morning that talked about the possibilities of qualitative inquiry (as opposed to the scientific method). Qualitative inquiry allows us to think the unthinkable, but perhaps more importantly, engaging in the philosophy of research encourages us to have an ethical relationship with thought. Where do our thoughts come from? What implications may that thinking having? What can thinking do?

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