Friday, June 02, 2006

Activism and Academic Research

I had a nice lunch conversation with Timur Kuran a few days ago in Houston. One point that he made, which continued to bother me days later, was that I may be making a mistake by linking my academic research (in the economic analysis of Islamic law) too closely to an activist agenda (a reform mentality inspired by the century-old work of Imam Muhammad `Abduh and his students). My academic mindset forces me to acknowledge that -- ideally -- academic research should be done objectively, independent of one's political or other inclinations. However, my training as a social scientist also tells me that there is no such thing as objective social science, and one is most objective when one declares one's biases up front and writes in the most transparent manner possible.

Honesty and integrity dictate trying to approach objectivity, i.e. reporting analyses that contradict or detract from one's preferred conclusions. However, when writing on a topic with such subjective roots as religion, economics and social order, it is impossible to claim success in approaching objectivity. This makes it difficult to claim that one's analysis holds a higher intellectual ground relative to purely ideologically-driven treatise (e.g. by Islamic economists or others) that assume the conclusion and provide half-baked arguments to support it, relying on the sympathies of their readership who agree with the conclusions regardless of the analysis.

So, what is the solution? To avoid writing on those topics altogether and leave the domain to pure ideologues, to bury one's bias in obscure academic jargon and haughty intellectualism, or to continue doing one's best in a transparent but intellectually honest manner hoping that future readership can distinguish between the different genres of writing? The rhetorical question is framed to favor the third option, but it is far from obvious that this is indeed the best course of action.


Blogger ney_reed said...

everybody has their own biases. i have read quite a lot of timur kuran's works and he too has his biases and sometimes idiosyncracies.

therefore what is objective? what is subjective? the conventional way to define objective is to do something without bias. and the contrary being true for the definiton of subjective.

its a naive standard that is often set but naturally hardly followed.

what being objective truely implies(at least in my opinion) is to do something, with or without bias, but with consistency. an issue has different angles to view it, and thats where one's bias/es will influence which angle he/she takes. this i dont believe is subjectiveness. instead when one tackles the issue but compromises on consistency either by being less than consistent or inconsistent, then he/she is not being objective since he is allowing his bias to distort the consistency of the matter.

in short you can remain objective as long as you use your biases to shape/influence your viewpoint but not distort the matter.

8:10 PM  

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