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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 35-36 August 26 & September 2, 2023

An Anatomy of Research | Arup Maharatna

Friday 25 August 2023, by Arup Maharatna


The term, research, has of late come in tremendous vogue globally. Even a ninth standard school-goer nowadays refers pretty confidently to research as a distinct activity or pursuit. Indeed, it would hardly be possible to find a single literate person who has never used this term in day-to-day conversations and even casual gossips. A staunch admirer of the present times would surely view this as a clear testimony in support of the populist branding of the current age as ‘knowledge society’. Likewise, while the whole world used to know the word, university, in its one single name and genre, there has now emerged its one subspecies, namely, ‘research university’, as if research is not necessarily a characteristic component of a university, which is perennially considered as the academic pivot! This leaves us with confusion if not chaos. The chief purpose of this essay is to identify and remove such clouds that have of late engulfed and mystified the notion of the term ‘research’.

Research in a very general sense of a process or endeavour of making or finding something new or different or unknown can be or indeed is undertaken at various levels and places corresponding to diverse kinds of needs, purposes and motivations. When some entrepreneur seeks to launch a manufacturing project of a new/different product for profit in the market, she generally needs to gauge whether it would be demanded and bought in reasonable quantity by targeted consumers. Therefore, at the outset she calls for a survey – a well-known statistical tool for research even in scientific studies - of the needs and tastes amongst prospective consumers for this new product. Such commercially motivated survey is popularly branded as ‘market research’. The people involved in this job are not called academics or scholars because the purpose of their research is not generation or cultivation of ‘knowledge’ which by definition is a public good. The scope of this kind of narrow, personal, or commercial research is generically comparable to the kind of ‘research’, ingenuity of intelligence, related resources harnessed typically by a private detective on a commissioned mission of finding the killer in an episode of murder. Again, an industrialist engages skilled and qualified professionals to innovate – not to invent or discover - a newer technique and technology of producing a product with the sole aim of cutting down per unit production cost, so that profit margins can be augmented. Indeed, most of the dynamic and large industries or corporate houses create a separate department in which duly specialised personnel are employed to innovate – by utilizing existing or invented basic knowledge - either newer/differentiated product or cost-cutting newer methods and technique of production. Although this department is popularly known as ‘research and development’ (R&D) wing of the industry, it is never branded as an academic activity/unit, since its central concern is not with the creation or modification of new knowledge but only with the means and ways by which cost of production can be reduced or a new/differentiated product can be created with an unambiguous aim of augmenting private profit of the firm. Likewise, many big pharmaceutical firms invest a huge sum annually on R&D for sponsoring research by highly qualified persons, but only to evolve a new medicine which it will sell for making profit. Even though this sort of commercially motivated research often uses or utilizes existing academic knowledge, they generally at most end up with some ‘innovations’ which have little to do with cultivation of original thoughts or new academic knowledge. This is how most of the research in R&D wing in the corporate world belongs to currently coined term ‘innovative research’ and does not ideally qualify for what is meant by ‘academic research’ which is characteristically undertaken in educational institutions with a view to advancing or enriching an academic discipline and basic knowledge. While this subtle – but crucial - distinction is more clearly discernible or visible in case of researches in diverse areas of science and technology, this could well serve as a criterion by which one can identify and classify the levels, standards, or statures of various kinds of researches in social sciences and humanities too.

In case of research in science and technology, an invention is required to follow from the researcher’s original thinking into revising or modifying or adding to the existing/underlying theory or disciplinary knowledge, while application of an already invented knowledge or theory or ideas into producing something directly useful is normally known as innovation. Clearly the former calls for superior levels of intellectual, analytical and creative resources to those required in the case of the latter. But the latter kind of research, namely, innovation is in ever growing demand from the market and manufacturing businesses along with economic growth and rising per capita incomes. This clearly leaves incentives with the capitalist to invade into academic arena for diverting superior intellectual and creative resources/minds hosted characteristically by universities and colleges towards more of innovations and useful knowledge for profit and immediate consumption rather than inspired, original, objective, abstract research. But this capitalist propensity has for long been kept at bay by democratic power politics, enlightened social ethos, and dominant influence of liberal ideology up and till the 1940s, the beginning of Cold War. After that, capitalist market, economic growth and technological progress, information began to be increasingly made central in the imagination of the emerging world through stark benefaction and empowerment of the mainstream economics profession. [1] Mainstream economics and economics profession was soon assigned the leadership role in shaping the dominant pattern of thinking and intellectual climate ever ready to appreciate the centrality of trade, industry, technology, economic incentives and disincentives. Through relentless efforts and coordinated initiatives of those who held power and wealth along with sustained intellectual and conscious ideational ‘innovations’ and changes from the influential section of academia who were ready to perform this job this against appropriate rewards and awards, an industrialist became nearly at par if not more – in terms of societal esteem and reverence – with a Nobel prize winner; an executive of a big business house came to be considered more eligible than a creditable scholarly academician for the position of vice-chancellor of even a renowned historic university or academic institution. And sooner or later the magic of mainstream media and communications made one’s private possession of material wealth/power almost the gold standard for measuring and judging one’s intellectual prowess, administrative skill, even the societal esteem.

Previously the vocabulary of the word, research, used to be far restricted and tight. Research used to be known mostly in its academic sense of the term which essentially consists of an intellectual/academic activity, exercise and pursuit motivated squarely by an overriding aim of expanding or revising or refining the existing stock of ‘knowledge’ in any branch of disciplined or systematic or scientific study. In a more refined parlance research has constantly been considered as an intellectual enterprise of seeking the ‘truth’ or knowing the unknown in any sphere on earth. In this way research has traditionally been thought to be central to the cultivation of ‘knowledge’ which, however, is not very simple to define or measure. A great bulk of one of the oldest academic disciplines, namely, philosophy comprises of this complex intellectual task and exercise under its specialized branch called epistemology. In a comparatively mundane phraseology, knowledge is often gauged by a more easily comprehensible notion called ‘learning’ in a specified field of study. This entire immeasurable quantum of disciplined learning or knowledge in various subjects is perennially considered to be a social product accessible or shareable freely among those who have interest in it. Accordingly, the advancement of learning has historically been considered to be the overriding goal and purpose of academic research.

It is immensely obvious that advancement of learning or academic knowledge through academic research is something of which importance and usefulness for humanity or entire human civilization cannot be overemphasized. The whole history of human civilization spells out a preponderant sense of steady civilisational progression – materially, scientifically, technologically, socially, culturally, politically and spiritually. And it is no less readily obvious that in this entire progression of humanity throughout history the role of academic research is key and foundational. The necessity of human urge for delving deep into an academic subject and pursuit – not exactly for immediate personal gain and benefit or needs – is universal and indeed central to civilizational progression and comprehensive flourishing. Thus, the sense and idea of knowledge as a public or common or universa1 good is indisputably inherent in academic research. As its seeming corollary, it is no less true that academic research is ideally inspired by researcher’s academic urge for making a distinct contribution to the advancement of knowledge and/or by a curiosity for answers to hitherto unknown questions, rather than demands and dictates of the market and popularity or popular needs. This precious academic pursuit and inspiration is sometimes twistingly expressed as knowledge for knowledge’s sake – a commonly deployed slogan used in a sarcastic tone to value only those research projects which would directly and immediately come to society’s material benefits or economic growth. But this narrow view of academic research does often have much potential for causing distraction or discouragement of an innately creative and capable mind from pursuing a specific academic issue or question of its own volition which may seem apparently abstract and inapplicable for immediate material benefits. It is important to recognise that there is a great (potential) danger for humanity in the propagation of this arguably unsophisticated viewpoint that any academic research should inevitably be on those issues or questions which can directly or immediately add to what is sometimes loosely called ‘useful knowledge’. An imposition of such ideational constraints on the creativity of the researcher can often drain away her intellectual potential by choking off imagination, volition, passion and innate curiosity/inventiveness – major intellectual ingredients required for the fullest development of a creation. Indeed, no new knowledge produced by genuinely academic research should ideally be called ‘useless’ just as, metaphorically speaking, a goal-less drawn football match cannot judiciously be judged as wasted.

While the term, knowledge, and its commonly perceived notion has remained somewhat invariant historically over centuries, it was only in the post-war decades that the newly dominant economics profession, which began running increasingly after analytical elegance and logical precision, dared to posit ‘knowledge’ essentially as a set of information. This has happened almost readily to appeal to the imagination of burgeoning media and communications sectors as well as powerful international community/order being rapidly tilted towards pro-capitalistic mould in a protracted wake of cold war. While knowledge can be abstract often beyond an easy comprehension of a layman, an ‘information’ cannot but be simple and absorbable (and sometimes even consumable) to common people. This led to a spree of diluting and codifying knowledge in all branches to express it in the shape of a set of information. New format of curriculum soon sprung up in which educational content is either curtailed by purging what sounds useless in a newly touted ‘knowledge society’ or streamlined by presenting it in a stepwise sequence and format of a ledger. School texts accordingly began to be re-written and simplified by utilizing boxes, bullets, bolds, visuals printed on the pages of the book, so that previously written running but elegant and literary textbooks of history, geography, social sciences are now transformed into numerically or legends infested and clerically sequenced bundle of statements and facts or information. While traditionally it was left to the learners’ imagination to catch the most significant point or fact or character in an entire textual narrative and prose, this is now simplified by the newer generation author of the textbook herself through putting it in a separate box or some other sort of codification, killing the latent scope for imagination, analytical/logical exercises to play in the children’s minds. This process of simplification and codification of knowledge and learning has, of course, been greatly facilitated at all levels of education by market-oriented series of innovations in word-processing software increasingly inspired and guided by digits and algorithms. Indeed, it has now been a common practice for software engineers, just like medical representatives, to come and tell the school or college teachers how best or effectively the latter can teach a course in a class with the help of newly innovated software meant for mostly digital and visual presentations. In a sense software and various electronic gadgets engineers have become the effective or real educators of educationists/educators/teachers of schools and colleges. In this way the longstanding distinction between the notions of knowledge and information became increasingly blurred. And this is how knowledge eventually took the overwhelming form of mere ‘know-how’ and an ‘age of information’ deserved to be elevated to ‘knowledge society’. This has had far-reaching ramifications for the notion and purpose of education, university, research and indeed entire academe.

In wake of all this above a scholar or scientist who was traditionally considered to be distinguished in the society has become increasingly unexceptional and a commoner especially if she could not amass huge wealth either by selling patents or by commissioning high-rewards innovative research from market/industry. This has, of course, clear consonance both with the currently cherished goal of achieving near universal university education and with a rapidly rising proportion of population having higher education degrees across the world. In the parlance of democracy equality of right to vote for political parties is now getting steadily extended into citizens’ equality of right to a university degree. This trend is widely being hailed on two commonly revered counts. On the one hand, this reflects a growing stronghold of the ideal idea of ‘equality’ and democracy as a political system. On the other hand, this also helps greatly to strengthen the macroeconomic health of a country by boosting up private investment in building educational enterprises and its capitalistic growth-augmenting dynamics. But potential qualitative ramifications in educational and intellectual spheres of rising equality of right to, say, doctoral research degree are certainly wary, uncertain or perhaps even distortionary.

Indeed, it is extremely important never to lose sight of the fact that the mainspring of academic research in any discipline ideally originates – of course given an intelligent or intellectually capable mind - in an innate intellectual urge and motivation on the part of the researcher to know beyond what is already known, discovered, analysed or interpreted in her chosen area of study. The possession of this inner urge is an important requirement in academic research because without this a researcher can hardly sustain the pains, patience and uncertainty involved in conducting academic research with an inherent aim of contributing to the frontier of knowledge and thereby deserving an invaluable feeling of an esteem associated with her intellectual achievement. Note that this intrinsic academic urge and a bend of mind is distinct from the general desire of the researcher for personal career flourishing and professional and material growth. Given all other things held constant, more intense is the urge and motivation of the researcher for academic contribution, greater would be the endurance of intellectual challenges, pangs and pains, and hence greater would be the quality and standard of the research work. While all this above refers to independent academic research by an academician or academic researcher, much of this also holds true for doctoral research for the award of a degree under formal supervision by her assigned teacher. A supervisor is supposed to give appropriate tips, guidance, and directions to her doctoral student whenever they are required, but the basic research work is supposed to be done by the doctoral student herself.

Thanks both to the currently dominant notion of knowledge as a set of information and to the prevalent view of research mostly as innovation (vis-à-vis invention or new creation of knowledge), doing research has been made intellectually less challenging, exacting, or demanding. No wonder this consciously caused dilutionary refashioning of the classical/traditional notions of research and knowledge paves the way for a fantastic expansion of the number of registered researchers in universities, who are not academically motivated and whose overriding purpose is to secure a doctoral degree/credential for upward career mobility rather than anything else (e.g. innate joy or esteem as a contributor to the existing stock of academic knowledge). These dilutionary ideational renovating of entire academia, spearheaded mostly by the mainstream (neoliberal) economics profession, is perfectly matched by the characteristic wish – largely unfulfilled until recent past - of corporate/private capital for tapping the higher educational market for profit unleashed by the hordes of young unacademically motivated candidates of lesser/mediocre calibre eager just to obtain doctoral degrees for their own private pecuniary benefits or mobility. Ironically, this expansion of educational enrolment through academic dilution in higher education is immensely hailed by a large chunk of population as a victory or progress of democratic ethos in the polity and is thus capitalized and campaigned by those who come to power through people’s electoral votes.

However, it would possibly be mischievous to think that this dilutionary economistic reimaging of academia would not have any dilutionary ‘demonstration’ - if not demoralising - effects on those who – irrespective of class, caste and race - possess superior intellectual minds and academic capabilities. Who can deny the natural law that all pupils from different households do not have the same mental and intellectual abilities even if all other things are held constant? This is just like the inevitable variation in mental abilities of two kids of a single parent. Who can deny that the same standard of curriculum imparted to different pupils would result in divergent test scores even if relevant all other things are held constant and if there is no multiple-choice objective-type question? [In case of multiple-choice objective-type question there is a theoretical possibility of a fluke and hence of a same score by all, given the concept of random probability.] As students of lesser or average mental/intellectual ability/endowment constitute the majority, it is very likely that the standard of curriculum at college/university levels has to be relatively lower if a constraint of a large (minimum) number of enrolled students exists – implicitly or explicitly - either for the sake of economic viability of a private university (enterprise) or for the stability/popularity of ruling government (political party) which funds the public university. It is no less likely that a lower standard of curriculum required by the above logic would have adverse effects or hindrances on the university’s universal educational mission of cultivation of minds with superior intellectual abilities and creativity, apart from the possibility of latter being forced by the lower standard of curriculum to adapt themselves downward and coming closer the level of their common peers. On the other hand, if standard of curriculum is kept reasonably high towards fulfilling the mission of cultivating and feeding best academic minds, there is a chance that students of lower abilities in face of competition would work very hard and better themselves significantly though not exactly to the level of their superior counterparts. In any case, it is almost certain that the mission of universalisation of university/higher education cannot but have significantly adverse effects on the mission of cultivation and generation of cohorts with innately able and intellectually superior minds who would be truly capable and volitionally motivated to undertake basic/fundamental/original research projects. In the face of these two conflicting missions of university/higher education – expansion of enrolment and cultivation and nurturing of best academic/creative minds and original research – the entire world seems to have shown a greater sympathy with the former over several preceding decades, thereby gradually imperilling a steady or sufficient flow of superior minds, merit and abilities of cohort who can do original/basic academic research which contributes intellectually/academically more than mere innovations, re-make or fusions in various academic fields.

Indeed, there is an emerging body of evidence or symptoms already of a growing (relative) dearth of able researchers who are genuinely motivated to make original academic contribution to the stock of basic or original knowledge in most of the major disciplines – a job which calls for much greater patience, perseverance, depth of scholarship and cognitive understanding and critical/analytical thinking abilities. This, in turn, has contributed to a relative sluggishness in the pace of growth of basic/original (academic) knowledge relative to the growth of innovations, re-making, re-creating or re-cycling. Consequently, a relatively sloth progress of disciplinary basic knowledge has been giving rise to an inherent imbalance in the composition of different depths/genres of research. There is now excessive growth of ‘innovative research’ in comparison with the pace of growth of fundamental or original research. But this sort of imbalance is hardly viable for too long, since the former is crucially dependent on the latter. The pace of innovations (e.g. patents) made out of a single fundamental invention or discovery is bound to run out of steam sooner or later. A steady pace of new basic inventions or additions to fundamental knowledge is required to sustain a steady flow of innovations. Evidence is piling up to suggest that current cohorts of researchers engaged merely in innovations are already facing substantial difficulty in finding ‘ideas’ for its further growth, as the advancement of basic/original research has already been sluggish in the past because of long-shrinking funding and expenditure (which generally comes from state) on it as well as growing (relative) scarcity of capable researchers who are motivated or willing to undertake original/basic research. [2] Indeed, there have already been evidence of declining ‘productivity of research’ (i.e. number of research outcomes/patents per unit of research inputs e.g. number of researchers, amount of funds) particularly in the sphere of science and technology over a few preceding decades. [3]

The ideational shift towards touting even academic research as merely a set of information, coupled with rapid expansion of enrolment and privatisation in higher education (so-called ‘academic capitalism’), has had no less deep negative effects, especially on the standard and rigour of academic research as well as on the availability of academically-motivated able researchers who have inner urge to do basic/original research in social sciences and humanities. In a sense a large chunk of what is officially being rolled out on record as academic research from universities is truly little more than what we earlier called ‘market research’ generally undertaken by business houses before launching a new product. Most of the contemporary research particularly in social science disciplines fail to reflect the researchers’ basic understanding about the true notion of an academic research which is supposed to contribute – either by adding or revising or refining - to the existing stock of academic or original knowledge – not just a glossy presentation of a bundle of stylized information – in a specified academic field. Most of the current researchers who have earned doctoral degree or an academic job/post by showing up their (even published) research work, seem to be utterly fumbling if not failing in face of the question from a genuine astute academician: What exactly is your academic/intellectual/scholarly contribution to the original knowledge? This academic weakening and intellectual wilting seem to be globally pervasive and have occurred across the board in the entire higher education world including the best-known, so-called world-class, top-ranking academic organisations and universities. This global intellectual retrogression has its origin – arguably and evidently - in the ideational, ideological, perceptual ‘rampages’ perpetrated by the neoliberal reign in higher education spanning over the preceding decades since WWII, especially with regard to the long-lasting notions of research, academy, knowledge, higher education, university and other related aspects.

Thanks to the easy availability of various word-and-data processing software and relevant information through rapidly pervasive internet, performing an academic research project has become too mechanical and managerial and hence rather ‘easy’ job as if it is no longer an intellectual and scholarly enterprise and exercise at all! In some of the social science disciplines a research work simply consists of knowing how to run an appropriate statistical software on a set of data set - either downloadable large-scale or micro/primary level - and interpreting whatever results emerge from the computer, apart, of course, from adding a few routinised chapters on ‘literature review’ – just cursorily referring to hundreds of publications available in internet and google – and wrap it up with a nice print-out and glossy cover and jacket. It has come to such a pass now that most of the faculty members including pretty senior professors in social sciences are showing – very often boastfully – in respective websites or annual academic report about 1,000-1,500-words-long opinion pieces written by them and published in daily newspapers/magazines as the evidence of their academic research output/work/publication. What clearly seems from the forgoing is that it is now highly imperative that earlier or traditional notions of knowledge, academic research, purpose of university, clear distinction between innovations and basic/original research are decisively instated to salvage the standard and quality of university/higher education from its current state of protracted decay under the reign of neoliberal educational ideas.

(Author: Arup Maharatna, Rajiv Gandhi Chair Professor, Central University of Allahabad | Email: arupmaha[at]

[1For a scholarly exposition of this process see for example, Arup Maharatna (2023), Higher Education and Intellectual Retrogression: The Neoliberal Reign, London: Routledge, especially chapters 2 and 3.

[2For global evidence on declining academic standard, productivity and quality of research in overall academe in particular and in higher education in general over last several decades, see, for example, Ibid., especially chapter 5.

[3See Ibid, chapter 5.

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