A recent lecture by Professor Laksiri Fernando
It is with immense pleasure that I participate at the 9th Research Symposium of the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) at the University of Kelaniya, as the Chief Guest and deliver this Keynote Address. I consider this as a great opportunity to express some views on the issues of research that I consider important.
I wish to sincerely thank Professor Nimal Dangalle, Dean of the FGS, for giving me this wonderful opportunity. His commitment to research is demonstrated by his publications and the organisation of this research conference. The agenda of this Conference is impressive with over 175 Abstracts.
Changing World Reality
The theme that I have selected for this keynote address is "Rethinking Research in the Changing world reality." There is a pressing need to rethink research locally and perhaps internationally because we are in a period of great transition. This transition can be located both spatially and time wise. In terms of space, there is a clear shift of both economic and political power from the West to the East or from the North to the South. The current financial turmoil arising from the Western capitalist economic practices is only one indication. However, it might not be correct in the long run to perceive this shift as ‘one centre of power replacing the other.’ It should be perceived more as a diffusion of power in the world arena where the so far disadvantaged countries and groups of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America asserting themselves for their rightful place.
The time dimension of this transition is also important clearly linked to the spatial dimension. I am not a disciple of ‘post-modernism’ as such. But the emergence of post-modernist thinking indicates that something has gone wrong in modernism, or there is an impending change in the period what we call the modern period. The modern period was characterised by the Western domination, capitalism, colonialism and the subjugation of other civilisations and cultures. With the emergence of the other parts of the world, Samuel P. Huntington (1996) in fact was correct in characterising the future as a "Clash of Civilisations." But to me it is not the clash that is important but the resurgence of other civilisations, broadly speaking in the Sino, the Indo and the (Persian) Gulf regions.
What are the implications of this transition to research? There are few that I can highlight within this short period of time. There are many more perhaps we can discuss and debate in the future.
The first implication is that there is a new reality to be researched. The new reality also gives a new agenda for the purpose. Even if we are not in a position to conduct research on international issues, it is worth attempting to research on regional and comparative issues. Comparative research is important. The SAARC could be a major focus. An important implication of the new reality is that it affects Sri Lanka directly and also positively. Although a small country, Sri Lanka is at the centre of this transition. There is a need to relocate Sri Lanka’s future in this evolving reality and act accordingly. Recent changes in foreign relations and economic policy are in the right direction in my opinion.
The twenty first century is named as the Asian century. It is also termed as the beginning of a new era or millennium. If these assertions are correct, the situation might be compared to the beginning of the modern era in the West. What it could imply is the requirement of resurgence or renaissance in culture, art, science, technology and research. There is a pressing rationale for this resurgence or reawakening because during the modern era, particularly due to colonialism and neo-colonialism, many of our traditional bases of knowledge were largely suppressed or neglected.
There is a need to get back to these knowledge bases as part of this resurgence like what happened in the West, drawing inspirations from the ancient period (Greek and Roman) in their modern resurgence. This would not mean that we reject what has come from the West or what has emerged during the modern era. It means we resurrect our traditional knowledge bases and synthesise or blend them with modern knowledge and technology in order that we produce what is more relevant to our societies. In this context, drawing inspirations from Veda, the philosophy of Buddhism and literary traditions of Silappadikaram or Manimekalai are some examples that I can give. Coming from a non-Buddhist background, I have recently found the Buddhist philosophy to be extremely inspiring in research and all academic activities.
It is with a spirit of resurgence that we need to carry out our research. Otherwise it would be an isolated, and even a boring task. Our universities can be the centres of this resurrection. There should be an awakening in all areas of knowledge right across the existing disciplines and fields of study with a purpose. The purpose of research is important. Research with no purpose is meaningless. The purpose of research is something debated throughout centuries and across regions and countries. Research cannot merely be for research. It should serve a meaningful purpose. This does not mean that research should serve a narrow political purpose. But research can serve a purpose of a nation in its broadest meaning of the term.
Fundamental and Operational Research
There is certain type of academic research in all fields of study which we call fundamental research. Another name for this research might be theoretical research. They may or may not be directly relevant to day to day affairs of a country or society. Nevertheless they are important in resolving or clarifying some fundamental issues in a particular field of study, eventually enriching more practical or operational research. There is no need to say that all research should be guided by some fundamental or theoretical premises. This is where the issues of methodology arise in addition to purpose.
It is difficult to say in what proportion the fundamental and operational research could be combined. Research in certain fields might appear hundred percent fundamental or vice versa. But as a broad principle it is possible to say that operational research should be more in quantity than fundamental research. It is also natural. Fundamental research is hard or difficult to come by. In a given situation, fundamental research might not exceed twenty percent of all research, or even lower. This might not mean that all other research is clearly operational.
There may be grey or unclear areas; most of research falling nowhere. This is undoubtedly a bad situation. This is why the purpose or the relevance of research should be raised.
Here it might be important to get some inspirations from the Buddha. According to him, there should be a clear purpose in life, particularly in intellectual investigation. As Venerable Walpola Rahula (1978: 12) explained,
The Buddha was not interested in discussing unnecessary metaphysical questions which are purely speculative and which create imaginary problems. He considered them as ‘wilderness of opinion.’
This means purposeful research cannot be done raising questions like, for example, what raised by Malunkyaputta. For lack of time, I am not elaborating on the story of Malunkyaputta and I am sure that you are familiar with the story.
Why do we do research? Of course there are some pragmatic reasons. Those cannot be denied. There is nothing wrong with them as far as those do not interfere with the main objects of research. These pragmatic reasons can be promotion, money or prestige. Those are more of motives than purposes of research. When it comes to purpose, it should be grounded on objective conditions than subjective ones.
‘Intellectual curiosity’ might not be the proper axiom for research. It is there and it might not be avoided. But the purpose of research should be more objective rather than satisfying an intellectual curiosity. The tradition of ‘intellectual curiosity’ in research is grounded mainly in ‘self-cantered traditions’ of academic life in developed or Western countries.
While the contribution of the ‘self-cantered tradition’ cannot totally be denied in research, that tradition or approach does not appear to be suitable to a country like Sri Lanka where ‘community feeling’ or ‘responsibility’ is important and still prevalent. The emphasis on the connection, for example, between Research and Development (R&D) is an innovation of the East when the East Asian and South East Asian countries started to develop. That was not there in the developed countries when they started to develop or even today. Therefore, when ‘the purpose’ of research is raised and when the connection between ‘research and development’ is emphasised it may go uneasy with the so far unquestioned Western traditions.
If we need resurgence in research, there is a connected need to focus more and more on research methodology. Research methodology is the main focus of the NCAS, the institution that I represent. Resurgence in research should be on two directions, focusing both on quantity and quality. Our increased understanding of ‘purpose of research’ might resolve the issues of quantity but not necessarily the quality. It is on the methodology of research that the quality of research would largely depend. For a particular research, developing a methodology is like creating a suitable raft to cross the river. The purpose is not to carry it on our shoulders. This is where the mistake lies. I am here referring to the famous parable by the Buddha. There are so many dogmatic schools of thought on research methodology, particularly in Social Sciences and Humanities that we need to be circumspect. They are like different raft theories.
There is every reason to be critical of the existing paradigms of research whether those are from the West or the East. Kalama Sutta can be our guide. There is a terrible failure in modernist paradigms, as far as I know, in respect of understanding nationalism, conflict resolution, human rights or constitutionalism. This might be perhaps because rationalism as the basis of modernism is mainly guided by ‘intellectual curiosity’ rather than ‘social necessity.’
This is not the occasion to discuss research methodology in detail. It is highly a specialised subject and not suitable for a key note address. But in following what I said before, about the need to resurrect our traditional knowledge bases for research, I would like to share some thoughts on the value of Buddhism as guide to research methodology.
The concept of Vichikichcha (doubt) perhaps is the correct entry point for research. It is different to mere intellectual curiosity. It is more objective than subjective. It is more profound and arises because we have strong feeling that the reality is obliterated for some reason. It is obliterated by Avidya (ignorance) and Mithiya Ditti (false views, concepts and theories). Therefore the purpose of research should be to get rid of Avidya and go for Vidya and also to dispel false views, concepts and theories. As Ven Rahula said (1978:3):
It is an undeniable fact that as long as there is doubt [Vichikichcha], perplexity, wavering, no progress is possible. It is also equally undeniable that there must be doubt as long as one does not understand or see clearly. But in order to progress further it is absolutely necessary to get rid of doubt. To get rid of doubt one has to see clearly.
"To see clearly" on a ‘particular matter, an issue or a problem’ is what we intend from research. It appears to me that there is nothing like the Four Noble Truths that could give us a proper conceptual framework for research methodology. They are:
(1) Dukkha, the existence of problems and issues.
(2) Samudaya, the reasons or causes of the problems.
(3) Nirodha, the possibility to uncover and resolve problems.
(4) Magga, the particular method that needs to be employed in understanding and resolving problems.
Today’s research methods are based on the possibility of understanding phenomena or relationships in the most objective and scientific manner. In the Four Noble Truths this is called Nirodha and the concept has a very clear positivist character to it. Dukkha of course is the existence of problems, issues, dilemmas and enigmas in nature, society and life and the clear identification and definition of these problems are necessary. Samudaya are the causes and reasons for the existence of problems and they need the determination of hypothesis or tentative theory to proceed with the intended research investigation.
Magga undoubtedly is the whole process of scientific investigation and particularly the collection and analysis of data in order that scientific conclusions are made. This is also the process of drawing conclusions and the application of them into the original hypothesis or theoretical premises with the possibility of recommending feasible policy.
I hope I have reasonably dealt with my topic. Thank you.
Huntington, Samuel P. 1996. The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Rahula, Ven. Walpola. 1978. What the Buddha taught. London: Gordon Fraser.
? Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, University of Colombo, and Director, National Centre for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences (NCAS). The Symposium was held on 18th December 2008.