Reasoning and research

Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed

Reasoning and research

by, Prof. Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed

Reasoning can be described as the ability to think logically and sensibly and thus reach valid conclusions. However, in everyday life human communication is not necessarily based on sound reasoning. People can be irrational, biased and beclouded in their thinking because of ideological and religious convictions. Religious beliefs and national narratives are areas in which dissenting views are seldom welcomed. Often, they arouse angry reactions, some of which are hysterical outbursts.

When we say that reasoning is the ability to think logically, what we mean is that reasoning is conducted in a systematic manner in accordance with principles and rules of validity and valid inference. An argument is a reasoning advanced in support of an assertion about a truth-claim. It can be described as a proposition. A proposition is a judgment or opinion. A proposition can also be set forth as a hypothesis which can be tested according to accepted rules and procedures.

People who make truth-claims based on the authority of religion or religious texts do not consider objective, verifiable material evidence as imperative to prove their point. They rely on the in-errancy of revealed truth and on that basis argue their case for and against a proposition. Thus, for example, discussions and debates during the medieval period among both Christians and Muslims were primarily about doctrines and dogmas related to faith and belief. In such debates the participants displayed their skills and mastery in invoking sacred or religious authority; such debates rejected material facts as permissible evidence to establish the truth claim they made. Such reasoning and its rules of evidence are known as scholasticism.


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Scholasticism has largely been supplanted by pure reason and fact-based evidence as the mode of reasoning in the West. Under the cumulative impact of the renaissance, the scientific and industrial revolutions and the enlightenment, philosophy was separated from theology. Henceforth pure logical reasoning or the analysis of phenomena based on verifiable evidence comprising material facts became the hallmark of the modern mode of reasoning. The scientific method based on hypothesis-testing-theorizing and identifying scientific laws is the process through which natural science corrects its truth-claims. The general arrangement which has been achieved it to let religion concern itself with spiritual matters which are based on faith while social and material matters should be studied on the basis of logical reasoning and material evidence to advance the frontiers of knowledge about these two spheres of life.

If we now turn to social science, we need to know that social science truth-claims are rarely of the same stature as truth-claims possible in natural sciences where phenomena can be studied under controlled conditions as in a laboratory. Social science theory is different because it deals with human society. Human society cannot be studied as a relationship between inanimate objects without a will of their own and therefore incapable of agency, whose behaviour can be studied merely as action-reaction to stimuli or other factors.

The hypotheses of social science theories under laboratory conditions are virtually impossible. Social science theory, however, should be falsifiable just as theories of natural science are. Therefore, the methods used to test hypotheses must be replicable so that others can also use them and reach similar plausible conclusions. Social science theories do have an ambition to make predictions. However, predictions of social science theories are not of the same exactitude as those of natural sciences. They are usually generalizations. Quantitative methods and techniques are popular with social science seeking to make predictions. Voting behaviour is one theme on which predictions are made about outcome of elections. Even the most sophisticated methods employed to predict election results have sometimes proved wrong.

Metatheories such as Marxism and Systems theories have been critiqued for making vague and inaccurate predictions. Most social science theories are devised to integrate data into a scheme or framework of analysis to explain phenomena in a systematic manner. They at best explain phenomena in accordance with the inter-subjective criteria adhered to by their practitioners. For example, if one assumes that the individual is the core unit of analysis then an individualistic methodology to explain social phenomena will be devised and vice versa if one assumed that classes are the core unit of analysis then a collectivist methodology would be adopted to explain phenomena. Thus, in social science the explanation is accepted as plausible if it is consistent with the assumptions on which the theory is premised. Pluralism is therefore the rule rather than the exception in social science in sharp contrast to the natural sciences, where the methodology and the concomitant practices for testing hypotheses and theories are clearly described and defined. One can talk stringently of paradigms or normal science with established procedures of testing and verification only in natural sciences, whereas in the social sciences one can talk of a paradigm only in a loose manner of a dominant school rather than a unanimous way of doing research.

Having said this, we now turn to reasoning in academic writing and research in social science including political science. The simplest level of an academic paper is a descriptive study based on a core concept and its study. In political theory one may simply want to look at how a writer or several writers discuss democracy, or government or parliament and so on, showing the logical consistency or contradictions in their thinking. For example, one may examine the functioning of a political system at the local, provincial or national level in accordance with some explicitly defined indicators of democracy. One can study different societies on a comparative basis. Qualitative or quantitative methods can be used to undertake research. Equally, one can critique a political system through systematic analysis and prescribe changes.

It is important that a paper clearly defines its organizing concepts and the method of the research problem. For example, if democracy is the organizing concept then it should be clearly defined. If it means fair and free elections and the majority having the right to form the government then can such a democracy make laws introducing discriminatory laws against minorities and still be democratic in a generally accepted meaning of democracy? More concretely one can wonder if a concept like Islamic democracy is the same as the generally contemporary idea of a democracy which is expected to protect the equal human rights of all individuals.

Equally, one needs to find out if democracy and Islamic democracy are two different ideas or if they are combined how such a hybrid democracy would be different from the general idea of democracy while retaining some features of contemporary democracy. What is at stake is that the paper has to be argued systematically so that the underlying reasoning constitutes a structure which can be evaluated as a plausible explanation of what the author wanted to research and, on that basis, generate a conclusion which can be considered plausible.

The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Visiting Professor Government College University; and, Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He has written a number of books and won many awards, he can be reached on billumian@gmail.com

Courtesy: Daily Times, January 4th 2019

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