The weekly ACRPS seminar on 31 March 2021 hosted Ismail Nashef, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the Doha Institute, presenting his lecture “On the Heels of Evidence: The Status of ‘Reality’ in Scholarly Research".
Reviewing books and letters from within Israeli occupation prisons and a video enactment of recording sessions preceding “martyrdom operations,” together highlighting the complexity of the relationship of scientific indicators and data with “reality,” the Palestinian scholar suggested it was time for a rethink of the nature and status of “data” in today’s scientific research.
Nashef underlined how his research sought to track the background and nature of indicators in data collection, bearing in mind the sweeping economic, social and political transformations of the last three decades. These changes have had immediate impact on the status of the “reality” from which we derive our data and are reflected in our relations with that reality: market, society and all components of state are no longer those same familiar entities of classical or late capitalism. The quantum leaps of digital technology’s tools for recording, storing and processing data present us with an extensive range of possibilities. However, all of this is taking place in a new material and institutional context. The researcher emphasized consequently that not only is there a need to hammer out new elements of analysis, but there is also a need to re-rethink the very concept of “element of analysis” that we bring to the collection of data.
The researcher hypothesized that replete with classical modernist and postmodernist theories and methods that seem to come from a bygone era, social science research now reveals itself incapable of cognitively processing the new “reality”. For it is bound by a conceptual framework linking “reality" to expressions of statistical probability, causality, accident, dialectics, equivalence, debate and so forth. Yet new relationships ensuing from the expressive gap between “data” and “reality” have been engendered. An example of this can be seen in “Big Data” omnivorously collecting everything about "reality" and leaving no reality existing beyond that.
In conclusion, Nashef posed a set of forecasting and philosophical questions: if these are the limits of the scientific research process, does this mean that we must now return to metaphysical questions? What lies beyond the frontiers of “reality,” and how can it be fathomed by a researcher imprisoned in this reality? Is an awareness of the limits of epistemology a necessary and sufficient condition for research at this stage in the development of the relationship between science and philosophy? What is the nature of knowledge that the research scholar produces, in terms of its validity? If unsure of the relationship between a phenomenon’s “data” and the “reality” of the phenomenon, what can be said about the real existence of the phenomenon in question? Or for that matter about anything else deriving from the relationship of “data” to “reality”? If “reality” is transformed through its relationships with data, how should scholars revisit issues of persistence, stability and constancy? For data may “reflect” a phenomenon’s changing reality, or in other words multiple phenomena. How does the scientific and scholarly institution interact with developments in the status of “reality” and its cognition, given that this institution is part and parcel of the reality?
Concluding the lecture, Nashef suggested that developments such as these in the relationship between “data” and “reality” have effectively aborted the research phenomenon. Reality in this sense has intervened to end the previous regime and replace it with a new one.
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