The Paradigm Wars and their aftermath

Nathaniel Gage was a renowned educational psychologist who at the very end of his career published ‘The Paradigm Wars and Their Aftermath’ within which he envisioned three outcomes for educational research. This was written in 2009, the year before he died, which adds poignance to the reading, particularly as his conclusion placed the answer to his question in the hands of ‘us’.

“The answer to the future lies with us, with you. What you do in the years ahead will determine whether the wars continue, until one paradigm grinds the others into the dust. Or, on the other hand, whether pragmatic philosophical analysis shows us the foolishness of these paradigm wars and the way to an honest and productive rapprochement between the paradigms” Gage (2009)

One might also imagine that his reflection on a career that was well into its swing by 1947, would not fully take into account the rising importance of social media research and the impact it would have as we moved on from 2009 to 2014. As Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, wrote at about the same time:

“This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear. Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.” Anderson (2008) in Williamson (2014)

It’s pretty clear which paradigm Anderson thinks has ground the other into the dust. Perhaps it is not only the availability of ‘big data’ but the development of algorithms that increasingly deliver data to the researcher that are creating paradigms that Gage wouldn’t recognise.

“No more searching, no more wasting time reading the wrong things or looking in the wrong places, no more aimless flâneurs wandering around libraries or flicking through e-journals to see what they might find. None of this will be needed because the power of algorithms, as sociologist Scott Lash has put it, will be reshaping the academy. These algorithms will streamline, predict, make decisions for us and do work on our behalf, taking some of the agency from researchers and research processes – and making it their own.” Beer (2012)

It is easy to recognise the influence of Google and Wikipedia on student research and Beer goes on to ponder whether Powerpoint is influencing how lectures are delivered. To what extent are decisions being suggested or even built in to the tools that we use? How often are we invited to fill in a SurveyMonkey questionnaire which has been distributed through Twitter or Facebook? These norms are running deep through the academy and offer opportunities for positivists, interpetivists and philosophers alike to explore a world that is increasingly categorised, tagged, linked, followed, liked, shared and ‘metricized’.

“So the current big data tools aren’t up to the job. While a brash, young, ‘social media analytics’ field has grown, it hasn’t moved us much closer to any insight. The numbers are getting bigger and bigger, and the analysis shallower and shallower. They can measure the easy things – likes, retweets, followers – but we don’t really know what they mean for people. Attempts to measure sentiment – ‘positive’, ‘negative’ and ‘neutral’ – are better at producing pretty graphs than serious, rigorous research.” Miller (2014)

The above quote was the catalyst to a huge project to be launched soon by the Demos Centre for the Analysis of Social Media or CASM. Using 63 algorithms to interpret sentiment in Tweets ‘like sluice gates, controlling the flow of some tweets into deeper levels of the architecture, and siphoning off the rest into a waste pool’ . The intention to explore ‘clear clusters of concern and interest’ surrounding ‘Twitcidents’ great and small. Amusingly, the technology was tested by attempting to forecast the X Factor result each week, but the centre has a more earnest remit to  produce reliable, usable and ethical social media research.

Anderson, C. (2008) The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete. Wired 07 [Internet]. Available from: http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/magazine/16-07/pb_theory. Quoted in Williamson, B. (2014) The death of the theorist and the emergence of data and algorithms in digital social research. Impact of Social Sciences [Internet]. LSE, 10 Feb. Available from: <http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/02/10/the-death-of-the-theorist-in-digital-social-research/#more-15356>

Beer, D(2012) Leave the thinking to us. Times Higher Education, 30 August [Internet]. Available from: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/420978.article>

Gage, N. L. (2009) The Paradigm Wars and Their Aftermath: A “Historical” Sketch of Research on Teaching since 1989. Educational Researcher 18 (7), pp. 4-10.

Miller, C. (2014) The Promise of Social Media. Demos Quarterly, Issue 1, Autumn/Winter [Internet]. Available from: http://quarterly.demos.co.uk/article/issue-1/the-promise-of-social-media/

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