Is 'truth' true?

In the previous edition of Getting Ahead, Dr Layla Cassim used the example of a supervisor “taking exception to certain research findings” and insisting that these be removed from a master’s thesis to make a case about intellectual abuse and the misuse of power in the postgraduate supervision system (”Who supervises the supervisor?”, Mail & Guardian, April 29).

While I would never argue with Cassim’s statement that any system that leaves a student feeling “intellectually abused” and with her “dignity eroded” is failing, I do wonder about the example used to support her case. One of the supervisor’s primary responsibilities is to ensure that what is reported in a thesis or dissertation is indeed “true”.

This means that beliefs about what constitutes “truth”, “reality” or “knowledge” have to cohere with the way this truth, reality or knowledge is established.
Especially in the social sciences (the site of Cassim’s example), getting this coherence can be tricky and calls for engagement with philosophical issues of a profound nature.

Any university has checks in place to ensure that research can produce valid “truths” and these usually begin with the development of a research proposal that has to be approved by a higher-degrees committee. In my experience as a supervisor, however, even when the design of a piece of research has been approved, it is still easy for students to lose this coherence between what can count as knowledge and how this knowledge can be known. This can especially be the case for students at master’s level, who may not have a firm grip on the chain of reasoning that holds the design of their research together.

In the social sciences, where research is often located in understandings of “truth” or “reality” as constructed rather than as absolute, things become even more tricky. Researchers “interpret” data to arrive at statements about what appears to be the case. Typically, the “truth” of those statements is arrived at by triangulating a number of perspectives and difficult decisions often need to be made in the process of doing this. What might appear to be the “truth” might not appear as “truth” to a different eye.

In this sort of situation, the term “finding” is inappropriate because it is indicative of something absolute that is uncovered or revealed rather than constructed through human interaction. As a result, research in the social sciences often speaks of “insights” or “understandings” to indicate the contingent nature of a researcher’s work.

Use of language
A supervisor has a responsibility to scrutinise these understandings within the particular theoretical frameworks on which the research draws to see how well they will stand up to challenges. Sometimes this scrutiny identifies problems that detract from the ability to make the claims students want to make.

More pitfalls lie in the way language is used to report research. However excited or passionate a researcher might be about her work, reporting on research requires a use of language that is considered and measured and that draws on conceptual and theoretical understandings to locate and position participants and objects.

I remember reading an account of a visit to a school written by one of my doctoral students as part of a piece of research where observation was included in the data collection. The account described what teachers were doing and what learners were doing in a particularly “raw” fashion and, as a result, constructed teachers in an entirely negative light. My response to my student was, “You can’t say that”; to which my student replied, “Why not? That’s what I saw.”

It may well have been that the student saw teachers preparing food for a matric dance while learners were left untaught but that observation needed to be understood within a particular set of cultural and social conditions where, for example, there was clearly no money to employ outside caterers and where parent support systems were not functioning. Reporting this observation in an unnuanced way would not constitute “truth” but, from my student’s perspective, I could well have been accused of suppression of her “finding”.

In short, a supervisor’s lot is not always a happy one. Supervision requires tact to guide students through the methodological and theoretical mazes that constitute research. It requires the ability to balance the development of the student (intellectual, social, practical) with the need to ensure that the research is as good as it could possibly be.

In my faculty the higher-degrees committee speaks as much to the supervisor as it does to the student—noting problems, absences and alternatives in a research proposal the supervisor might have missed. In the course of supervision I have often asked colleagues to read students’ work when I have been unsure of my own judgment. In making such requests, I am asking my colleagues to use their experience, their wisdom, their intellect to guide me as well as my student.

Sadly, not all students are willing to be guided and not all students have the depth of understanding to see where objections from their supervisors are coming from. At the same time, not all supervisors have the abilities and understandings to guide well either individually or by drawing on the collective.

In this sort of context what might appear to be abuses of power might be better understood as events in the complexity of the human interaction of teaching and of producing valid “truths”.

Professor Chrissie Boughey is dean of teaching and learning at Rhodes University

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