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Theory and practice need to find each other again

In the South African education landscape, research relevance in the social sciences and the interface between theory and practice are at a critical juncture — and both academics and practitioners are to blame for this state of affairs.

Research relevance in the social sciences is a debate that has often surfaced over the decades, but most often the messenger has been shot or academics have employed ivory  tower footwork to justify the status quo, feverishly supported by the institutions that employ them.

We firmly believe that our discipline, industrial psychology, is an applied science — psychology applied to industry. Without the applied side it is almost impossible to justify the existence of the discipline. We also believe our views are applicable to other disciplines in the social sciences.

The applied side of the social sciences is under siege, however. There is very limited contact between industry and university departments, little mutual interest and hardly any common goals. Captains of industry often do not even know who is teaching in university departments and practitioners seldom read peer-reviewed articles. Science and practice are clearly drifting apart.

A few years ago we attended a prominent annual conference on industrial psychology in Montreal, Canada, attended by more than 3 000 delegates from all over the world. Two weeks later we attended a conference on the assessment centre method — a major applied field of industrial psychology — in Virginia in the United States. To our surprise there were only three of us who attended both conferences — a clear indication of the divide between science and practice?

A world of its own
The academic (science) side of disciplines in the social sciences has become a world of its own. Academics often function in an almost Utopian world, placing ­little apparent value on the application possibilities of their research results. In this Utopian world, relevance is not an essential component of research, because there is no need to justify the importance of the research to anybody else.

Academics are often pressured by a system, created and supported by themselves, into trying to publish small studies, often incompletely conceived and conducted and often far from constituting contributions to the particular discipline. Our journal editors face an impossible task. No matter how they try, they cannot single-handedly change an ingrained reward system supported by universities and research funders. The result is that the ratio of chaff to wheat in our journals is very high.

In a study during the late 1980s, the industrial psychologist John Campbell asked a sample of researchers to describe the circumstances surrounding the most recent studies they had completed and which, in retrospect, they regarded as not amounting to much.

They described circumstances such as the availability of a database, the opportunity to make use of an ­established phenomenon, the need to get a quick publication, the desire to address a topic that was "hot" at the time, the attempt to get another article out of old data by simply using a different statistic, the requirement to do a study on someone else's contract on an issue that was of no intrinsic interest, and an opportunity to perform an easy replication of another project.

As this study illustrates, academics function in an Alice's Wonderland with unique rules and criteria for success. This is a setting in which a published article in a peer-reviewed journal is the ultimate achievement and lecturing often becomes a burden. Research funders often budget for lecturer replacement, allowing the researcher to employ somebody else, often a postgraduate student, to conduct lectures.

Peer-reviewed articles put the bacon on the table and are almost the only way to climb the academic promotional ladder. They also open up guaranteed attendance at conferences in often exotic international destinations where the only contribution expected from the attendee is frequently nothing more than a poster presentation, browsed over primarily by peers. A single data set can yield up to five publications for the "seasoned" researcher — handsome rewards when seen in isolation.

Practitioners or academics?
Research in the social sciences at academic institutions is seldom needs-driven or problem-orientated. It rather appears to be a function of data availability and the recycling of available data and the pursuit of hot topics seem to be the norm. In academic circles, those who try to apply knowledge in their teaching and consulting to organisations are often, almost bizarrely, labelled practitioners, whereas their colleagues who publish, irrespective of the quality or usefulness of the publication, are labelled academics.

It is very much publish or perish and the academic bean-counters seem concerned only with quantity. No wonder that highly competent applicants for academic jobs are often unsuccessful because of the oxymoronic assumption that they will not be successful in an academic career because they lack a recent peer-reviewed publication record.

In a seminal 1970 study still referred to in guides to publishing in psychology, two industrial psychologists rated 540 articles published in scientific journals in the social sciences in terms of their contribution to knowledge. Two-thirds were judged as "utterly inconsequential" and only about 10% were considered worthwhile. The study concluded that most published papers are not read. Other writers have estimated that 50% of the papers published in the journals of the American Psychological Association are each read by fewer than 200 people and two-thirds of the articles are never cited by another author.

Our view is that many of the theories and models emanating from publications in the social sciences have very little "ecological value" —that is, they fail to address real, practical issues. The lack of ecological value is compounded by the devaluation of teaching and community service in favour of doing research. The result is that more people are conducting research than should be, spreading the available resources too thinly and filling the journals with too much that is unimportant.

One way out of this dilemma might be to expand the notion of what we call science and to redefine the interface between science and practice to promote the participation of academics and practitioners in the future growth of disciplines in the social sciences.

It is also necessary to accept the working theories of practitioners as best practices until they can be explained by existing or new theories. In this way, their work would gain higher appreciation and might become the point of departure for new research. Simply arguing that interventions cannot work because they do not fit existing theories is shortsighted and could even be detrimental to a particular discipline.

Inquiry from the outside and the inside
The paradigms most often used by researchers could broadly be termed "inquiry from the outside". That is, the researchers are mainly employed by universities or research institutions, so they conduct their research from vantage points outside industry. But an alternative paradigm would involve ensuring that practitioners within industry are also doing scientific and professional work — a paradigm that could be labelled "inquiry from the inside".

Inquiry from the outside and inquiry from the inside are often prompted by different circumstances and done for different purposes. Both must, however, be viewed as systematic and valid modes of knowledge acquisition.

The approach to knowledge acquisition termed "inquiry from the inside" must be viewed as part of a more general movement called postmodernism in the philosophy of science. In the postmodern view, the scientist-practitioner model is redefined. Both academics and practitioners are viewed as legitimate contributors to knowledge. More importantly, both groups would be expected to contribute to knowledge, albeit each in its own way.

The most important vehicle to revitalise the interface between theory and practice is probably the training of future social scientists at tertiary institutions. In the 1990s, the prominent industrial psychologist David Lykken proposed an interesting role-playing exercise in which an eminent older physicist and an eminent older psychologist return to their graduate oral-examination committees, convened in 1960, for example, to compare what they now know in their respective fields to what was known more than four decades earlier. The members of the physics committee would sit in open-mouthed wonder at the tales told by their former student. But how would the psychology committee react to what their former student said? It is indeed a thought-provoking question.

Revitalising the interface calls for more visible contact between academics and their counterparts in industry. Academics must spend more time in industry and practitioners must increasingly become involved in training at universities. Non-academics must work alongside academics with a common purpose, mutual respect and a two-way flow of useful knowledge.

Best practices have to be accepted as state-of-the-art applications, even if current models and theories cannot fully explain the effectiveness of the best practices. The results of this revitalised mutuality between science and practice will hopefully be high-quality, relevant and useful applied science and effective, informed practice.

Johan Augustyn is emeritus ­professor of industrial psychology at ­Stellenbosch University and Gawie Cillié teaches industrial ­psychology at the university. The views expressed here are their own

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