Department of Educational Technology, Bharathidasan University
International Workshop on “Directions and Developments of Research paradigms”
Dr.S.Karuthiah Pandian IAS Director, BIM
Honourable Vice Chancellor Dr P Manisankar, Prof M Balakrishnan, Dr Ramganesh, other dignitaries on the dais and off the dais, Greetings!
It gives me immense pleasure to be part of the International Workshop on Directions and Developments of Research Paradigms, organised by the Department of Educational Technology, Bharathidasan University.
As you are aware, Social Science Research deals with individuals or groups of individuals like society, firms, Institutions etc. This broad field of research should provide the decision support for policy makers to make social, economic and institutional changes. The central question which has been eluding an answer in Social Science Research is whether to move towards more statistical accuracy or towards more actionable insights at the cost of statistical accuracy. This question has been posed differently by Lawrence E Lynn as “uncertain connection” between knowledge and policy. Social Science research should provide us with a body of knowledge that informs the policymakers about the correctness of various policy interventions, or in other words, they should provide actionable insights.
Experiments as methods of research has been very successful in the field of basic sciences. This is one of the important reasons for very high levels of statistical accuracy and also for developing scientific principles which are true and relevant in multiple occurrences or multiple contexts. However, it has not been employed fully in social sciences or it has been employed with limited success in areas like behavioral economics. The reason for not employing experiments in large scale in social sciences is mainly due to the fact that each human being – the central research unit of social science research – is both unique and different. The same human being responds to the same stimuli in different ways in different circumstances and different time periods. For instance, if two researchers are measuring the level of noise pollution in a particular area, both of them will come up with same results in terms of decibels. If two researchers are measuring the level of happiness of an individual, both of them may come up with two different results depending upon the internal and external context of the individual. Inspite of this limitation, experiments have been used successfully in a limited set of circumstances by social science researchers in the fields of psychology, economics, organisational design etc.
Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) is a unit of MIT located in Massachusetts, USA. The mission of J-PAL is to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence. Mr Iqbal Dhaliwal is the Executive Director of J-PAL. Incidentally, Mr Iqbal Dhaliwal has been working with me in the Indian Administrative Service before joining J-PAL. Anchored by a network of 157 affiliated professors at universities around the world, J-PAL conducts randomized impact evaluations to answer critical questions in the fight against poverty, globally. J-PAL has conducted 885 randomized evaluations in 80 countries to inform policy makers, evidences about effectiveness or otherwise of policy initiatives. These randomized evaluations are like experiments focusing on one particular policy initiative and its effect on a section of the society. This is one example of limited application of experiments in social science research. One of the earliest experiments in an organisational setting was conducted by Dr Elton Mayo, who was then, a Professor of Industrial Research, at Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University. The series of experiments were conducted in the Hawthorne Plant of Western Electric Company during the 1920’s and the results were published by Elton Mayo in 1933 in his book titled “The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization”. To quote from the book, “Acting in collaboration with the National Research Council, the Western Electric Company had for three years been engaged upon an attempt to assess the effect of illumination upon the worker and his work. ….I can, however, state with confidence that the inquiry involved in one phase the segregation of two groups of workers, engaged upon the same task, in two rooms equally illuminated. The experimental diminution of the lighting, in ordered quantities, in one room only, gave no sufficiently significant difference, expressed in terms of measured output, as compared with the other still fully illuminated room. Some-how or other that complex of mutually dependent factors, the human organism, shifted its equilibrium and unintentionally defeated the purpose of the experiment.” Even though, this experiment was considered as a failure, this failure led to a few more experiments, which finally became an eye opener for many management thinkers and doers. The idea of “scientific management” led to the inhuman treatment of human beings as machines to continuously increase the output per individual. This boom period of industrialization also proved Marx’s hypothesis of ‘Alienation’ – a condition in which workers feel monotony and no work satisfaction. Elton Mayo’s series of experiments proved the point that human element is not amenable for direct stimulus-response paradigm but moderated by a black-box cognitive mechanism. This led to the counter movement in management called as Human Relations movement pioneered by great management thinkers like Douglas McGregor, Abraham Maslow etc. which aimed at making business organisations treat human beings with respect and dignity.
Yet another area in Social Sciences which has utilised experimental methodology is Economics. Economics as currently learnt and taught in colleges and practiced afterwards is more theory-intensive and less observation-intensive than perhaps any other field of study.
This is because the training of economists conditions them to think of economics as an a priori science, and not as an observational science in which the interplay between theory and observation is paramount. Consequently, economists tend to believe that economic problems can be understood fully just by thinking about them. After the thinking has produced sufficient technical rigor, internal coherence and interpersonal agreement, economists can then apply the results to the world of data. But experimentation has changed the way economists think about economics. For example, rational expectations hypothesis is not usually proved through experiments. Because the central assumption of rational expectations hypothesis is the rational behaviour of individuals. As we can observe, in many real life situations, individual decisions are not fully rational but boundedly rational – rationality bound by the cognitive ability of the individual to handle large amount of data and also bound by the time available to make the choice.
Experimental methodology can contribute towards a much richer body of knowledge and this can lead to significant policy interventions that are required to make our institutions more robust and more socially relevant. The knowledge creation process should not be an end in itself but it should lead to social and economic transformation. This transformation happens through the students who are going to be the primary beneficiaries of this knowledge creation process and as the catalysts for social and economic transformation, you, the researchers are the hope for the future.