Research as a Knowledge Creating activity

Some time ago I read a post at Pedablogy concerning the creation of knowledge and the way it is communicated to students.  This notion of knowledge creation fascinates me on a philosophical level, but it also has important practical implications, especially for my senior research thesis. 

As scientists, we subscribe to the relevant version of the scientific method, and I may be granted that the scientific method provides a general framework of how we match a priori theorizing with a posteriori empirical observation.  When the theory is shown to predict the observation, and that within some degree of tolerance (which can be fairly variable), and when those experiments are repeatable and the results verified, then at some point it becomes knowledge.  I have found it to be extremely tempting to develop theory a priori with the intention of testing it through simulations.  It is tempting because data collection is not only costly, but also because data is often difficult to acquire and full of holes or open to charges of imperfections.  Thus in economics it has become common in my experience to develop a clever model, then bask tautologically in one’s cleverness by running a simulation within the confines of the model without any accountability to the real world. 

I for one would prefer not to fall into this temptation, because I think ultimately it leads to obscurity.  However, I am also keenly aware of the fact that the difficulty of providing empirical evidence is that, simply put, data often does not exist.  In these instances, data sets must be somehow painstakingly created and models adapted for use with that data.  These data sets are often imperfect, but I think they are an important development in the social sciences.  A good example may be Transparency International’s Corruptions Perceptions Index (CPI).  While I think there are many reasons to worry about the underlying assumptions upon which the CPI is founded, I really admire the attempt to create such an index and a similar one at the World Bank.  Corruption and its effects are terribly difficult to measure because they are illicit in nature; no one will simply own up to their crime.  Indeed, this is a major obstacel in any study of illegal or taboo behaviors.  So if you want to measure and analyze any black market with any sort of accuracy, you have to be very original in your approach; that is, you need to have a new methodology.

And this is precisely the point:  Methodology.  Your methodology is where you decide what data to collect, how to collect it, and how to apply it to your a priori theory.  It is in your methodology that all your assumptions come to the fore.   It is (or at least it can be) the place where the most creativity and imagination is required because it is precisely here that pure method (mathematics and survey methodology), abstractions about the world (a priori assumptions and theory), and data all must be fit together into a cogent theory. 

 I really believe it is in the methodology that the most reform must take place.  In the absence of data in the form of dollars and cents, economists need to think about alternative methods for collecting, synthesizing, and evaluating data and models.  I think this is where I would most like to focus my attentions in my honor’s thesis.  I have been warned by a person who shall remain nameless that few economists have ever achieved fame and fortune for their work in methodology.  This may be true now, but I wonder if that trend will continue.  In any event, my overwhelming desire is to increase my own level of knowledge; being recognized for that is just the cherry on top. 


One Response to “Research as a Knowledge Creating activity”

  1. Proposal Accepted « Philosonomics Says:

    […] have been warned, as mentioned before, that developing methodology does not provide the fame and fortune that an ambitious economist […]

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