During a recent field trip to South Sudan, a question haunted me: How can I tell the story of this place accurately without reducing in my research the lived experiences of people I engaged with? Epistemological reductionism can be a challenge for scholars, and this post explains that the reasons for epistemological reductionism are complex and contextual, moving beyond just a personal limitation of doing research.
Last year, I was in the northern part of South Sudan researching how small villages cope with drought amidst the armed conflict affecting the country. The villagers taught me how to select (and treat) the best leaves of trees to prepare soup. This ‘soup’ of leaves would be their only meal for the day. They told me their stories; they shared their water and experiences. I had been trying to learn as much as possible about the country, its history, and its reality.
However, a question followed me around: How can I tell the story of this place accurately, doing justice to people’s everyday experiences? How can I answer any research question adequately without oversimplifying a large and complex reality? Inspired by a post of Andrew Quilty, I reflect here on reductionism and oversimplification in academia.
Aware of my blind spots, language barriers, cultural and historical ignorance, and positionality, I realised that despite my best efforts and intentions, there will always be there an epistemological reductionism: The way of knowing a reality and presenting it to others (through papers, reports, blogs) will always suffer from a methodological attempt to reduce its complexity into simpler and smaller parts.
Beyond insiders and outsiders
This reductionism does not only apply to me as a foreign researcher or outsider, but also to local people, researchers, and journalists. Discussing this concern with an Afghan colleague and friend in Kabul, he reflected that he feels the same in his own country. We talked about how each person has a position, positionality, and angle, and that our jobs (and that of journalists, too) entail the need for reduction.
Multiple processes and moments guide the reduction process. Our research questions and data collection instruments do their part. Before them, the decision of what to research often aligns with the funds available and politics of what can be funded, by whom, and for what. Supervisors and research groups also play a relevant role trimming what will be researched, presented, and how. By the end of the process, journals and book editors also influence what is said and how it is said.
The idea is not to address this complexity in depth, but to argue that this epistemological reductionism is contextual and more complicated than just a personal limitation of doing research.
Collecting leaves in South Sudan
How to do research considering this reductionism?
These reductionisms and limitations do not discredit the relevance and value of research, but invites more reflective, humble, and honest research. We need to be careful of which discourses we are reproducing and from where we get our stories. South Sudan or Afghanistan, two countries mentioned here, are beautiful countries, with people living their lives in a way as normal as possible, like in every other place. They are also facing crises and war, but we cannot reduce their realities only to these last facts.
We also need to be humble, but at the same time confident. What we know about these places is not nothing, neither everything. Our research needs to be as focused as possible—clear on our angle and what we can achieve. Our positionality needs to be acknowledged, as it will change over time.
Most importantly, we need to be honest. Sometimes the problem is not the ignorance of the epistemological reductionism, but the overcompensation of it by making our results more prominent or representative. The pressures to publish, to present results that fit with the theories and own ideas can also lead to not being honest. When we present results not totally aligned with our interviews, observations, sources, and sound analytical methods, we are harming by presenting to others a reality that is not—although always imperfect and limited—‘evidence-based’. Our results might be used by policy makers, educators, and others, but by not being honest, any practice coming from it can be damaging. We need to be honest with our number of participants, research limitations, methods, analyses, and results. In other words, we need to be honest about what we can say, aware of the reductionism and the tendency to overcompensate for it. Interesting and necessary would also be a discussion over what are the structural forces in academia that make us dishonest sometimes.
This entails patience. Doing research in this way might mean having less comprehensive results; however, by being replicated or linked with other results, building a chain of “lesser” results, we start to get to know places and processes better. Overcoming the epistemological reductionism mentioned here is not a matter of not facing it, but how we through doing research become aware of it and of the consequences of not doing so. What do you think? How do you work around these reductionisms?
 Relevant for another discussion is the question on what is evidence based, which evidence, for what, and from where. The recent case of fake articles being published in relevant journals to show flaws in the system can lead to a further and relevant discussion (see more at: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/new-sokal-hoax/572212/)
About the author:
Rodrigo (Rod) Mena is a socio-environmental researcher and PhD – AIO at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research project focuses on disaster response and humanitarian aid governance in complex and high-intensity conflict-affected scenarios, being South Sudan, Afghanistan and Yemen his main cases. Experience conducting fieldwork and researching in conflict and disaster zones from in Africa, Latin America, Europe, Oceania and Asia.