Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Ethos of Research

To begin with the ethos of research, as a way into research ethics, is to make the assumption that theorizing is itself a practice. This assumption is familiar to scholars in the field of science studies, but can be found already in Heidegger's Being and Time. It's probably not original even there. In any case, since research, like existence more generally, is something we're "thrown" into, we must suppose that our determination of what practices are "correct" and "incorrect" qua method and "right" and "wrong" qua ethics is rooted in a set of dispositions that are probably best called "character", which in turn is one of the root meanings of the word "ethos". When Foucault proposed to "envisage modernity rather as an attitude than as a period of history" he used that same word to explain himself. I mean something similar when I suggest we approach research methodology not as a set of rules but as way of doing things in order to see them in a particular way, a style of perception.

In the two passages I quoted yesterday, I emphasized that research "forms" people, that researchers are "subjected" to influences. I think it is important to speak plainly about these influences, these formative processes. After all, while it may be a relatively straightforward matter to condemn, say, plagiarism in general, it is far more subtle business to avoid it in one's own research and censure it in others. Both take a kind of "character", and we ask ourselves whether the research environment we work in is likely to form that kind of character. The practical ethics of a particular discipline is not made up only of a set of formal rules, dos and don'ts, that sanction and constrain, but a complicated array of incentives and moral hazards that make some courses of actions easy and others difficult. I have long complained that in my own field it seems far easier to commit plagiarism than to expose it. Since it is of course in clear violation of the ethics of the discipline, this is a good example of the difference between ethics and ethos.

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