Research as a Human Right

Writing in 2006, the anthropologist and globalization scholar Arjun Appadurai argued that every human being has an intrinsic "right to research"—a "universal and elementary ability" to develop skills of inquiry, discovery, and validation. Appadurai observed that research "is rarely seen as a capacity with democratic potential, much less as belonging to the family of rights."* Twelve years later, Appadurai's argument could hardly be more salient. Arguably, the need to gain strategic information—and to make sense of an array of "truthiness" and "alternative facts"—is the most important educational goal today.

Yet, this call to arms to make research a "human right" raises thorny questions. Is research truly for everyone, or only a privileged few?  Is it ethical to "teach" research skills to populations and groups who may never need them, or use them?  Is it another form of neocolonialism, or a Western savior's mentality, to teach research skills to non-Westerners?  Is it possible to teach research skills to everyone, for example to small children or to illiterate populations? Furthermore, is it right to assume that everyone will be able to use research skills for democratic benefits?

More questions: What is meant by "research"? Do we mean the sophisticated research frameworks of the West?  Is research the same as evaluation, and synonymous with assessment?  Do we mean the social sciences, the sciences, and is research the same as data collection?  It turns out that the very nature of research as an enterprise raises fascinating philosophical and ethical questions. Appadurai defines "research" nicely as "a specialized name for a generalized capacity, the capacity to make disciplined inquiries into those things we need to know, but do not know yet." But, what constitutes a "disciplined inquiry" is, in fact, normative, nor is it clear what "things we need to know."

Arguably, action research flips this dichotomy by having local populations decide or take part in deciding what we need to know. My interest is in translating the basic steps of research to a generalizable audience. I'm especially interested in the step of problem-solving; how problems are identified as problems and how a problem is defined. More soon.

* Arjun Appadurai, "The Right to Research," Globalisation, Societies and Education, 4 (2), July 2006, 167-177.