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A Critique of Western Research Methodology: The Usage Of Citations

May 4, 2021 Authored by: Yashowardhan Tiwari

With the advent of modernity, West has emerged as the “knowledge” power-house of the planet and has taken up the arduous task of “civilizing” the rest of the world through information dissemination and entrenchment of Western knowledge system as a universal category. Knowledge production may be deemed as an intrinsic part of the knowledge system as a whole. Part and parcel of knowledge production are the research methodologies adopted for the purpose. The research methods used play an influential role in determining the nature and quality of knowledge produced. In this article, I reflect on the short period of my personal engagement with the modus operandi of Western research in the fields of law and social sciences.

 Allow me to commit some heresy today. I believe, perhaps wrongly, that I do have a reasonably decent, basic understanding of Western research methodology, especially its use of citations, which this article focuses on. I also believe that I shall be a reluctantly willing part of the system for the foreseeable future. As I move along the journey of legal studies and research, I instinctively sense the descending of information re-production upon the field of humanities which is fast replacing the creation of valuable knowledge, resulting in a degradation of quality of research material produced.        

First things first. Given that I’m going to engage in a critical examination of the use of citations later in this article, let me first briefly put out an appreciation of certain important aspects of the citation method. The use of citations has been made mandatory over time primarily to prevent intellectual theft and to give due credits when ideas of others are utilized by a person. This acknowledgement while borrowing others’ ideas, in a sense, adds value to others’ work as both being worthy of producing further scholarly work and as having intrinsic worth of itself. Curbing intellectual theft further provides an incentive to scholars for producing academic work, as it does not dissociate the work from the scholar and deprive the scholar of what ideally should be regarded as rightfully its. Citations also act as a sort of bibliography or further readings to be done, and help the interested readers navigate to further scholarship on a subject. Citations also grant a level of authority and authenticity to the work, since they function as evidences presented in support of the arguments being made in the work. They give a sense to the reader that the line of argument being made in the work isn’t an isolated strand but rather falls in a particular tradition of similar arguments, which adds to the weight it carries. Technically, this method is supposed to be used for citing facts and giving due credits to other authors where their arguments are relied upon, thus cutting down instances of plagiarism. Citations create a network of inter-related works on a given subject, thus expanding the oasis of knowledge in any field. So far, so good. Now allow me to move on to a critical scrutiny of the use of citations. 

A brief phase of engagement with the citation method makes one realize that it leaves little scope for creativity. If the purpose of producing scholarship is to add to the existing body of knowledge, then citations as a research methodology are a dismal failure as they create a huge impediment in churning out fresh work by demarcating a pre-existing framework within which the scholar is supposed to work. The fixed boundaries of pre-existing knowledge prevent the scholar from traveling into unknown/unexplored terrains. The citation method sounds a death knell on originality. It is rare for scholars to come up with original arguments while confronting the tyranny of citations. Although citations seem to come handy in making a powerful argument, but the legitimate question to be posed is that why do fresh, strong arguments need such backup in the first place. A follow up on that would be whether the strength of an argument should be gauged from the support it is able to garner from preceding academic literature. An alternative model of assessment would be that the convincing power and sensibility of an argument be examined of itself, on its own terms. This might perhaps be a better model as it would attach an intrinsic worth to the argument made by doing away with crutches for support. Citations function in a manner such that in the garb of providing support and legitimacy to the new arguments being forwarded, they ensure that the arguments shouldn’t be entirely new in the first place.   

 Let me elaborate on the above claims further through a few concrete examples from the legal sphere. My intention is to demonstrate how the expectations to argue within a given legal framework thwart attempts to add fresh legal perspectives on a particular issue, notwithstanding their credible logic. This results in a failure to make a strong case for creative legal opinions both in theory and praxis, and such opinions would consequently fail to filter into mainstream legal narratives and legal curriculum which heavily focus on the jurisprudence set by the courts. The first such instance that I present is the Sabarimala judgment delivered by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India. During the hearings of the case, it was argued before the court by the noted lawyer J. Sai Deepak that deities should be regarded as having fundamental rights. Although the point was much appreciated by the Hon’ble bench at the time, it was not even substantively dealt with by the majority judgment of the court. It was addressed in two separate opinions by Chandrachud J. and Rohinton J., both having reached the conclusion that the argument was untenable. While the majority judgment simply did not find it important enough to discuss this different lens of viewing fundamental rights, the separate opinions arrived at such a conclusion as it supposedly did not fall in line with the existing jurisprudence of fundamental rights. I have argued elsewhere that the separate opinions of the Hon’ble court erred in concluding that deities can’t be vested with fundamental rights. One could defend this position of the court on the basis that the argument was unacceptable as it lacked any precedent in the Indian jurisprudence (the excessive reliance on precedents itself displays how compulsory citation of judgments deprives original arguments of credibility and carrying weight). However, this defence falls flat on two points. Firstly, there are innumerable instances where the courts themselves have formulated new doctrines and applied such interpretations (this is what purposive interpretation mostly leads to) which did not conform to the precedents set previously. Secondly, Chandrachud J.’s judgment itself in the Sabarimala case offers a radically new interpretation of Article 17 of the Indian Constitution by reading into it discrimination against women as untouchability. A follow-up example can be picked up from the Sabarimala judgment again, where the court did not give weightage to Sai Deepak’s argument about the deity/murti having its own dignity and privacy, implying that constitutional values couldn’t be extended to deities. Yet another instance is the much-celebrated Ayodhya judgment, which did not accept Rām Janmsthān as a deity, reasoning that land could not be considered a deity of itself and could only be regarded as the presiding deity’s property. The judgment thus failed to grasp and provide credence to the Indic idea of “sacred spaces”. Such crushing of intellectually creative and original arguments isn’t just restricted to the legal sphere. The tragic life of Ramanujan as a mathematics genius is a case in point, where his impeccable theorems were not accepted by academic circles for a long time due to supposed lack of demonstrable proofs. I hope I have been able to convey what I mean by the claim that the use of citations/references/precedents hampers the production of valuable knowledge and frustrates intellectual novelty. A keen observer would also notice essentializing tropes of Western understanding of concepts in the above illustrations.  Such original arguments are discarded because they aren’t able to produce citations and precedents in their support, which is bound to happen as such precedents have to be borrowed from the Western knowledge frameworks.  

This leads me to another crucial point. Given how the era of colonialism, followed by that of Western imperialism, has catapulted the West, i.e., Europe and USA, to the pinnacle of “knowledge production”, it should not come as a surprise that the Western method of citations has a built-in mechanism and is structured in a way to maintain and perpetuate discourse hegemony, while simultaneously ensuring the curbing of dissent. Since Western materials are already abound on most of the issues/subjects, citations just make sure that they are compulsively relied upon to put forth “new” arguments. They serve as major roadblocks for the resurgence of indigenous and dissenting knowledges. The “universal” citation methodology imposes universality on the production of knowledge as well. It is no wonder then, that indigenous knowledge systems and decolonial movements have been struggling for breathing space for quite a while now. They have been forced to operate on the margins, as the mainstream scholarship is bound to conform to the Western gaze, and Western lens is applied ruthlessly to “judge” views and knowledge. Plurality of streams within a subject operate within the Western worldview, as the indigenous systems are easily othered and presented as alternatives which are driven to survive on the fringes. Western knowledge house looks like a melting pot, where pluralism turns into a synonym for universalism, dissent equates to conformity and the other is reduced to a footnote, an insignificant appendage. The imposition of Western knowledge categories leads to the drowning of indigenous voices, and creates a lot of hinderance in ushering in reforms, such as in the legal sphere.

 The citation method seems like an act of information gathering rather than knowledge creation. With the reduced possibilities of putting forth new arguments, it also decreases productivity in a sense, if knowledge creation is valued more than its reproduction. Citations have become a part of research methodology in the literal sense, i.e., the work stops at “re” search without some knowledge addition. Now let me add something blasphemous to this critique. Rampant citation usage and its endorsement by the academic community also seems to have resulted in diminishing our intellect as knowledge societies. On the face of it, “knowledge production” has increased manifold, but scratching the surface reveals that actually it’s the same or similar-sounding arguments being dished out time and again. The New Left in the academia could be a good illustration of this phenomenon. As one of my juniors lamented to me in a conversation – that research has been reduced to regurgitation. The collective psyche of the academic and professional communities has been drilled with a fetish for citations and publications. Having a mere glance at this app for professionals called Linkedin might easily leave any commoner flummoxed, and a five-minute period of scrolling through it could result in depression and trauma. New journals come up every other day, and there seems to be a cacophony of similar views being processed and served on loop, turning journals into echo chambers. We must pause and ask ourselves: Are we hell-bent on manufacturing a class of overachievers with diminished creativity? Or is it that I personally am too blinded to be able to sense the uncontrollable boom in quality knowledge production?  I can’t help but draw an analogy between the assembly line and Western knowledge systems, both being prone to mass production and recycling of same commodity.  

An additional point to be noted is – using citations traps one in a catch-22 situation and citing “authorities” may often put one in a fix, as one easily exposes oneself to the accusations of selective usage of “authorities” and cherry-picking, whether justifiable or not. Such mud-slinging without a thorough scrutiny of the entire work is inevitable as some “scholars” do tend to indulge in the above-mentioned activities and fabricate work by assembling and putting random sources together. Difficulty in verifiability of citations is yet another issue.  

Further, a matter worthy of concern is the West’s treatment of knowledge as property. The West has historically treated knowledge as a commodity, an individual’s property which could be valued in monetary terms. This also explains the idea behind intellectual theft. Not to forget that knowledge in Western “civilization” has been built largely through intellectual theft from other civilizations. Such reduction of knowledge to property also displays West’s incomprehensibility of the idea of a knowledge commons. Conceptualization of intellect as property by mainly attaching economic value also gives the impression that intellect could be measured and bargained in the free market. 

It is time that the Indic conceptions of knowledge (gyānvigyān), rooted in ethical-cum-spiritual frames, be re-visited. There is a dire need to explore and develop an indigenous epistemology of research for each field of knowledge, beginning with the social sciences. We ought to come up with our own research methods and compatible citation methods, etc., if the demand be so. Indic knowledge systems can survive and flourish only with support of their research frameworks. Either you beat the West at its own game, or you’ve got to change the rules of the game.


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