It was not only Prof Attahiru Jega, the immediate past chairperson of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission, (INEC) who agonised over the issue at the occasion. Everyone else in that exclusive club of established scholars in Nigerian social science who attended the just concluded National Conference on Community Resilience to Boko Haram did. But it was Jega who made a sentence in which the words crisis, scholarship and Nigeria occurred during the discussion on the issue in question. He was complaining to no one in particular. Rather, he was exercising the power of the chair of the opening session of the conference to situate the briefing on that project that Professor Jibrin Ibrahim, its Coordinator, had presented.
Actually, Jega had made even a weightier comment earlier. In the briefing, Jibrin Ibrahim, aka Jibo, had made reference to abdication of responsibility by official leadership in relation to resilience to Boko Haram in many of the communities studied. While making general remarks before he threw the floor open for comments, observations, disclaimers and questions, Jega asked whether any sort of leadership emerged whenever and wherever official leadership abdicated. It was a pleasant evidence that the man has not lost his scholarly skills such as problematising to the many years he was out of the academic orbit as Vice-Chancellor of Bayero University, Kano and then Chairman of the INEC. It was after that poser that he turned to the part of the briefing that dealt with how methodology was such a problem for the research.
A brief note on methodology for the general reader may be apt here. By methodology, academics refer to the theory and practice of proof, how one knew what one claims to know. Some people would argue that methodology is what distinguishes scholars from none scholars. A Nigerian professor of Political Science reading the draft of a thesis recently told this reporter he had no concern with what the thesis was saying but with what the evidence of the argument were and how they were established. He was making a classical methodological statement. That is, if you say, for example, that Nigeria is a complex country, by how did you arrive at that? In the process, your sense of complexity would emerge and other people can be on the same page with what you are communicating. So, methodology is one’s guarantee against magic. That is not to say that magic is not a technique for knowledge production but that is not an issue here and now.
In his presentation, Jibo had frowned at what he saw as the inadequacies of methods that emphasised facts and figures as basis of proof. He said what they got from that was a recipe for a dangerous research in terms of what would have emerged as the truth. So, the researchers had to be persuaded to explore what Jibo calls “the classical sociological and anthropological techniques”. By that statement, Jibo was raising an alarm about the state of the art in Nigeria. He could equally be read as, deliberately or otherwise, stoking the fire of the wrangling between the two hegemonic traditions in research: the Qualitative and Quantitative Techniques divide. Or the war over how best to be scientific: is it through facts and figures or through the observing subject as source of meaning?
It is also not clear if Jega and the other professors understood Jibo from that angle or not. On the whole, Jibo’s colleagues caught the bug and affirmed his position. Jega’s comments were basically whether students or researchers even know how to use the facts and figures approaches, collectively called Quantitative Techniques. His argument is that that is where the problem lies because the problems the research encountered with quantitative techniques could also arise with the qualitative approaches. Then, along the line, he made the statement about this being “a crisis with scholarship in Nigeria”.
That was certainly a hair raising enough statement in itself. It became even more so when professor after professor took up the matter, each showing how bad the situation is. No one who is still a student or has anything to do with research could fail to pay attention to what was going on in the hall. For, it is comparable to a situation in which John Ikenberry, Robert Keohane, Joseph Nye, Stephen Walt found themselves in one conference somewhere in the United States and were in agreement with each other that methodology is in crisis in the USA. They are bound to be dinner guests of the president of the United States the next evening to expatiate and proffer solutions to such a reality in the largest social science market in the world. The United States could not have become what it is today without the proficiency of its researchers. Even as dominated as American scholarship by quantitative preferences, it is still the homeland of the most astute promoters of the two hegemonic traditions in research. For all the advancement that Europe has made in qualitative research methods to the detriment of quantitative techniques, the ‘Perestroika Movement’ which gave qualitative movement its confidence erupted in the United States rather than in Europe. Whether Jega’s statement will earn him and the professors at the conference on resilience a dinner invitation by Professor Osinbajo is to be seen.
But each of them said something in support of Jega’s point. This reporter sat next to a Professor of Political Science. He whispered how bad it is in his university. He said the students simply sit down at home and cook up figures. That is something more dangerous than quackery in medicine because medicine itself is based on research findings. When this professor spoke, he strongly agreed with Jega, saying that it is not that any technique is particularly good or bad but the rigour in its application. The next professor took the same position. In fact, he said that “all the techniques are wonderful but the rigour and person using whichever one could be an issue”. As a leading Sociologist, he was making a statement worth reflecting upon.
If the cream, the most exposed and some of the biggest names in social science in Nigeria are saying this and not students, then has it not come to a case of “What’s to be Done”? But what might that be? Is it up to each university to reflect on what it can do or is a national policy required? Is it a curricula problem or quality control crisis? Is it a matter of deficiency in NUC supervision or a funding problem or just a Nigerian problem?
Methodology is a problematic realm across the world. First of all, students do not like to have anything to do with it. Wherever it is not compulsory, it is always a lean class. Where it is compulsory, especially in graduate studies, it is usually not an inviting class. In a British university recently, a ‘Quant’ (short, derogatory name for quantitative techniques) module had to start with why it is necessary. The tutors had to wave the attractions of ‘Big Data’ as far as employment, money making, etc are concerned to cue in the students. It worked but that didn’t kill the idea of ‘Quant’ as an evil necessity. It is not that what Jibo calls the classical sociological and anthropological techniques are easier to score high marks either. It is that methodology, whether ‘Quant’ or ‘Qual’ is a dull, uninviting kind of thing, including the more philosophically fulfilling ‘Qual’.
But the difference between Nigeria and elsewhere might just lie in the near complete absence of the meta-theoretical aspects in the teaching of methodology in most Nigerian universities. In Europe, for instance, this is not the case. As such, the average student has a good grasp of the philosophical grounds why only a particular technique can produce the type of information needed to answer the problem being researched. In other words, elsewhere, they do not just start by teaching questionnaire technique or key informant interview or documentary analysis. They start by situating the entire methodological inquiry in the meta-theoretical debates about evidence, admissibility, reliability, meaning, truth and all those guarantors of scientificity. It is very unlikely that many graduate students across Nigeria can rehash in a hurry what Keohane takes as science or scientificity in the quarrel he led against post-positivism in the current phase of the methodological wrangling. Irrespective of one’s methodological preferences, one must be aware of Keohane’s argument as a starting point. Although Keohane is about American social science fundamentally, these are the guys setting the parameters in the terrain and, even to do battle with them, you must start from what they have to say.
Of course, Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, another American academic, has more than adequately replied Keohane. In fact, along with equally fortified attackers, he has forced the positivist establishment across the world to grudgingly concede that there is more than ‘Quant’ in knowledge production. Unfortunately, these exchanges have not been part of the methodological menu in much of Nigeria, except if they have come up recently.
The great thing is that the disquiet against this state of affair is taking place at the level of very senior academics with access to the global scholarship and research establishment, current literature and debates. Located in the larger Nigerian academic universe, they are perhaps too few to stage a successful ‘revolution’ in research methodology. But they are some of the most influential and, if they sound the alarm more persistently, a revolution could, indeed, take place. Except the very new universities, this may not be such a big budget affair in many of the older universities. But it is possible one is far off the mark in this statement, given the pressure on available resources, space and number of academics available by the phenomenon of newer universities.