Sunday, 11 January 2009

Speaking with Authority

In Barclay's (1975) commentary on Luke 4:31-37, he talks about Jesus speaking with authority. Jesus didn't say “Rabbi so and so says,” he said “I say to you.” His authority came from himself. Jesus spoke as one who knew.

In research writing, the emphasis is placed on the authority of prior research papers and the interpretation of the data in the light of accepted research methods. Authority is gained through the references made and the acceptance for publication of your work by the research community. It is unacceptable to say that this is my understanding or from my perspective. This method of recognising the authority of work is a protection against fraudulent research and a technique for ensuring that the researcher has read the literature in the field.

Yet, this method of providing authority does cause problems when innovative solutions are proposed. The tendency is to accept work that conforms to the current understanding and direction of research in the field. Anything that challenges that current understanding or direction of research is likely to be rejected until they have built up sufficient support to be able to get their work recognised. Kuhn (1996) describes some of these issues in his writings.

In my research based on phenomenography, which assumes that different people will see or understand a phenomenon in different ways, I would like to argue that each researcher interprets their data based on their understanding of the phenomenon understudy. Certainly, I am conscious that my results are an interpretation of the interview data based on what I saw in that data. Yes, I endeavoured to follow the analysis methods of phenomenography and I revisited the data many times endeavouring to look at it from different perspectives. However, all of those ways that I looked at my data depended on me recognising that they were possible ways of looking at the data. Sure my reading helped broaden the possibilities but in the end, if I was blind to a particular perspective (I didn't know of that perspective, I don't know what I don't know (Armour 2000)) then it wasn't included in my analysis. For a particular approach to be taken then the researcher has to be aware of that approach. A lack of awareness means that it won't be included in the study.

There is another claim to authority that I want to look at and it is one that I have found reoccurring as I return to work in industry. It is a claim along the lines of “This is the way that it is done in this language.” Often what is meant by the person expressing this claim is that “This is how I do it in this language” or “To the best of my knowledge this is how to do this in this language.” The difficulty with the original claim is that there is no room for different ways or different understandings. It is making an absolute claim that leaves the hearer with no opportunity to propose an alternative. The other issue is that it actually lacks any supporting authority at all. The speaker isn't saying it is based on their experience or authority and they are providing no other source to support their claim.

When a person says “this is my understanding” or as Jesus did “I say to you,” they are clearly placing emphasis on their own experience and knowledge. Whether we accept that person's claim will then depend on our acceptance of their authority. In the case of Jesus, his authority to speak was rejected by those who knew his background but accepted by those who heard and saw what he did. When we speak from our own authority, we need to ensure that we are backing up what we say by what we do. If I claim a particular way of doing things in a programming language or as a result of my research, I better be able to show that my approach to programming works and that my results can be seen for what I claim them to be. If that doesn't happen then I have no grounds for claiming authority.


Armour, P. G. (2000). The five orders of ignorance: Viewing software development as knowledge acquisition and ignorance reduction. Communications of the ACM, 43(10), 17-20.

Barclay, W. (1975). The gospel of Luke (revised ed.). Edinburgh: The Saint Andrews Press.

Kuhn, T. S. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago.

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