In Search of Good Research (part 1)

WARNING: I am a fan of slow reading so if you are looking for a brief inspiring blog post this is not it.

Research and rule.

Paraphrasing Caesar’s Divide et impera,  I would say that research has been perhaps one of the most powerful tools in shaping education systems and policies. As such, we owe it to ourselves to understand the research process better so as to go beyond the biased views we all hold and to question at all times everything we read under the category of “research” and/or “study”.

I happen to have finished three books on research (Research Methods in Education, Louis Cohen et al; Reading Educational Research, Gerald W. Bracey; An Introduction to the Philosophy of Methodology, Kerry E. Howell) and, more than 1,000 pages later, I am still left with one question. You will see it at the end of this post.

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Back to the beginning.

Research: “act of searching closely” (1570s, from Middle French recherché). “Scientific inquiry” meaning first attested in 1630s.

The problem with the act of “searching closely” in the area of social sciences is that it is influenced, from its very inception, by the ontological assumptions, the epistemological beliefs and the human nature model that the researcher holds. How we view reality (ontology) and knowledge (epistemology), as well as how we see humans in relationship to their environment (social and otherwise) have subtle yet deep connections with who we are as people and how we interact with knowledge and others. A researcher is no exception from this complex array of attitudes, beliefs, and ultimately ways of being in the world.

Two major concepts of social reality have crystallized and these, in turn, shaped the ways researchers approached social sciences. Upon examination of the explicit and implicit assumptions underpinning them, the objectivist and subjectivist views could be summarized as I did below:

Objectivism  (Positivists)

Assumptions

Subjectivism (Nominalists)

–          Objects have an independent existence; the knower is irrelevant

Ontological

–    Reality is the product of individual consciousness thus essentially unknowable
–          Knowledge is tangible and measurable therefore the researcher needs to use methods of natural science

Epistemological

–      Knowledge is personal, subjective and unique thus the researcher needs to understand his subjects
–          Determinism: people are products of their environment; they respond deterministically to the environment

Human nature model

–      Voluntarism: people are initiators of their own actions, with free will and creativity, producing their own environments
–          Ordered: governed by a uniform set of values

Society

–      Conflicted: governed by the values of people in power
–          Goal-oriented, independent of people. Instruments of order in society.

Organizations

–      Dependent on people and their goals. Instruments of power which only some people control and use.
–          Change the structure (of the organization) to meet social needs

Prescription for change

–      Change the people or the values. Find out what and whose values the organization holds.

“Each of the two perspectives on the study of human behavior outlined above has profound implications for research in classrooms and schools. The choice of problem, the formulation of questions to be answered, the characterization of pupils and teachers, methodological concerns, the kinds of data sought and their mode of treatment, all are influenced by the viewpoint held.” (Cohen et al, Research Methods in Education, p.28)

These two contrasting sets of assumptions had a direct impact on the methodology employed by researchers. As one would expect, these are different if not oppositional in terms of nature and purpose:

POSITIVISTS

nomothetic approach

(identifying general laws)

ANTI-POSITIVISTS

idiographic approach

(emphasis on the particular and individual)

  • surveys, experiments
  • scientific investigation will be directed at analyzing the relationships and regularities between selected factors in that world
  • predominantly quantitative
  • accounts, participant observation and personal constructs
  • principal concern is with an understanding of the way in which the individual creates, modifies and interprets the world
  • qualitative as well as quantitative aspect

Historically, many other theories branched out of these two basic schools of thought from empiricism, phenomenology, critical theory, constructivism, hermeneutics and grounded theory to post-structuralism and complexity theory. Regardless of their newly-added layers of understanding, they fall under two major paradigms (Douglas, 1973):

–          normative :  human behavior is essentially rule-governed and it should be investigated by methods of natural science

–          interpretative: focused on the subjective world of human experience; efforts to understand “from within” so as to retain the integrity of the phenomena being investigated

*If you have the time to read the 657 pages of Research Methods in Education, you will enjoy discovering how these theories can be found in many of today’s debates, even if they are not named.  For instance, critical theory (Habermans) explicitly seeks not only to understand social phenomena, but to redress inequality and emancipate the disempowered; hermeneutics (Weber, Berger, Luckmann) focuses on language and interaction as tools for understanding situations through the eyes of the participants; complexity theory (Morrison) looks at feedback, connection and self-organization and its unit of analysis becomes “a web or ecosystem” (Capra).  You can find these ideas in articles, blog posts, conversations on Twitter even when the theories themselves have faded into the background or are simply not acknowledged.

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“Research and politics are inextricably bound together.”  

Not that we are not aware of that on an empirical level, but I find it interesting that people fail to realize another element that has become a trend and seriously undermines the policies that are being implemented: evaluation.

More and more frequently, researchers are asked to evaluate various programs, given policies and projects in the field of education. The key-word here is “given”. Because this type of research is funded and commissioned by policy-makers (governments, fund-awarding bodies etc.) it enables others to set the agenda. Open-ended, relative neutral research is replaced with pre-determined agenda of research and thus the evaluator

“(…) is faced with competing interest groups, with divergent definitions of the situation and conflicting informational needs . . .. He has to decide which decision makers he will serve, what information will be of most use, when it is needed and how it can be obtained . . . . The resolution of these issues commits the evaluator to a political stance, an attitude to the government of education. No such commitment is required of the researcher.” (MacDonald 1987: 42)

This politicization of research has a long list of consequences but I will enumerate a few that to me seem of vital importance:

–          ignoring the long-term effects (educational, social, economic) because this type of evaluations look at the implementation of short-term projects

–          neglecting and under-reporting the views of classroom practitioners (does it ring a bell, teachers?) as well as ignoring criticism

–          undermining theoretical approaches by deeming opinions as a key-factor

–          self-censorhip or lack of public reporting due to the tight contractual relationship with the program sponsors

–          implicit advocacy for the program but done in the reporting style to appear neutral

“These have huge implications for research styles.

Policy-makers anxious for the quick fix of superficial facts, short-term solutions and simple remedies for complex and generalized social problems find positivist methodologies attractive (n.n. loads of quantitative data!), often debasing the data through illegitimate summary.

 This, reply the researchers, misrepresents the nature of their work and belies the complex reality which they are trying to investigate. “

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*In the next part on educational research I will look at reliability, validity and integrity of research (having as source Howell’s   Philosophy of Methodology) and then at data uses (through the lens of G. Bracey’s work, Reading Educational Research – How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered).

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