Meeting scientific requirements is, of course, the underpinning of any good research. Undoubtedly any research should have a clear purpose of the study, well-formulated questions, a well-structured design, and a choice of methods commensurate with the overall composition of the research. These are prerequisites of any good research regardless of their epistemology and ontology. When it comes to ontological and epistemological aspects of research, then the level of uncertainty arises around the notion of “good research”. Different epistemologies and ontologies extracted from contending philosophies of social sciences seem to disagree about this question simply because their adherents firmly believe that their way of conducting research is the best one. Scott and Usher (2011) demonstrated briefly the differences between different epistemologies and how conducting research is affected by the choice of each epistemology-ontology.
There has been an ongoing discussion about this issue since the 1950s, when the supremacy of positivism in social sciences was questioned and undermined by other approaches like interpretivism and constructivism. In this short text, I don’t intend to participate in the dispute, as mentioned above, and try to argue that I advocate the best one. First of all, I’m not knowledgeable enough to enter this debate favouring one trying to disregard the other. Also, as I mentioned above, epistemological and ontological matters don’t necessarily determine the quality of research per se. In this short paper, I will strive to present how I perceive good research.
As the name itself indicates, social sciences are about the social world or more; they aim to understand human beings in the social world and their relationships. Therefore, it’s equally unattainable trying to investigate, on the one hand, individuals isolated from their social world, and on the other social world without the impact of humans. The way we think, understand the world, and behave is, to a great extent, shaped by our objective realities. This is not in the same line as, e.g. the determinist interpretation of Marxism because, in my view, individuals can affect their social world if they use their freedom and subjective choices. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his book Search for a Method (1957), by using the notion of contingency in the world, argues that although individuals are shaped by objective realities of both the social and material world, through their actions, they can shape the structure of the world as well.
Consequently, people are not purely passive products of objective realities. Instead, they can generate possibilities for affecting the world if they use their freedom. In that sense, the social world and individuals as agents shape and reshape one another in a dialectical process.
In this way, seeing the social world requires a perspective that apprehends social phenomena as not wholly fixed, pre-defined and resistant to alteration, but quite the opposite, as flexible and changeable. That is why it is of great importance to situate individuals in social contexts when conducting research.
In his book The Sociological Imagination (1951), C. Wright Mills discusses that for achieving a coherent and accurate comprehension of social phenomena, a researcher should consider the interplay between individuals (biography) and their social-historical context. Hence, good research should tie three levels of analysis to one another in a systematic way. These levels of analysis are:
· Micro level: biographical analysis of individuals
· Meso level: the specific social context that individuals live in
· Macro level: overarching socio-economic-political conditions of the bigger society
There is no doubt that good research should contribute to the knowledge development of the field. Still, the research’s contribution to the advancement of society is another significant feature of good research if we agree with Scott and Usher (2011:3) that research itself is a social practice. Long ago, Karl Marx said that ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it’ (1998: 571). I don’t dare to claim as Marx and say what philosophers-researchers should or shouldn’t do, but trying to improve the society—even slightly— finds an essential place in the world’s current chaotic state. Otherwise, it will be nothing more than another contribution to the academic-industrial complex.
Here, one can argue that not all changes in society are necessarily good and pose this question that whose idea should be the milestone to assess that? This is a perfectly valid critique, and I’m entirely aware of it. For instance, both socialists and neo-liberals talk about changes, but they mean quite the opposite things. It’s a standard procedure in academia that researchers should be objective but is it possible for a researcher to be completely accurate? Even if we try to put our ideas, beliefs, and values aside, they can still be active in our unconscious without being aware of that. It was mentioned above that individuals are shaped through interaction with the objective realities around them, and researchers are not exceptions.
We all have our patterns of thinking that make us think in a way that we think and see the world in a way that we see. Therefore, we cannot avoid a certain level of subjectivity in our researches, but there are ways to leash it.
I want to conclude this short text by going back to where it started. It was briefly explained that there are specific requirements for good research that everyone agrees upon regardless of their political and/or philosophical stance. As long as researchers follow those rules, pay attention to the validity of their data, and don’t be biased during the gathering and analysis of the data, then the effects of subjective interpretations can hopefully be minimised.
Marx, K. (1998) “The German Ideology”, Prometheus Books, New York.
Mills, C. W. (1951) “The Sociological Imagination”, Oxford University Press, New York.
Sartre, J. P. (1957) “Search for a Method”, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Scott, D. and Usher, R. (2011) “Researching Education: Data, Methods and Theory in Educational Enquiry”, Continuum, New York.
Written by Morteza Eslahchi, PhD researcher in organisational learning and development