Defining Scientific Research

To anchor our discussion, we define scientific research as investigative activity capable of discovering that the world is or is not organized as our preconceptions lead us to expect and suggesting grounded ways of understanding and acting on it. Scientific research documents both the investigative processes and conclu­sions arising from them in sufficient detail for other interested parties to be able to evaluate the information and interpretations offered and examine the conse­quences of the sequence of actions taken. Scientific knowledge is not a fixed entity but should be understood as an ongoing discourse among scientists strug­gling to make sense of the world. Scientific knowledge is in a constant state of transition, searching for the best possible understanding and management of specific phenomena/processes.

In the following discussion, we use the terms logical positivism and herme­neutics. For the sake of clarity, it is important to define what we mean by these two concepts.

  • Logical positivism is based on the ontological argument that the world is objec­tively given; the epistemological effort is to apply objective techniques in order to acquire the truth.
  • Hermeneutics is based on the ontological position that the world is only avail­able subjectively and the epistemological project is to negotiate interpretations of this subjective world.

A central strategic problem we face in making this exposition is that intro­ductory texts in most fields (including the sciences, social sciences, and humanities) do not reflect accurately the best practices or the most thoughtful views in those fields. In the often misguided effort to simplify perspectives to make them suitable for introductory students, classroom presentations regularly distort the frameworks and practices of our fields in ways that would be unacceptable to experienced professional practitioners. This can be seen clearly in the fact that few practicing social scientists would turn to an intro­ductory textbook for guidance about the practices in their own fields. This is partly because the books are too elementary, but mainly because the books rarely reflect the best practices.

This problem is not unique to the social sciences; it afflicts the basic sciences as well. Generally, introductory instruction in the sciences gives students an ide­alized, ahistorical, nonbehavioral view of science either as a set of truths or as a set of rather unproblematic methods. Science’s diversity and confusions, its human face, its social and historical dimensions, and, consequently, its behav­ioral and human excitement are often lost from view. Scientists are portrayed as disembodied minds that seek the truth behind the confusing world of appear­ances, with much of the complexity and excitement of their tasks washed out. In other words, the praxis and context of research are generally overlooked.

In addition, formulas and principles are presented as achieved truths. Laboratory exercises and problem sets all have one or two “correct” solutions. Unlike the real world of scientific practice, all classroom puzzles have a definite answer. In the classroom, it is made to appear that scientists know these answers, and that the students, to become scientists, must come to know them also. Of course, this is not entirely nonsensical. Respect for systematic work with principles, handling and reporting of materials, and understanding of laws whose consequences are reasonably well understood are all meaningful parts of science. But practicing scientists generally do not live science only in this narrow way.

Doing scientific work is not copying methodological blueprints written up in textbooks, but applying research methods in the complex settings of the social world (Latour, 1987). As the lecture by a chemist discussed in the next chapter points out in greater detail, scientists live in a socially complex world, chasing dynamic phenomena with limited and imperfect instruments and finite energies and budgets.

We have defined scientific research as investigative activity capable of discovering that the world is not organized as our preconceptions lead us to expect and suggesting alternative ways to understand it. Scientific research documents both the investigative processes and conclusions arising from them in sufficient detail for other interested parties to be able to evaluate the infor­mation and interpretations offered. The institutional edifices of what is called “science” today do not necessarily bear a dose relationship to this definition of scientific research.

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

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