What are research methods for?

From Paradigm wars: Some thoughts on a personal and public trajectory by Ann Oakley:

It is because doctors, teachers, social workers and others are so prone to launch interventions without knowing their effects that social science is obliged to use the best tools at its disposal to scrutinize such activities. Method here is (as Wright Mills advised) properly harnessed to the service of the social problem itself, rather than the other way around.

[…]

What are research methods for? In an era dominated by postmodernism, postfeminism and a general acceptance of multiple meanings, it is obviously unfashionable to suggest that the aim of research methods is to provide some sort of approximation to what is ‘really’ going on. Yet this is, I think, what drives and should drive most social scientists, just as most of us live our everyday lives as though reality exists and can be known about. Put the other way round, this concern becomes one about the extent to which different research methods offer protection against bias, against the possibility that we will end up with misleading answers. Much ‘qualitative’ research is simply too unsystematic, too masonic in nature, too cavalier about appeals to ‘triangulation’ and/or analysis using computerized software packages, to establish serious credentials for being trustworthy. (p. 251-252)

I find it hard to disagree with her argument here. Part of me nonetheless wants to assert some fuzzy sense of the intrinsic value of qualitative research but another (much less fuzzy) part of me thinks this is just the residual influence of the politicised commitment to qualitative research described by Oakley that I once shared yet no longer do.


Categories: Higher Education, Outflanking Platitudes

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