Don’t we need to take into account a researcher’s philosophical presuppositions amid calls for greater research replicability?

by John-Paul Smiley

Calls for greater replicability in social research are seemingly increasing by the day. The issue has garnered renewed attention in light of the LaCour incident and has prompted a flurry of debate across both traditional and new media platforms. What is rarely mentioned in these discussions, however, is the commensurability of replicability with differing ontological and epistemological positions. The calls for replicability arguably rest on positivistic presuppositions concerning the nature of reality; ones not necessarily shared by alternative schools of thought. Hoping to spark debate, this brief piece considers the implications of adopting one such alternative ontological position for research replicability – an ontology of becoming.

Though the idea of an ontology of becoming can be traced back to the ancient Greeks with Heraclitus, in the modern era, it is Alfred Whitehead (1929) who has done most to popularise the concept, with Chia (1995) bringing attention to it most recently in management and organisational research circles. Leclerc (1958), summarises Whitehead’s position by stating that, ‘…an actual entity’s “being” is constituted by its “becoming”. In other words, its existing is constituted by its ‘process’’ (Leclerc: 1958: p. 69). Consider, for example, the Moon. You may look upon it night after night and ascribe to it a state of permanence. But this is true only relative to your perception of time. In actuality, the Moon, like any other physical entity, is in a state of becoming, of flux. It has emerged at a particular point of time; it is, from moment to moment, changing (through, for example, surface erosion), and it will eventually, in time, cease to exist. The object that we perceive to be objectively there, is there, but only as a temporary formation of matter in a particular configuration.

The same is true for humans – we are born, we grow up, and we die. Along the way, we are socialised into whatever particular communities and institutions we are born into and later, once a certain level of awareness and development is achieved, we dabble with alternatives as we see fit. The point is that human researchers are themselves always changing – the eighteen-year-old researcher is not the same as the twenty-five year old, or the forty-five years old, or the sixty-five year old. Change is not unusual, it is the only constant. Humans are thus constantly interpreting and meaning-making against a backdrop of physical reality which is itself in a continual process of change – and this includes the physical bodies of humans. That entities appear relatively static is solely due to the limitations of humans to perceive minutiae of change. Bodies, whether we are referring to human or planetary, are constantly in a state of flux and change. What we recognise as an ‘entity’ is thus an abstraction based on a perceived momentary state of being. The problem is that humans, due to our limited lifespans, have difficulty perceiving that what is meant by ‘moments’ is relative to your perception of time and can include timespans far exceeding the average human lifespan (consider, for example, the notion of ‘historical moments’, paradigms, and zeitgeists, which often last decades or centuries).

In terms of social ontology, the implication of this is that social and political institutions are constantly in a state of movement and all that can ever be captured at any one moment is an interpretation of a perceived static entity that is in actuality in flux. Social entities may, then, exist in a variety of configurations and relationships, all of which are marked by flux and transience. What is actually perceived is only ever a researcher’s interpretation of a particular level, moment, or stage of being of the action or institution under consideration and never the totality. And this realisation, in turn, has implications for research method, as, following Chia (1995), it is believed in such an approach, that, ‘…reality is deemed to be constantly in flux and transformation and hence unrepresentable in any static sense’ (Chia: 1995: p. 579 – emphasis added). Indeed, the researcher’s and participant’s own understandings at any moment are always themselves characterised by becoming – of constant movement as new interactions, research, and work bring new appreciations, interpretations and understandings. This point, now seemingly forgotten, was made by Lasswell (1936) almost eighty years ago when he stated that, ‘From analysis, then, we can expect no static certainty. It is a constant process of re-examination which brings new aspects of the world into the focus of critical attention’ (Lasswell: 1936: p. 19).

Strict replicability, then, does not, and cannot, apply to research if one adopts on an ontology of becoming. Each moment, the researcher and the subject and/or object of study are in flux – they are different, changed – if only to a degree. The implication of this is that one would not expect research to be accurately replicable over time, indeed it is considered impossible. The more time that passes, the more that both the subject(s) and object(s) change, with the resulting interpretations being different than those previously held – even if unbeknownst to the holder. The forty-year old researcher repeating an analysis of interview data they carried out twenty years earlier, for example, will never replicate his/her work exactly. Moreover, this holds regardless of whether qualitative or quantitative methods are utilised.

Critical readers may suggest that a deliberately extreme example has been used here, and it has. But the point of this piece has not been to suggest that researchers should adopt an ontology of becoming for their studies. Rather, the point has been to recognise that differing ontological and epistemological perspectives have varying implications for conceptualisations of ‘appropriate’ criteriology – including the perceived potential desirability and feasibility of replicability. More nuanced consideration needs to be given to this issue and researchers can assist in these discussions by more clearly stating their adopted positions and then explicating the logical consequences of such. There is a danger, particularly as we enter the ‘Big Data’ era, that social research is increasingly likely to converge on an unreflexive homogeny of method – one that pays scant consideration or respect to alternative philosophical presuppositions. This is exactly the fear articulated by interpretive scholars, that, ‘The idol of methodological rigour typically acts to obscure prior philosophical issues or even to prejudge such issues to support positivism’ (Bevir and Rhodes: 2006: p. 81). But unless we are to suggest that we have resolved all metaphysical debates, that we are certain as to the nature of reality, then a little less hubris, a touch more humility, and greater sensitivity to competing ontological claims would arguably serve us better going forward.

John-Paul Smiley is a PhD Candidate at Loughborough University

Copyright remains with the author, John-Paul Smiley, who reserves the right to use/reuse this work, in part or whole, in the future

References

Bevir, M. and Rhodes, R.A.W. (2006) ‘defending interpretation’, European Political Science, Vol. 5, pp. 69 – 83.

Chia, R. (1995) ‘From Modern to Postmodern Organizational Analysis’, Organization Studies, Vol. 16, No. 4, pp. 579 – 604.

Lasswell, H. (1936/1950) Politics: Who Gets What, When, How, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing [originally published 1936].

Leclerc, I. (1958) Whitehead’s metaphysics: an introductory exposition, London: Allen and Unwin Publishing

Whitehead, A. N. (1929/1978) Process and Reality – An Essay in Cosmology, New York: The Free Press [‘Corrected Edition’, 1978, edited by Griffin, D. R. and Sherburne, D. W.].


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