Social Research and Intellectual Neglect: The Promise in Explicating the Philosophical Ethics Underpinning Our Research

by John-Paul Smiley

This brief piece is a rallying call of sorts – for researchers to more clearly make explicit the fundamental philosophical ethics underpinning their research. Most research, as Kinsella (2006) points out, ‘…is informed by philosophical underpinnings that originate in unacknowledged and implicit philosophical traditions’ (Kinsella: 2006: p. 1). What is often left unstated, however, is that these philosophical underpinnings are of a profoundly ethical nature. For example, social researchers often make recommendations in their research papers, either implicitly or explicitly, suggesting that some course of actions ought or should follow from their work, in order to bring about some form of change deemed desirable. Though arguably present in all research, this is especially the case in researchers whose work is of a more political nature and those which touch upon matters of policy. But comments and suggestions regarding what ought or should be, questions concerning how and why policy takes a particular format, who gets to be involved, what role there is for the public at large, what role government is to play (or should play) – these are fundamentally ethical-normative questions which are contestable and negotiable and so require articulation and explication of criterion for support.

Recognition of this is unfortunately uncommon in much social research, though it is established in policy studies literatures, with scholars such as Fischer (1980), for example, arguing the need for policy analysis studies to have some manner of criterion for arbitration between competing values. This is necessary because ethics, like other areas of human inquiry, are contested – there are numerous differing schools of thought. It is no coincidence that one of the greatest intellectual projects of human philosophy has been the establishment of ethical criterions and systems, from the ancient Chinese and Greek philosophers, through to Kant’s (1797) Deontological ethics, Mill’s (1863) Utilitarianism, and Dewey and Tuft’s (1932) Pragmatic ethics, to name but a few. This is important because in research, ‘Ethics’, ‘theory’, and ‘values’ form a mighty triumvirate underpinning research methodology…’ (Ransome: 2013: viii), with personal notions of value deriving from cultural sources of value, which are inextricably embedded in already-existing, often tacit ethical systems. The ethical presuppositions a researcher has adopted, knowingly or not, influence and shape the sorts of research questions and approaches they deem ‘worthy’, the types of methods they believe ‘appropriate’, and the forms, standards, and types of evidence and proof they are likely to be willing to accept. There are thus very real practical implications for the judging of research, as the perceived ‘value’ accorded to any particular piece will be underpinned by a researcher’s presuppositions. This, though arguably true regardless of the field of study under consideration, holds particularly for the social and political sciences, for, as Schwandt (1996) has reminded us, ‘…social scientific knowledge is not presuppositionless but is instead shaped by moral and political values and concerns’ (Schwandt: 1996 reprinted in Seale [ed]: 2004: pp. 432 – 433).

The point here is that social researchers cannot assume that other researchers subscribe to their particular branch of ethics and so it is incumbent upon them to make their own position clear. This need not entail a lengthy treatise – it could be as little as a few sentences – but it should be clear, as much for the researcher’s benefit as for any readers’. Such explications could reveal fundamental cleavages and points of difference, and may well lead to a position where an impasse is considered reached, with researchers perhaps believing their position to be incommensurable with others. But even if this is the case, a greater, genuine understanding between all parties involved would have been achieved. The continued failure to do this, however, has led to a situation in academia in which many authors and readers are, in effect, talking past each other, with the potential for meaningful criticism and engagement between differing parties reduced. Genuine intellectual debate, and the possibility of any honest and sincere exchanges of ideas, requires an appreciation of the foundational ethical assumptions underpinning other’s perspectives. Without such, the integrity and substance of academic debate is compromised.

Furthermore, there is additional practical value of such explications in providing greater robustness and transparency in public political discourse. This is important as there are real, practical consequences and implications for political discourse which follow from the adoption of particular ethics. Knowingly or not, by doing so, social actors are contributing to discourses which in turn either buttress or challenge prevailing social orders. By making the philosophical underpinnings clearer and more visible, more fruitful, nuanced and sophisticated discourse becomes possible, with all parties involved having more sensitive appreciation of the other’s positions and their ethical underpinnings. This in turn offers the potential to reenergize civic engagement with a more informed citizenry. The potential risk of intellectual myopia is also mitigated against with both the individual and the broader social collective benefiting as, through being forced to confront alternative ethical presuppositions, policy-formulation and political debate at large would have to more deeply confront its foundational, tacit assumptions, leading to more robust and self-aware decision-making. It is arguably academic researchers, as members within their polities with more time and resources to allow reflexive consideration of such matters, who have a greater responsibility than other social actors to ensure that due consideration is given to this issue.

The potential prize for explicating our ethical presuppositions is thus great. So, the next time you sit down to write a paper, judge that research, or to prepare that conference presentation, ask yourself ‘What are the philosophical ethics underpinning my thoughts here?’ and ‘How might someone adopting a differing branch of philosophical ethics approach the matter?’. Such questions are extremely challenging and it is understandably far easier to avoid or ignore them, or to pretend that they are irrelevant. But addressing such questions significantly strengthens a researcher’s own intellectual positions, and increases the potential for real and sincere conversation and debate on important matters of social and political dispute. Attention to such philosophical matters is important then, because, in the end, social researchers are also always philosophers, whether they know it or not, and whether they like it or not.

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


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