Innovation in Research
What is Social Research and What is Knowledge?
WHY DO RESEARCH?
• There are also other pragmatic reasons for understanding the research process and being able to engage in it:
1. Research is practice in the human services and lectures in this course illustrate research as social activism, community development and social policy.
2. And not least of all the importance of information in today’s society in the workplace and in structuring our lives – today’s society is said to be an information rich society – need to know how to
access, organise, interpret, understand and use information in the context of many aspects of work (developing a policy; understanding a problem; advocacy; formal research projects; planning; funding
submissions, in fact also job applications, anything and virtually everything etc).
2. WHAT IS SOCIAL RESEARCH?
. The short answer is that it is a production of knowledge, guided by a question or questions, using systematic methods (steps) and theoretical knowledge to find answers to your question. Specifically
• Research originates with a question or problem
• Research requires clear articulation of a goal
• Research requires a specific plan for proceeding
• Research usually divides the principal problem into more manageable sub problems
• Research is guided by the specific research problem, question, or hypothesis.
• Research accepts certain critical assumptions (researchers often state their assumptions – so others inspecting the research may evaluate it in accordance with their own assumptions)
• Research requires the collection and interpretation of data in an attempt to answer the problem that initiated the research.
Research involves an attempt to gather evidence in such a way that others can see how evidence was gathered, why particular evidence was gathered and draw their own conclusions on the basis of the
evidence (Bouma & Ling, 2004)
This is all underpinned by what knowledge is and how knowledge is made. What is Knowledge?
This of course raises complex philosophical questions and the very question of what is knowledge differs according to the philosophical orientation and foundations of perspective which provides a perspective
on what is knowledge. The first point there are many different meanings and these are underpinned by a philosophical orientation. Some examples:
Knowledge to Michel Foucault is created in the context of the language we use – the words we choose to describe things; how these words take on meanings in particular cultures within specific periods in
history. How words then link together to create a “discourse” a story of meanings or a web of meanings – taken together these words create a knowledge which is political. An example of this is our society –
there is a discourse about Rural Indigenous peoples which is evident in the media and in government policies that render Indigenous rural communities as “dysfunctional; and the word dysfunctional is used as is
lacking in ability; unable to care for children; poor health; violent and so on.
This discourse then has no room for local knowledge – how Indigenous rural cultures function – leaves no spaces for positive ways of life and indeed politically leaves no space for debates about colonisation.
So from this example, the point I want to make is when thinking of knowledge – The following questions are key: Whose knowledge are we talking about? How is it constructed? Why is it constructed?
Whose purposes does it serve? Are there alternate knowledge? And what are they? Slum Dog Millionaire – knowledge is situated – The police inspector says to the main character everyone knows what 20
rupees looks like? And he said “and everyone knows who stole the police bicycle which was parked out the front of the station.
We have to seriously consider what are facts, knowledge and truth. To explore these three crucial concepts the term epistemology is useful. We will return to this again in the weeks that follow. Because you
can’t get away from the philosophy of knowledge and what knowledge is – when planning, designing and doing research.
So, what is epistemology? It may be defined as dealing with the nature of knowledge – what are its possibilities, its scope, and foundations. There are different types of epistemologies:
OBJECTIVIST EPISTEMOLOGY = meaning and reality exist apart from consciousness. For example, objects have an intrinsic meaning – soil is soil. When humans recognise the brown stuff on the ground
as soil they are discovering a meaning that exists outside of human knowledge waiting for them to discover it. So these ideas were transferred in social research (less so now but it is still evident in some
research) to the notion of research and researchers being objective and that if research is conducted in a particular way there is an objective truth to be discovered. (Crotty, 1998).
CONSTRUCTIONISM EPISTEMOLOGY = rejects the previous view of human knowledge. There is no objective truth waiting out there to be discovered – if only we went about it in the right way. What
this view suggests is that meaning is created in the human mind and truth and knowledge come into existence – are made. So different people may construct meanings in different ways even in relation to the
same problem, issue, idea, visual image, sound and so on. For example, take homelessness. If we start from the premise that no one should be homeless then our research questions and methods will be
focused on accommodation options. If we start from the premise that it is the individual’s choice to be homeless or their fault then our research question and methods focus on how to change the individual. Or
we may start with the premise that homeless people know what they want and therefore our research questions and methods will be focused on how to understand homelessness, And it is clear when different
stakeholders are interviewed about a phenomenon the variety of approaches and constructed meanings that are used to inform research. This constructionist view fits more clearly with the Foucault example I
referred to earlier on.
I also want to talk about what is not social research. Social research or the production of knowledge is often associated with media reports or popular culture, tradition, common sense and even authority.
Beginning with media:
The media often assert that this is the way something is e.g. young people are more likely to be involved in crime than older people. So we don’t know what, young people and where, if the statement is drawn
from statistics what sort – police records from two police stations with high youth crime? What is this proposition based on? A spate of previous reports of youth crime? We need to know the source and
analyse the source – because data may be drawn from official statistics it does not mean that those statistics are not flawed in some way or give a partial picture. For example, the statistics on employment and
unemployment collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics only tell us the number of people who are officially unemployed – we don’t know about what is called the hidden unemployed e.g. people in
casual short-term jobs who would like full-time work or people who have returned to study because they can’t find a job.
Another example is the way the media uses statistics to justify a position or impress – like some commercials on TV – university tests show that up to 65% more people find paracetamol more effective for
headaches than other pain killers. Or reports that imply that there is a significant social change or that the world looks a particular way – For example, Women in Management. There are 15 women in high
management positions – this can lead us to believe that women are more prominent in management or that there are equal numbers of women in high level management positions.
b) Popular culture and/or common sense
Popular culture – refers to beliefs that are held at a specific socio-historical time in particular cultures to explain a social phenomenon – And here it is hard to get past Magazines which trade on popular culture
– e.g. Cleo which defines what sexuality is for women – so if their experiences don’t conform there is something wrong with those women or something wrong with their relationships. The idea is that
understanding women’s sexuality is not based on research – a method, a series of questions, analysis and interpretation but is GIVEN TO US AS A FACT. There are lots in popular culture around issues of
parenthood, masculinity and so on – that take for granted what is appropriate.
c) Common Sense Understandings
The accepting of social positions/facts/explanations as common sense and also predefines the social world. The notion that you don’t need to research something because everyone knows that – For example,
everyone knows that Americans are loud when they travel. Or that Victorians love Australian rules football. Commons sense understandings often give a general and universal explanation for something. With
the football example – Victorians love football – all Victorians? There is a strong Southern-European presence in Victoria maybe a good size of the population prefers soccer – and maybe the explanation is
that their interests aren’t represented in the media. And there are more profound social issues based on what at particular times in history were common sense understandings eg before the 1960s it was
commonly understood that Indigenous people would not vote – and before that it was known and legitimised in white society that Indigenous children by taken from their parents. It is these ‘common sense’
approaches that are prolific and harder to problematise in the social era in which they are constructed. Social enquiry gives us tools to attempt critique.
Tradition is another way the social world is explained – that is, we have always done it that way or it has always worked that way – E.g. You become an adult at 18 or 21. Or that boys always inherit farms.
The final example is the use of authority to explain the social world or to prove that the world works that way – E.g. the doctor said. In the example of paracetamol, University tests prove that in these cases
authority gives the statement legitimacy – so it must be right.
As I’ve said we will pick up on what research and knowledge is again next week.
I wish to return now to the 2 epistemological positions bringing us to research as QUALITATIVE AND QUANTATIVE which are key ways in which to identify social research – BRIEFLY – we will cover
this in more depth in the next couple of weeks.
A key identifying feature of whether an approach is qual or quant is the techniques or data collection methods used and the nature of the data gathered. (Neuman, 2000:122). Qual techniques tend to use
techniques that draw on words and stories (like personal interviews or life history recounts) and that draw on impressions gained from peoples words, actions, behaviours and observations (Denzin and
Lincoln, 1994). Qualitative techniques can involve analysis of photos, art work (e.g. depictions of aboriginality during the colonial period), print (e.g. the way the newspaper is set out and what that tells us
about our culture) and may involve analysis of symbols – like media representation of women and symbols associated with femininity e.g. women in aprons. The idea is that qualitative techniques for data
collection and analysis are focused on methods and outcomes other than numerical counts and proportions to explain social life, which is aligned to quant methods.
Quantitative research is concerned with analysis by statistical techniques and are often used to identify and establish relationships between the research variables. Major quantitative methods include collecting
data through surveys and often use data collected from a representative sample of the population of interest so that it can provide results that can be generalised to the broader population (Walter, 2006)
For example, a lecturers suspects that married students at university are receiving higher grade point average than unmarried students at university – wants to compare this… find it out… the lecturer can take a
representative sample of both married and unmarried students to find this out.
Questions are often “how many” questions – measuring and counting – can be used to explain a lot about how or why people do things – tend to try and give a big picture perspective – generalise to the whole
Method is the technique or practice used to gather and analyse the research data e.g interviews, survey etc (Walter, 2006).
Methods are the tools of data generation and analysis (Sarantakos, 1998)
Lets try and summarise the two:
Holosko (2006) uses this table for students who are struggling to see the difference between qualitative and quantitative social research – adapted with use of Neuman (2006)
Selected Criteria Qualitative Quantitative
Main purpose To describe and understand individuals and/or events in natural settings
Capture and discover meaning once the researcher is immersed in data
To explore, describe, test or assess phenomena
Test hypothesis that the researcher begins with
Theory is often inductive
Theory is often deductive
Theory use & generation Concepts are in the form of themes
Theory is integrated throughout, grounded theory Concepts are in the form of distinct variables
Theory is used to justify hypothesis questions and to validate
Dynamics/ method Process oriented: experiential and systematic, procedures are particular and replication is rare
Create as you evolve Deterministic: linear and prescribed, procedures are standard and replication is frequent.
Researchers role Active – immersed Passive
Problem formulation May emerge at the end Early on
Data In the form of words, images, observations – measures are created in an ad hoc manner In the form of numbers from precise measurement
Analysis Proceeds by extracting themes or generalisations from evidence – organise data into a coherent picture Using statistics, tables, charts and show how they relate to the hypothesis.
Generalizability Low – think quality – small
Language of context High – thank quantity – large
Language of variables and hypothesis