The researcher who cares to do more than merely spit in the wind must understand the philosophical construct upon which he will base his efforts. Skipping this step prevents the development of a rational, directed series of research questions, which lessens their positive impact on others and society at large. Many researchers manage to merely lengthen their curriculum vitae by following such an undirected approach, making it attractive to the purely ambitious. This is not sufficient for the ethical man, who studies the world around him out of love, not cynical calculation.
My own personal paradigm of belief, which informs the general research goals and specific research questions I set to answer in my professional life, most closely aligns with the post-positivist view. Post-positivism states that objective methods are best used in research since reality is objective, but that a researcher cannot reach a level of true observational objectivity due to his own limitations.
Positivism, upon which post-positivism is obviously based, accepts the objectivity of reality but believes a sufficiently careful researcher can be purely objective in his pursuit of understanding. I respect the pure Positivist but cannot completely accept his assertion that one’s observations can be perfectly genuine.
I am suspicious of the Interpretivist’s subjective approach to research and assertion that reality is different for each person; in essence, the interpretivist view is there is no reality outside of the mind of the observer. Thus, things do not exist unless they are being perceived, and their characteristics are defined as is perceived in them. Erroneous as this is, the Interpretivist does emphasize research of the many situations too complex or inaccessible for empiricism. There is some value to a pragmatic use of its favored qualitative method, though great care is recommended lest one lose the motivation to study anything beyond his own feelings.
Interpretivism could theoretically be elevated from this miasma with a belief in an overarching intelligence (a god, if you will) who constantly perceives all and, in so doing, imparts to it characteristics as immutable as his perception. The problem is that such an assumption brings the researcher–indirectly and subtly–back to post-positivism, as it necessarily deemphasizes individual human perceptions.
I distrust the intersectional agenda of the Transformativist, who sees reality as a struggle between privileged and oppressed classes. Though this paradigm exists out of an admirable desire to affect positive change, its view of humanity as the primary battleground of reality is hopelessly short-sighted and self-important. It’s tendency to classify people into discrete groups and then generalize findings among them must either ignore individual characteristics that run counter, or overemphasize them to the point of creating a separate subgroup of the even more aggrieved. The classification of these groups are often based upon the preferences and preconceptions of the researcher; in essence, the Transformativist usually finds what he wants to find in his research, drawing into question why he should engage in research in the first place. The answer is disappointing: research is just another tool to be used to elevate the oppressed, and can thus be adjusted at any stage of the process to achieve the required results. It is, essentially, a shell game, wherein the aggrieved party, knowing his (real or imagined) oppressor values empirical research and believes its conclusions, creates a subtle counterfeit of empirical research in an attempt to fool the oppressors into engaging in self-immolation. It is simultaneously brilliant and diabolical.
Allow me to vacillate slightly: though I believe the transformativist paradigm itself to be hopelessly flawed and therefore bound to corruption, the same cannot be said for individual Transformativists. Many of them enter research to “do something about” the injustice they see, which is admirable. The problem is the transformativist paradigm never forces them to question their assumption of oppression; no evidence can ever be presented that will convince the dedicated Transformativist that injustice is not to blame in a particular situation, for his philosophy will not allow it. This makes it very difficult to get anywhere in conversation with a Transformativist; such dialog tends to circle round and round pointlessly for a time before being pulled down the drain into a sewer of insults and hurt feelings.
There also exists the “can’t we all just get along” approach of pragmatism, which uses any techniques useful for exploration of the research goals in question and doesn’t consider what those techniques mean. It is outcomes-based to the point of being income-naive; it does not take a position in the debate over the nature of research, but rather ignores it entirely. Though I appreciate the Pragmatist’s use of mixed-methods research and his emphasis on outcomes, I cannot deemphasize the why of research to a Pragmatist’s level, lest I lose my philosophical justification for the research action itself or find myself stumbling blindly into erroneous methodology and, thus, erroneous results (Mackenzie & Knipe, 2006).
Let us now consider my personal ontology, epistemology, methodology, and axiology, which will explain my acceptance of post-positivism.
According to Jacquette (2002), ontology is a philosophical concept that informs the application of science. It is the philosophy of being, or what existence means. Ontology deals with the question: “What is real?” It is an important question to settle, since scientific research is the study of that which exists.
My ontology is informed by such traditional sources as The Bible and the works of Aristotle, as well as more contemporary voices who hold: That which exists, exists absolutely. It is fundamental to Christian thought that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1 English Standard Version) and that “all things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3 English Standard Version). In his Metaphysics, Aristotle famously described that which exists as having an objective substance, and how one might go about investigating this “being as being” (Aristotle, trans. 1924, Book VI, Part I). C. S. Lewis, the 20th-century Christian apologist, and himself an Aristotelian scholar, wrote:
Everything becomes different when we recognize that Nature is a creature, a created thing, with its own particular tang or flavour. There is no need any longer to select and slur. It is not in her, but in Something [sic] far beyond her, that all lines meet and all contrasts are explained (Lewis, 1947, p. 66).
To put it simply, my ontology is that reality is absolute and separate from our perceptions. It flows from God (the only primary real) as a result of his creativity. Therefore, reality is knowable to us only to the extent that he makes it so, either by giving us senses so we may perceive; or revelation so we may reason.
It is important to note, however–as Thomas Aquinas wrote in Summa Contra Gentiles–that human beings are part of nature; also created. It follows that our perceptions, experiences, feelings, logic and science arise from things that are real (i.e.: ourselves), and thus are also real things that can be studied as such (Aquinas, trans. 1975, Book 2, Chapters 46-56).
Epistemology is “the theory of knowledge” (Rescher, 2003, p. xiii). Understood as a philosophical study, it “clarif[ies] what the conception of knowledge involves, how it is applied, and…explain[s] why it has the features it does” (Rescher, 2003, p. xiii). Post-positivism considers reality as knowable, but knowledge as operating according to multiple theories, which are adjustable or replaceable as better information is made available. We believe some of what we perceive based upon what we consider justifiable grounds. Theoretically, it is not possible to be certain that these grounds are themselves real, since they are based upon logic and, therefore, the workings of the human mind. However, the operational use of extant knowledge makes such considerations relatively moot, until a problem arises the knowledge base is unable to address, which requires the development of a new or amended theory to accommodate the novel knowledge. Though each of these theoretical reforms brings the total body of knowledge closer to a perfect representation of reality, this process only can asymptotically approximate perfection: always approaching; never arriving (Mackenzie & Knipe, 2006; Rescher, 2003).
My epistemology begins with the above-stated understanding that reality is actual and absolute. Knowledge, therefore, is what we can observe and infer about the actual. Although reality is absolute, our senses are not. The flaws in my perception (themselves present due to the oxymoronic fact that the perceptions of my mind depend upon the health and function of my physical brain matter) necessitate the understanding that science can never describe reality with perfect accuracy. I may strive toward objectivity in research—as I argue later, it would be unethical to do otherwise—but perfect accuracy of outcomes are unobtainable. This acknowledgement that my findings are imperfect (as I am imperfect) must be the caveat—spoken or unspoken—in all my research (Rescher, 2003).
While I acknowledge my perceptions are suspect, nevertheless they remain the only mental currency I can deal in. Perceived reality is as close as I can come to true knowledge apart from supernatural intervention. Since there is no way to improve upon this method, I must make the best of it (Rescher, 2003).
My training in the biological and physical sciences and subsequent career as a professor of neuroscience and clinical optometry have further developed my understanding of knowledge. Even in my short career, I have seen best-practices in clinic overturned, foregone conclusions proved incorrect, and the understanding of fundamental facts change from textbook edition to textbook edition. It is clear that, apart from supernatural revelation, knowledge must be both imperfect and improving. The ideal researcher observes reality in a way that is intended to reduce the influence of confounding factors (including those within his own mind). Whether the researcher is involved in the studied phenomenon is immaterial, as long as he seeks to observe reality in the most critical way possible for a given situation. A researcher can study both the physical structure of an atom and his own curious behavior, and still come away with knowledge.
Once it is determined there is an objective reality that can (however imperfectly) be known, it is necessary to set and follow best-practices for understanding it. These are collectively a methodology.
I favor a quantitative methodology for most research, in which the studied element is isolated and controlled. This preference probably arises from my scientific and religious training. Quantitative methodology is the ideal way to do research, as it allows the investigator to say with certainty (at least, as much certainty as he can say anything) that an effect is real.
In contrast, the qualitative approach is acceptable only if there is no more objective way to realistically obtain the data (a necessary evil, in other words). When dealing with the complexities of the human mind and its efflux, this imperfect condition is met with regularity. As neuroscience continues to develop as a discipline and new research tools are invented to add to the armamentarium, the qualitative approach will likely become harder to justify. For now, qualitative methods are best reserved for investigating human feelings, perceptions, beliefs, and the like, as they pertain to individual or shared experiences.
Ethics and values are ideas, and influence the behavior of all people–including the researcher–to some extent. Their nature, however, is ephemeral, as they cannot be dissected, pinned to a card, microscopically examined, or weighed. We use different tools to study ideas. This description of the nature of ethics and values is axiology.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has read this far that my personal axiology mirrors my ontology; all that is ethical and valuable flows from the person of God: his goodness, justice, and love. The ethical researcher will “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7 English Standard Version), behaving as God would have him behave.
As a clinician, I accept the values outlined in the seminal Principles of Biomedical Ethics by Beauchamp and Childress (2009), which describes ethical biomedical activity as being driven by respect for autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence, and justice. In research, similar principles are invoked in the International Ethical Guidelines for Biomedical Research Involving Human Subjects (Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences, 2003). These principles are consistent with Christian morality and, thus, I have learned to follow them when dealing with others both in clinical and research settings.
These principles are also consistent with post-positivism to the extent that the Post-positivist, in understanding the variable nature of his perceptions, is aware that he may not be able to predict how a human research subject may be affected by a study, so extra care must be taken to identify potential breaches in the four guiding principles. Though a religious pronouncement, “the end never justifies the means” (Catholic Church, 2003, no. 1759) summarizes an important point for research axiology: the mere acquisition of knowledge is not itself a sufficient reason to justify violating ethical principles in research (Morris, 2006).
I am a Post-positivist. Reality is objective, though my ability to perceive reality is imperfect. Because of this, all empirically-gleaned knowledge is suspect and open for reexamination as new facts come to light. With carefully-selected, rigorously followed research technique, it is possible to approach (not arrive at) an accurate empirical understanding of reality. Since reality is objective, ethics are too, and must never be sacrificed for mere acquisition of knowledge. Thus, I prefer the logical consistency and methodological rigor of quantitative research. Though I’m suspicious of qualitative research due to its tendency to emphasize personal experiences, it is useful in certain situations.
Beauchamp, T. L., & Childress, J. F. (2009). Principles of biomedical ethics (6th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Catholic Church. (2003) Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.). Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences. (2002). International Ethical Guidelines for Biomedical Research Involving Human Subjects. Retrieved from http://www.cioms.ch/publications/layout_guide2002.pdf
Jacquette, D. (2002). Ontology. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Lewis, C. S. (1947). Miracles: A preliminary study. New York, NY: Macmillan.
Mackenzie, N., & Knipe, S. (2006). Research dilemmas: Paradigms, methods, and methodology. Issues in Educational Research, 16(2), 193-205. Retrieved from http://www.iier.org.au/iier16/mackenzie.html
Rescher, N. (2003). Epistemology: An introduction to the theory of knowledge. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
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