Why the idea of research perspectives is brilliant and annoying at the same time

What are research perspectives?

This is a term that is often used to describe different approaches to research. These differences are generally understood as being rooted not simply in the focus or methodology, but in deeper ontological and epistemological foundations of research. Ontology concerns assumptions we make about reality. Epistemology is our theory of knowledge, and how what we come to know relates to that reality (or those realities). Methodological approaches and study foci can in some ways be seen to flow from these deeper (philosophical) points of view.

Brilliant

Brilliance lies in the fact that acknowledging different research perspectives (others may use the term paradigm, though it’s not quite the same thing), we are forced into a number of important realisations:

  1. Not all researchers understand this thing called ‘knowledge’ in the same way
  2. So… the enterprise of doing research in order to advance knowledge is understood very differently. Some are looking to discover knowledge that gets close to a single truth. Others are looking to create knowledge that provides different possible answers to the same questions.
  3. By implication, what it means to do research well changes according to the kind of research we are doing. I like metaphors, so let’s think of this in terms of Olympic runners. We can compare the running style of a sprinter and that of a long distance runner. Who is the better runner? The sprinter moves quicker, and develops and uses her body to effectively cover short distances. The marathon runner develops and uses her body differently. It’s not fair to say one is better than the other because they are trying to do different things. What ‘good’ running is depends on which race you’re running in. What ‘good’ research looks like depends on the perspective taken. Bing!
  4. Finally brilliance in the idea of perspectives lies in the fact it forces us not to take knowledge, evidence, methods, data, and truth for granted. If we are in the business of producing new knowledge we need to take these things seriously, not brush them under the carpet.

Annoying

But we have to be clever in the way we work with these concepts. Why?

  1. These are conceptual categories that have a mixed, sometimes quite problematic relationship with actual research practices. Many studies don’t fit neatly into one or other category.
  2. Categories tend to turn messy, blurred boundaries into neat, separate entities. Most people who write about research perspectives acknowledge this – we need the concepts as sign posts and to give us some clarity of thought; but at the same time we need to be flexible and hold them loosely. Aargh!
  3. People can develop a security in applying long words that end in …ism as a kind of badge or label that fits their research, or even themselves as a researcher. But like many things in the social world, research isn’t a stable activity, and projects may evolve, researchers may change their views, or hold contradictory views at the same time. Badges have their limitations.
  4. Badges or terms like ‘interpretivism’ also turn into chunks what might be better conceived as a continuum, or even a big set of splodges and squiggles (like a modern art painting maybe). Many books write of positivism, post-positivism, interpretivism, feminism, critical approaches, poststructuralism etc (and the terms used to describe the same, or near-same things vary; that’s another issue!). But however long the list, there’s always more. Practice theory has a ‘site’ ontology (see the annotated bibliography of Schatzki). Actor-Network Theory makes other ontological assumptions again. But they have some points of overlap.
  5. I’ve often been asked, what about a big quantitative study that studies gender inequality in schools? The quantitative stuff perhaps signals a post-positivist perspective. But the gender inequality might be redolent of critical or feminist approaches. Which is it? To return to our metaphor: it might not be clear which race is being run: Is there a sprinter warming up on the starting line for the marathon? Or is there some hybrid or complex combination going on? (Here’s where the metaphor runs dry, [excuse the pun]). That’s the difficulty when we set up categories like all the …isms. But at least the categories have been useful in getting us to think about the assumptions made by the researchers and their purposes.

So caveat emptor – buyer beware: use these concepts cleverly, and with caution.

PS. There is nothing new here. I’m by no means the first person to write about these issues.

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