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Joe Moxley


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Analyze research practices from a community perspective, and learn about the methodological assumptions of scholars, surveyors, scientists, formalists, clinicians, and ethnographers.

Researchers in workplace and academic settings have diverse and sometimes opposing ways of researching and making knowledge claims. In general, researchers in the natural sciences tend to prefer positivistic methodologies and researchers in social and behavioral sciences have increasingly used postpositivistic methods. Knowledge-makers in the humanities—history, philosophy, religious studies, English, and modern languages—prefer to articulate their research as "scholarship."

overfiew of figure 2

What are the Most Common Methodologies?

Figure Two provides a graphical representation of the methodologies that inform positivistic, postpositivistic, and scholarly knowledge.

The Scholars

Scholars trace their methodological roots back to the origins of Western civilization. Like Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and other thinkers of the Classical age, modern scholars engage in the intellectual process of speculation and reflection to generate knowledge. While researchers (both positivists and postpositivists) look outward for evidence from which to make knowledge, scholars look inward to the power of logic and rational thinking. They depend upon dialectic—the process of reasoning correctly—to generate, test, and defend the knowledge they generate.

Since the dialectic process—the process of reasoning correctly— derives its authority from the deliberate confrontation of opposing views, scholars are engaged in an endless, on-going "great debate," a cycle of interpretation, critique, and reinterpretation. In this dialectic system, no idea is unassailable and nothing is ever settled once and for all. Since scholars must defend the sufficiency, accuracy, and credibility of their knowledge claims and challenge the claims of others, publication assumes methodological importance.

In practice, scholars do not create knowledge from intellectual thin air. Rather, scholarly inquiry is essentially text-based. That is, scholars are engaged in establishing the authenticity or significance of a set of texts and in devising theories of interpretation that can be applied to those texts. But while most scholars make knowledge by critiquing texts, scholars can also make meaning by applying critical, political, or social theories—such as Feminism, Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism—to interpret events or ideas.

The Surveyors

Surveys are used in many forms of research, including clinical, scientific, formalist, and ethnographic research. Because surveys are so often combined with other methods, it is difficult to define them as a distinctive methodology. In general terms, though, surveyors are positivists who rely on the power of probability statistics to generalize the data they collect from a small sample of subjects to a larger population.

In order to produce convincing results, surveyors must follow rigorous procedures for selecting their sample, gathering their data, and calculating the reliability and validity of their results. These operations require more specialized knowledge and statistical sophistication than most non-technically trained researchers possess. On the other hand, a carefully designed and constructed survey can produce convincing and useful information about a wide variety of practical issues.

The Scientists

Scientists are puzzle builders who seek the broad, general patterns that explain human behavior and other features of the natural world. In this regard, scientists ascribe to the tenets of positivism. Scientists employ "the Scientific Method" to put the puzzle together. Simply put, the scientific method involves making observations, identifying patterns, developing hypotheses (i.e., making guesses about how something works), and then conducting experiments to test these predictions. The scientific method proceeds inductively, moving from one discrete experiment to the next with each scientist contributing a piece to the gigantic puzzle—the explanation of how the universe works.

Writing Commons Survey Academic Research Communities

When they design their experiments, scientists formulate their hypotheses as questions that require a "yes" or "no" response. But even when an hypothesis is affirmed, this does not mean that an absolute truth has been discovered. Instead, before the scientific community is prepared to believe that a part of the paradigmatic structure of the universe has been discovered, other scientists must replicate (and re-replicate) the study to verify its results.

Even after countless replications, scientists can still not claim that they have uncovered an absolute truth. While each hypothesis-affirming replication increases the probability that the hypothesis is true, that prediction can never be proved absolutely. For example, while Isaac Newton's general laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation have been verified by millions of experiments, scientists must still assume that "every law of nature is subject to change, based on new observations."

To bolster the strength of their investigative powers, scientists have harnessed the power of probability statistics. Statistical measures give scientists greater control over variables and allow them to say that an hypothesis can be rejected or affirmed with a certain degree of certainty. Ultimately, though, knowledge produced by this method, no matter how carefully tested, can only be expressed in terms of probability, never affirmed as discoveries of absolute truths.

The Formalists

Formalists are model-builders. Working by analogy, they construct models that correspond to some phenomenon in the real world. Instead of proceeding inductively—that is, moving from one experiment to another in hopes of solving the master puzzle—formalists begin with the big picture. This big picture, represented as a model, is based on their best guess, which they make after a long thoughtful analysis of the phenomenon being studied.

Writing Commons Survey Academic Research Communities

After constructing a model, formalists test it to establish its correspondence with the empirical phenomenon it purports to represent. Using pre-established rules of interrelation, they evaluate how closely their model accounts for the phenomenon under investigation. Then, working in the opposite direction of their cousins, the scientists, formalists re-imagine the model, correcting and improving it (ideally) with each subsequent experiment.

According to North and Diesing, the advantage of formalist models is that they provide a powerful metaphor for what we do and do not understand. The limitation of this methodology is that, while each model may appear to be completely logical—a complete tautological whole—the model may distort or falsely represent the empirical phenomenon it is trying to depict.

The Clinicians

Clinicians conduct case studies—that is, in-depth studies of a single individual or of a small set of individuals (such as superb teachers, happily married couples, unusually successful people). Unlike the surveyors, scientists, and formalists, who seek to identify the broad, general patterns in human behavior, clinicians are primarily interested in specific cases or examples. That is, clinicians value their results for what they tell us about the individual cases studied, not for what they may predict about the general population.

Writing Commons Survey Academic Research Communities

Although clinical studies focus on particular cases rather than general patterns, most clinicians are positivists. They tend to see the results of their narrow, in-depth observations as "the manifestation of general laws in particular instances" (North 200). In other words, while clinical results may be too specific to be generalized to larger populations, clinical results still reflect general laws of behavior.

Unlike other positivist researchers, instead of using statistics to generalize the results of their studies to larger populations, clinicians build knowledge about individual cases into a coherent account of the whole by accretion. Clinicians study phenomena over and over again, each time from a slightly different angle or perspective, accumulating results into a canon of clinical studies that, taken together, produce a picture of the behavior being studied.

The Ethnographers

Like scientists, surveyors, and clinicians, ethnographers observe behavior, but their assumptions about what their observations mean distinguish them from the other researchers. In simple terms, ethnographers are story tellers. They enter a community, observe the activities of the community, and "inscribe" or write down their observations. But rather than claiming to literally "transcribe" everything the community says and does, ethnographers seek to capture the meaning of what has been said and done. Because no two observers will ascribe exactly the same meaning to their observations, ethnographers' accounts are much closer to stories than observations.

Writing Commons Survey Academic Research Communities

Ethnographers are usually postpositivist researchers. They assume that their results—the accounts they produce—are constructed not discovered. Ethnographic accounts are unique and specific to their context, and they cannot be replicated or generalized to any other population. Thus, ethnographic knowledge cannot accumulate in the same way as positivist research. The value of ethnographic knowledge is not to confirm our notions about a universal pattern but to offer alternative versions of reality. Ethnographies expand our experience, disrupt and enlarge our previous understandings, and suggest new and fresh meanings for experience. To achieve these results, ethnographers have developed methods that allow them to participate in the community as insiders rather than outside observers.

Cassandra Branham, Editor-in-Chief WritingCommons.org

Cassandra Branham


Dear Colleagues and Students,

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