Research Communities

Research communities are groups of scholars, researchers, and practitioners who share a common set of epistemological assumptions, methodological approaches, and theoretical frameworks in their pursuit of knowledge. Different epistemological assumptions give rise to different research paradigms, which in turn shape the formation and evolution of research communities. This article reviews the three epistemological positions that inform contemporary research: scholarship, positivism, and post-positiivsm. Prior to conducting research, learn to engage in rhetorical analysis: evaluate the epistemological assumptions assumed by your target audience.  Analyze what ways of knowing, what epistemologies, define your community


Methodological Communities are

  1. diverse, dynamic ecosystems that form around ways of knowing, scholarly conversations about topics, and research agendas
  2. discourse communities that share research agendas and have adopted specific research methods for developing and testing knowledge claims
  3. discourse communities that hold epistemological assumptions regarding the kind of knowledge a particular research method produces.

Related Concepts

Audience Awareness; Discourse Community; Epistemology; Research; Rhetorical Analysis

Why are Research Communities Important?

Just as people with similar religious beliefs, political loyalties, or cultural practices can be said to make up a community—even though they have never met—those who share research methods and philosophies of knowledge–ways of knowing–may also be viewed as a community.

Methodological Communities may form around

  • archives, texts
  • specific research methods
    • how to ask research questions
    • how to choose subjects
    • how to analyze information
  • shared assumptions about the kind of knowledge particular methods may generate
  • agreement regarding what sort of knowledge

Academic disciplines and professional organizations are types of Methodological Communities. These institutions codify research methods through dialectic, research, publications and training programs:

  • Professional organizations such as the APA (American Psychological Association) or MLA (Modern Language Association) prescribe best research methods in handbooks for researchers. Practitioners publish on their methods.
  • The scholarly conversations of professional researchers reflect on, criticize, and reify research methods. Publications create a history, a literary canon, a body of texts.
  • The graduate programs and professional programs in academic and professional fields train students and employees to follow methods prescribed by professional organizations and practitioners.

More often than not members of methodological communities tend to agree with one another

However, members of methodological communities do not always agree with one another about what results means–their knowledge claims. For example, some ethnographers believe their research produces positivistic (generalizable) knowledge–i.e., knowledge that is universal. Other ethnographers may dispute that assumption: they may argue ethnography can only produce knowledge that is context specific, postpositivistic knowledge.

Researchers within academic and professional disciplines engage in dialectic (argument!) with one another about

  • epistemology
  • their shared histories (who said what, when they said it, why they said it, etc.).
  • research methods
  • their shared futures–what’s possible, what adjustments they need to make in response to changes in technology and culture.

The beliefs and actions of methodological communities evolve just as literacies evolve. Change comes from

Research Communities & Epistemology

Investigators across academic disciplines — the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and the arts — share some common methods and values. For instance, in both workplace writing and academic writing, investigators are careful

Yet it is also important to note that different research communities also develop unique approaches to exploring and solving problems in their knowledge domains. Research communities develop different ways of conducting research because they face different problems and because they may have different epistemological assumptions about what knowledge is and how to measure it. For example, if a researcher believes that knowledge can only be gained through observation and empirical evidence, they may choose to use quantitative research methods such as experiments or surveys. Conversely, if a researcher believes that knowledge can also be gained through subjective experience and interpretation, they may choose to use qualitative research methods such as case study, ethnography or participant observation

While there are many nuanced definitions of epistemology, scholars have identified three major epistemological perspectives that inform the works of three research communities

  1. The Scholars – aka Scholarship
  2. The Positivists – aka Positivism
  3. The Post-Positivists – aka Post-Positivism
Figure 1 Illustration of Three Major Research Communities Based on the Epistemological Assumptions of the Researchers

The Scholars

Scholars are individuals who aim to deepen their understanding of a particular field of study by critically analyzing existing literature, theories, and ideas. 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, reflection, and textual research 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 Positivists

Positivists emphasize the importance of empirical observation and quantification in establishing scientific knowledge. They view the natural and social world as objective, measurable, and predictable, and seek to develop general laws and theories that explain and predict phenomena. Positivists use quantitative research methods such as surveys, experiments, and statistical analysis, and emphasize the importance of objectivity, reliability, and replicability in their research.

Positivists 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.

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 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

The Post-Positivists

Post-Positivists, also known as critical realists, recognize the limitations of both positivism and interpretivism and seek to integrate them into a more comprehensive approach to research. They view reality as complex and multidimensional, and acknowledge the role of subjective interpretation and social context in shaping knowledge. Post-Positivists use a variety of research methods, both quantitative and qualitative, and emphasize the importance of reflexivity, critical analysis, and social justice in their research.

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