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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: August 2018

1 - What Is Science?

from PART I - The Objective Study of Subjectivity

[T]he logical empiricists sold us an extraordinary bill of goods.

Taylor, 1980, p. 26

Science is not hypothetico-deductive. It does have hypotheses, it does make deductions, it does test conjectures, but none of these determine the movement of theory.

Hacking, 1983, p. 144

In an article titled “What drives scientific research in education?” Shavelson and Towne (2004) note that the debate over how to define social science has gone on for more than 100 years. They try to calm what have become politicized arguments by recommending that scientific inquiry should be defined not by a particular methodology but by a way of posing and answering questions. Summarizing the conclusions of a National Research Council (NRC) committee convened in 2001 by the National Educational Research Policies and Priorities Board, they recommend (see Table 1.1) that all scientific research, in both the natural and the social sciences, should pose significant questions that can be investigated empirically, should be linked to relevant theory, should use methods that permit direct investigation of the questions, should provide a coherent and explicit chain of reasoning to rule out counterinterpretations, should replicate and generalize findings across studies, and should disclose research data and methods to enable and encourage professional scrutiny and critique (see Feuer, Towne, & Shavelson, 2002; Shavelson & Towne, 2002). Overall, “It's the question – not the method – that should drive the design of education research or any other scientific research. That is, investigators ought to design a study to answer the question that they think is important, not fit the question to a convenient or popular design” (Shavelson & Towne, 2004).

These recommendations seem reasonable, and the effort to overcome competition among polarized camps seems admirable. However, the questionable assumptions that underlie their recommendations start to become evident when the NRC committee identifies three fundamental types of questions and the methods they consider most appropriate to answer them (see Table 1.2).

The three questions are (1) What's happening? (2) Is there a systematic (causal) effect? and (3) What is the causal mechanism, or how does it work? The committee judged that the first type of question is asking for a description, and they recommended that this should be provided by a survey, ethnographic methods, or a case study. The second type of question is asking whether X caused Y. Here the most desirable method is a randomized clinical trial.

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The Science of Qualitative Research
  • Online ISBN: 9781108264907
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