As part of my research degree, I need to understand quite a bit about the philosophy of science and what this mean in terms of the research methods I choose. Now when I first found out I needed to know this I was rather confused, thinking why on earth is this relevant? I thought that I would be looking into really random things like the meaning of life and how we came to live etc, and wondered what this had to do with a PhD. I am so glad my understanding of this was wrong!
To understand everything further, I first looked into what Philosophy of Science ACTUALLY was and now I understand it a little more. The Philosophy of Science is a branch of philosophy concerned with science foundations and implications of science as well as methods used to study science (Rosenberg, 2012). Although philosophy and science are separate entities, the Philosophy of Science questions the purpose of science, determinants of science and also analyses the reliability of scientific theory. I will whole-heartedly admit that I had to begin with Wikipedia first of all, just to grasp concept meanings and what things involve. For me, this helps a lot. To gain a basic understand of what I need to study then helps me to understand requirements for my further research and helps me to understand everything overall.
Anyway, I found out that Philosophy of Science is quite important. Philosophy helps us to understand why some scientific questions just cannot be answered with science, and gives insight into how they may be answered. Yes, there are some questions that can be answered by science but philosophy helps us to understand approaches in determine ow to answer those questions which have not got answers just yet. One thing that philosophy can do is help us address approaches to answering questions, and this can include the discipline it is in and the methodology. If we get these right, then we are well on the way to answering such questions in science but if we get these wrong then we need to readdress our approach and start again. We can then analyse methods and the philosophy can help to validate methods used in other disciplines, so that these can be used to answer scientific questions that have been found difficult to answer.
There are many approaches to the development of theory in science and I read a book by Lazer (1998) which has helped me understand the whole thing. The book was quite an old book but it was the only one that included what I needed to read and helped me understood historical approaches to the development of theory more generally, before getting into the nitty gritty of things. The book explained the approaches by three Philosophers: Karl Popper (1902-1994), Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) and Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994). All three had different approaches to how scientific theory is created and I can let you into some of my newly found knowledge now.
Karl Popper did not believe that induction was a valid method of scientific enquiry. He criticised other philosophers who believed this and explained that theory based on induction made from observations cannot be valid. Popper explained that induction cannot be an ecologically valid driver of theory as it suggests applying all observational and inferences to all occurrences. If theory is based on observations, we cannot truly know if other observations (not yet observed) would differ from those already observed. If observations not yet made differ from those made, then the theory can be classified as invalid as the observations would not match what the theory states. Popper argues that scientific processes are possible because scientists seek theory with greater scope. He believed that real science comes from theories that can be refuted – debated and replaced if proved wrong. If scientist make discoveries that dispute and criticised theories, these theories can be updated and replaced, making the theory better to explain the phenomenon at hand.
Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) argued against Popper and suggested that mature or real sciences are explained through ‘paradigms’. These are the basic concepts and experimental practices of a scientific discipline. Unlike Popper, Kuhn believes that theory is not constantly criticised and updated, but that scientific revolutions occur instead. Kuhn believed scientific revolutions are conversion of experiences rather than rational processes. Exchanging belief systems defines conceptual and methodological practices from the newly created paradigms, replacing older paradigms with newly formed one. However, Kuhn was criticised as his approach ignored theoretical diversity and failed to acknowledge individual differences, a critique addressed by another philosopher Paul Feyerabend.
Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994) critiques Kuhn’s idea of the ‘normal science’. Feyerabend believes that science has no single scientific method as each have their limitations and one would not be enough to explore and justify a theory. Feyerabend expresses the importance of individual, their intellectual ability theoretical diversity, explaining that restrictions would be places on scientific theory if the individual was not considered. From this, he believed that science theory benefits from theoretical anarchism whereby theory is defined by self-governed actual individuals within the society and their own characteristics. Something about this struck me as it was one of the first approaches to consider the individual, an area of research which is going to be relevant to me at some point in my journey.
It was quite good to know that there have been a lot of opposing views in history and this underpins the basis of my further reading. Although not strictly related to my research methodology, I needed to understand approaches in science and how theory is derived so that I could read further into the philosophical approaches of research methodology. I did not really how philosophy related to research study until I found something called a Research Hierarchy (Pickard, 2002, 2013). The research hierarchy is kind of a model to help explain how philosophy relates to choosing the right methodology and the diagram below explains just that:
(Diagram created by me using Pickard, 2002, 2013).
The model helped me understand how a philosophical approach (or research paradigm) can eventually influence a researcher’s choice of method to answer their research questions. All research begins with a psychological paradigm regardless of its philosophical content directly. Each point on the diagram is explained below to help understand the processes involved.
a) Research paradigms have previously been defined as collections of beliefs, values and techniques shared by the scientific community and are ways of viewing and influencing the world, but not controlling directions of research itself (Kuhn, 1970, 146). They help researchers explain their approach to solving a given problem and may influence the research methodology used. The research methodology can be seen as the theoretical perspective of the research itself and is the overall nature of the research itself applied to the research process The research methodology will be dependent on the research paradigm which gives perspectives on how knowledge is acquired and how we view the world (perception on reality). These views will determine how the research questions will be explored in terms of how knowledge will be gained during the investigation. Now there are many different approached including the positivist and constructivist but I am not going to go into detail here as this will be the next part of my methodology research and I am not quite there yet.
b) (The research method is the researcher’s strategy to employ empirical investigation – how they are going to answer the questions. This includes how the research is going to collect data, such as carrying out a case study, and will be determined by the focus of the study. If the researcher requires details on why a phenomena occurs, they may opt for a qualitative methodology whereby methods like case studies and interviews are the most appraise strategies for data collection.
c) Depending on the research method used, the research method can then imply research technique which are data collection techniques embedded within the research method. Quite often, researchers may confuse terminology overlapping research method and research techniques. A well-known example I the use of the terminology of ‘survey’ and ‘questionnaire’ whereby the survey is the research method and the ‘questionnaire’ would be the physical entity used to collect data itself.
d) Research design should have flexibility in order to establish adequate answers to research questions without limiting research discovery. It might seen a little vague to explain that researchers need to sue the right instruments to collect data, but if the right research techniques are not addressed then the instrument may not be planned for… and it is the instrument that would provide the biggest mishap in data collection if not available at the time of need.
So overall, I found that explanation quite useful. Firstly, it helped me understand why we need research philosophy and how the research paradigm sets the parameters for the progression of the research itself. It’s important to understand how research paradigms can shape research methodology but as mentioned above, there is so much more to explore. The philosophical approach used in research is also determined by several assumptions regarding ontology (the composition of reality), epistemology (how knowledge is acquired), and human nature, ultimately influencing the choice of methodology (Holden & Lynch, 2004, p.3). A research paradigm does not imply a methodology, rather it is the individuals view on the world and knowledge that dictates the nature of the research and how the researcher engages with the research process (Pickard, 2013, p.xvii).
This will, indeed, be the next step in my challenge to find the best research approach and methodology to answer my research questions.
Kuhn, T.S. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.
Pickard, A. (2002) Access to electronic information resources: their role in the provision of learning opportunities for young people. A constructivist inquiry. Doctoral thesis, University of Northumbria. Available at http://nrl.northumbria.ac.uk/12496/
Pickard, A.J. (2013). Research Methods in Information (2nd Ed.). London, UK: Facet Publishing.
Rosenberg, A. (2012). Philosophy of Science: A contemporary Introduction (3rd ed.). New York, USA: Routledge.