Postgraduate Research Training Programme in the Social Sciences
Module 3:


& Difficulties of combining rigour, relevance, reliability, realism and reason
[which shares common material with AEF801 - Research Methods and Project Management]

Prof. David R. Harvey, AEFM, Newcastle University

Cautionary Quotes:

"If the human brain were simple enough for us to understand, we would still be so stupid that we couldn't understand it" (Jostein Gaarder: Sophie's World, Phoenix House, 1995, p 256)

"Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises" - Samual Butler

I am (or have been) a practicing applied economist and policy analyst.  I try to teach these things, and also apply them to the art of management (both of public resources and also for the supposed benefit of private and public company management).  For the principles of management (if such exist) ought to apply to both activities.  At root, there seems little in logic to distinguish the ebbs and flows of human behaviours, perceptions, attitudes, and responses, whether we observe them at work (and play) in either the public or the private (commercial) sectors or worlds.

As such, I am troubled.  The social science disciplinary foundations I need to work with are partial and incomplete.  Economics only trys to answer some of the questions raised by policy makers;  political science only concerns some others;  both ignore the contributions which might be made by sociology, anthropology, or psychology.  In between are the real questions which have no answers.  Furthermore, there is not even a framework or outline theory allowing us to address these major issues.  Examples include the WTO, environmental change, rural (and urban) development, economic growth and distribution, food safety and so on, to say nothing of the lack of an integrative framework for the study of management and business behaviour.

In short, how are we supposed to be both rigorous and relevant?  How can we be sure that our theories, stories, evidence (our research) are sufficiently realistic to be reliable?  The only answer I have is through our capacity to reason - the foundation of the so-called neo-classical approach (but not, possibly, as we currently know it).

Recently, my own research agenda has shifted to this problem - the lack of integration of social science.  It is a problem, too, in the discussion and choice of appropriate research methods. Should we adopt the strict positivist approach - the strict scientific method, or should we be more realistic?  Or, should we recognise the fundamental nature of the world and eschew realism in favour of relativism (or post-modernism)?  And what, if anything, do these words mean?

So, I have some notes about where I have got to so far.  They represent, I suppose, a case study in research of research approaches and methods.

In this session, we will discuss the following sorts of questions:

If you are at all interested in these questions, you are encouraged to read through these notes and come to the class prepared to talk abut the issues and problems they raise for you.  You are also encouraged to raise issues and problems with me separately, if you wish.

To anticipate my conclusions:
So, that is what I am trying to do - speculate as rationally as I can about the nature of a possible synthesis between positivism (the scientific approach) and relativism or postmodernism. To make progress, however, I need the participation of others to engage in discussion and debate about where it makes sense and where it does not.  This where you come in.  The nature of the synthesis should help social scientists to make sense of what they do and where it might fit with what others do.  In which case, the synthesis should make sense to you.  Does it?  And, if not, what would yours look like?  And, if you say you do not need one, how are you going to deal with your inevitable critics and opponents?  Or, are you content to go on supporting present conventions (whichever ones you choose)?  That doesn't sound like science to me.

* comments, suggestions and questions to David Harvey

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Some Methodological References:

Adams, G.R. and Schaneveldt, J.D. 1985, Understanding Research Methods, Longman

Blaug, M., 1992, The Methodology of Economics, Cambridge Surveys of Economic Literature, Cambridge University Press, (first two chapters provide a summary of philosophical debates about the nature of science)

Dahrendorf, R. 1995, "Wither Social Sciences", 6th ESRC Annual Lecture

Frankfort-Nachmias, C. and Nachmias, D., 1992, Research Methods in the Social Sciences, Edward Arnold. - an academic textbook of research methods, US based.

Gay, L.R and Diehl, P.L., 1992, Research Methods for Business and Management, Maxwell MacMillan.

Howard, K. and Sharp, J.A. The Management of a student research project, Gower, 1983 - a "how to do it" guide, based on the scientific method.

Robson, C. 1993, Real World Research: A Resource for Social Scientists and Practitioner-Researchers,Blackwell. - a formal practitioners textbook on research methods, US based

Sokal, A. and Bricmont, J., 1998, Intellectual Impostures, Profile Books (an account of the hoax postmodern article submitted and accepted by a physicist (Sokal) to an American journal of cultural studies (Social Text), as an intended parody of postmodernism, and as a documentation of the reasons and sources Sokal used in preparing the hoax).  This book is marketed with the following two quotes highlighted in the front cover:  "A devastating critique of some of France's best known thinkers" (Independent on Sunday);  "C'est la guerre" (Figaro).

Some Metaphysical references:
Capra, F., 1996, The Web of Life: A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter, Harper Collins. an interesting book on the nature and relevance of chaotic flow systems (called here, far-from-equilibrium systems)

Deutsch, D., 1997, The Fabric of Reality, Penguin. (a readable book on the possible nature of a more general, even universal, theory of how the world works.  Deutsch, a physicist, suggests that there are four principal elements to such a general account:  Quantum Mechanics; Evolution; Chaos and Complexity theory; Epistemology.)