306 Research Portfolio Post #3: Grappling with Ethical Naturalism (and Positivism)

I find Gorski’s “ethical naturalism” convincing as it suggests that social science can offer genuine insights into human well-being.  Ethical naturalism maintains that “values are fact laden” and that “the natural and social sciences can correct and expand our ethical knowledge.”[1] Gorski acknowledges that while values and facts influence one another, we should not address moral questions directly.  Rather social sciences help us investigate values that are open to change.  Facts and values are not inseparable but independent.  Scientific inquiry might help us achieve a deeper understanding into what it means to flourish as a human.  For example, Gorski mentions Sen’s “capabilities approach.”[2]  I find that Gorski’s position addresses many of the shortcomings of both extremes (positivism/moral relativism).  By understanding the social sciences more deeply we may be able to even change our values toward those more favorable of human flourishing.  Still, Gorski does not advocate for end-all-be-all answer to human suffering through moral and scientific truths.[3]

Both Harris and Comte take positions at the positivism end of the spectrum of the social sciences.  Harris argues that the separation between science and values is an illusion and that the discussion of values is the discussion of facts.[4]  Further, he argues that on the continuum of facts there are truths about human flourishing.[5]  He argues for the need of a universal conception of human values and the disregard of certain cultural opinions. We must admit that we do have the answers to needless human suffering.  This positivist view contradicts Gorski’s distinction of the extent to which values influence social scientific inquiry by asserting that values are facts in themselves.[6]

Comte takes a radically positivist view by asserting that “there can be no real knowledge but that which is based on observed facts.[7]  In other words, true knowledge about human well-being cannot be derived only from theological tradition.  He argues that over time morality will fall under the umbrella of “positive philosophy” much like the other hard sciences.[8]  Through this process, a unified doctrine will emerge that will transform the human race.  His view agrees much with Harris’ notion of values as facts.  However, it contradicts Gorski’s ethical naturalism by disregarding the possibility of change in values informed by fact.  If philosophical values become positivist truths then they cannot be altered.[9]

I do not believe that my own research lends itself to normative discovery that will uncover the truth to human well-being.  My project relies on the normative assumption that international organizations construct female education as an unquestionable good.  5566I think that my project most closely corresponds to Gorski’s ethical naturalism by aiming to understand empowerment.  I acknowledge the ethical implications of my research.  Understanding empowerment might help to develop more effective programs to help human flourishing.  However, the aim of my project is not to discover the positivist truth to human well-being through empowerment.  In its constructivist methodology, I believe that it naturally shies away from such extreme normative discoveries and rather focuses on meaning making.

[1] Gorski, Phillip S. “Beyond the Fact/Value Distinction: Ethical Naturalism and the Social Sciences.” Springer Science+Business Media 50 (2013): 543,551.

[2] Ibid., 551.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Harris, Sam. “Science can answer moral question.” Ted2010

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gertrud Lenzer, ed., Auguste Comte and Positivism: The Essential Writings (New York: Harper, 1975). 2.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

Professor Taylor Meeting 2/7/17

Professor Taylor and I met on Tuesday February 7, 2017 from 5:30-6 P.M. to discuss progress on my research project following feedback from the collective advising workshop and my upcoming literature review.  At the workshop last week  I received reassurance on the direction of my research question which asks “how and why do NGO and activists conceptualize female empowerment as an incontestable good embraced by heroines?” Though I might speculate “why” I still have not deconstructed “how” organizations set the agenda for international education programs. I need to set my research in a more defined context of the organization She’s the First which exists here on AU’s campus along with other chapters around the world.  Professor Carruth provided some useful concepts to search like the “construction of the good girl child” similar to the “construction of the good woman” that Professor Taylor and I previously discussed.

For my literature review, we touched on my schools of thought regarding empowerment including development, feminism, and sociology of education.  Despite the fact that my literature might not perfectly align with my findings, I will keep in mind that I improve with each draft.  I will unpack important theoretical frameworks that guide my analysis section.  More importantly, we discussed the methods for executing my project and considered both survey and discourse analysis.  Professor Taylor helped give me a preview about ways that I might code interviews.  For this week I will focus on writing a revised draft of of literature review.  Next week we will begin to design my interview questions in detail as I reach out online to subjects through She’s the First Facebook pages.

306 Research Portfolio Post #2: Culture, Politics, and Science

In the readings by Dr. Johnson, Plato, and Tocqueville, democratic principles based in individualism and equality prejudice citizens against making normative arguments about values and the ends we should pursue.  Johnson’s perspective on values and relativity, and Plato and Tocqueville’s claims about the oppressiveness of democracy prompt me to reflect on my own experiences in a democratic reality and how I might reconcile these with values in research.

Dr. Johnson addresses values through the concept of “lazy relativism” in which people disengage from debate and assert that truths exist for every person.  Johnson argues that extreme relativism is incompatible with normative beliefs.[1]  If one truly believes in a value than a view that opposes that value cannot be equally valid.[2]  In a democratic system, it is often easier for political debate to veer away from moral judgements.  However, it is impossible to remove values from social life.  Johnson emphasizes that it might be more productive for us to stand by and defend our values, even when an absolute truth is impossible to discover.[3]

Plato argues that the values of freedom and equality in the democratic system undermine traditional value claims of better/worse.[4]  Citizens in a democratic system are naturally hostile toward authority.  Although democracy appears “to be the fairest regime” it contains its own oppressive authority through its dogma of equality.[5]  Plato asserts that through democracy and resistance to aristocratic authority, democrats resort to insolence, anarchy, wastefulness, and shamelessness.[6]  More importantly, Plato characterizes democracy much like that of lazy relativism saying that a democrat “shakes his head at all this [pleasures] and says that all are alike and must be honored on an equal basis.”[7] In other words, Plato disapproves in the concept that all men’s values should be valued the equally since men might have varying levels of philosophical understanding.

Tocqueville reflects on the American philosophic method of equality and argues that democracy is a form of intellectual oppression under a different name.[8]  He distinguishes the psychological difference between aristocratic and democratic value systems and points out that we come to accept truths engrained in us by society.[9]  In this way we give up some of our freedom to come to greater philosophical understandings.[10]  In the democratic system we appear to embrace our freedom by giving the majority authority, rather than a selected few in power.   However, we actually sacrifice our freedom to the consensus of the masses.[11]  In other words, trust in equality rather than god becomes like a religion.  Subscribing to the authority of the majority surrenders the intellectual freedom for which we strive in democracy.

In many ways, Johnson’s lazy relativism is correct in that we must defend values that we hold true.  However, such a position prompts us to take on normative assumptions about the world.  In research we must not take on normative questions directly but we can still address them indirectly in the larger implications of our research.  It is important especially in interpretivism to acknowledge the democratic systems that shape how we even define research like Plato and Tocqueville.  The readings provided ample reasons that we should resist value based discussions since values, especially democratic ones of equality, are simply constructed within our social world.  Still, it is important to unpack the values that shape democracy and their complex relationship with academia, rather than to quit because we can never be truly removed from the social world.

[1] Johnson, Leigh M. “Lazy Relativism.” Read More Write More Think More Be More, 02/07/17, 2009. Accessed 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Plato. The Republic. On the Character of Democracy, 1978.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Tocqueville. Democracy in America. Vol. 2: Mansfield & Winthrop, 2000.

[9] Ibid, 407.

[10] Ibid, 408.

[11] Ibid, 409.

Revamped Literature Review and Methods Section

  1. How will my literature review need to change between now and my final submission? (Is it currently too long? Too vague? Does it do a sufficient job in taking up the specifics of my research question? Am I confident that I have an adequate grasp of the puzzles and schools of thought in the field?)

My current literature review of empowerment needs to be condensed and include more precise statements outlining how it informs my project and analysis.  I still believe that my schools of thought including international development, feminism, and education are the most important in addressing empowerment.  However, since my discourse analysis focuses on the meaning-making of organization propaganda I will also consider how empowerment is portrayed in media campaigns.  Further, I might explore how empowerment and messages of heroism inspire audiences to act.  My development through education section needs the most attention because I initially focused on power structures within educational systems.  This approach might have been more appropriate if I had chosen ethnography.  However, now I must focus more on the developmental implications of empowerment through education.


  1. What additional works do I need to read in anticipation of our workshop on February 10 to make this happen? Please do some concrete research here and provide a bibliographical list.


Adhikari, H. “Freedom Vis a Vis Independence: An Overview in Light of Feminism, Women’s      Development and Empowerment.” Journal of international women’s studies 14, no. 3          (2013): 275-85.

Chant, Sylvia. “Women, Girls and World Poverty: Empowerment, Equality or Essentialism?”         International development planning review 38, no. 1 (2016: 1-24.

Duflo, Esther. “Women Empowerment and Economic Development.” Journal of Economic             Literature 50, no. 4 (2012): 1051-79.             http://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/jel.50.4.1051.

Eyben, Rosalind. “Choosing Words with Care? Shifting Meanings of Women’s Empowerment in   International Development.” Third world quarterly 30, no. 2 (2009: 285-300.    http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01436590802681066.

Lennie, J. “Deconstructing Gendered Power Relations in Participatory Planning: Towards an          Empowering Feminist Framework of Participation and Action.” Women’s Studies            International Forum 22, no. 1 (1999): 97-112. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0277-     5395(98)00098-3.

Switzer, H. “(Post)Feminist Development Fables: The Girl Effect and the Production of Sexual      Subjects.” Feminist Theory 14, no. 3 (2013): 345-60.       http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1464700113499855.



Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. 30th         Anniversary Edition ed. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.,   2005.

Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor Books, 1999.


  1. How will my methodology discussion need to change between now and my final submission? (Is it currently too long? Too vague? Does it do a sufficient job in taking up the specifics of my research question? Am I confident that I have an adequate grasp of the methods that I plan to employ?)

My methodology discussion needs to be more concise but is specific in addressing my method choices, tradeoffs, justifications, cultural competence, context, and reflexivity.  I need to more clearly address trustworthiness.  My methods section needs to be adjusted to correspond with my exact research methods that I execute rather than my anticipated procedure.  I still must work with my faculty mentor to confirm what I will be able to execute with the resources available to me.  Though I have not analyzed my texts yet, I am confident that I understand the methodology of discourse analysis in the interpretivist world and can work with my mentor on the specifics of coding.


  1. What additional material will I need to read in order to feel confident about my methodology discussion, due on February 28?

Andrew Abbott, Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences, New York: W.W          Norton & Company, 2004.

Iver B. Neumann, “Discourse Analysis,” in Qualitative Methods in International Relations: A        Pluralist Guide, ed. Audie Klotz & Deepa             Prakash, Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan,    2008, 63-65.

S Peregrine Schwartz-Shea and Dvora Yanow, Interpretivist Research Design: Concepts and        Processes, New York: Routledge, 2012: Ch. 6: “Designing for Trustworthiness” (pp. 91-      114).

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research (3rd ed.),    Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

  1. What questions and concerns do I have that I might ask about at the Collective Advising Workshops?

What is the most effective way for me to incorporate new dimensions/schools of thought into my literature review?

I want to explore some schools of thought about in empowerment in media. How can I incorporate those ideas into an international relations centered research project?

I question whether my project has shifted so much that I need an entirely new literature review.  How do I start going about this without losing everything that I have collected already?

How much background do I need to include on terms like cultural competence, context, reflexivity, and trustworthiness? Is it assumed that the academic research community knows these concepts?

How much context do I need to include regarding context of my research topic?

Is it too confusing to analyze both propaganda itself (text and videos) and interview activists influenced by that propaganda?

306 Research Portfolio Post #1 Exploring (Dissecting?) our Motivations and Assumptions

In SISU 306, my research on empowerment, articulated as an incontestable good, in propaganda of female education programs is motivated by factors involving my personal curiosities and larger philosophical questions.  In class reflection helped me to identify that I selected my research subject through my own interest in the ‘girl movement’.  Icons like Malala Yousafzai and my participation in fundraising for organizations like She’s the First have prompted me to get involved with the movement in high school and college.  Classes at AU have motivated me to question my blind faith in such organizations and criticize them and their ethical implications.  Apart from pure curiosity, I also hope to create some knowledge that might be used practically to better understand development and gender.  Hopefully, I or others might use my project’s new knowledge to study empowerment or create more effective programs for marginalized populations.  I think that this goal of generation of usable knowledge, corresponds with Aristotle’s concept of aiming “at some good”.[1]  The new knowledge might constitute “good” and it might also bring about “good” solutions to past challenges to development.

Toward the end of 206 I chose and interpretivist methodology to understand the meaning making created by international organizations working to help marginalized women through education.  For the purposes of my project I thought it best and most interesting to research the context of these organizations and their presence online within the past decade.  My motivation to help create “good” through more effective programs and my own curiosities prompted me to understand a specific time and place rather than empowerment in terms of broader trends.  Further, in choosing a context of the Westernized world of international aid, I might better understand the meaning making and assumptions since this context is familiar to me.

One of the normative assumptions that informs my project is that international aid aimed at women’s empowerment has been accepted as an unquestionable good.  It is this assumption that I suspect my analysis will critique since there are complex power struggles involved in empowerment.  Further, empowerment in international development has often been measured by political and economic dimensions.  However, much of my research indicates the importance of the psychological dimension of empowerment related to agency and values.

[1] Aristotle. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011, 1-2.


Research Portfolio Post #10 Mentor Meeting

Professor Taylor and I met earlier this week on Monday December 5 from 4:30-4:50 P.M. to wrap up with thoughts from SISU 206.  In our last meeting, we focused on my interpretivist research design sketch which I will most likely pursue next semester.  When beginning this project, I actually started with an interpretivist research question without realizing it.  Though maybe stated in other words, I wondered how women in international education programs made sense of their own empowerment.  Since then I have picked up much from modeling my research in the positivist world with my large and small n designs that focused more on what factors affect female empowerment.  When returning to the interpretivist world, Professor Taylor asked me to consider what is it that I want to know? I answered that I was interested in how organizations market these campaigns to create propaganda that appeals to western feminists.  I find it interesting that female empowerment campaigns subscribe to a common narrative of an individual girl who is empowered by education despite her circumstances who carries on hope for the future.  I found it interesting that many of the campaigns that I considered fit into this NGO discourse of a marginalized girl just waiting for the opportunity to fulfill her “westernized” aspirations.

In planning ahead for next semester, I need to consider what first hand interactions I can pursue.  Though it is unlikely I can interview the subjects of these videos and text posts, perhaps I will interview people who work with female education programs in the D.C. area. I might also interview/observe activists in the D.C. area from organizations like She’s the First to understand how women make sense of this NGO discourse.  In that case I will need to start reaching out to contacts and filling out IRB paperwork to get approval for such interactions.  To stay engaged over the break, I need to continue to read about NGO marketing campaigns and how empowerment is conceptualized by activists and organizations.  I hope to find more primary texts within and challenging this discourse to gain more intertextuality within my project.

Research Portfolio Post #9: Qualitative Data Sources for Interpretivist Research

For my interpretivist model of my research project I want to understand how international organizations have conceptualized female empowerment.  I have observed that there are different discourses on women’s empowerment, including the view that female education provides a way toward development with the inclusion of democratic values of equality.  I discuss a promotional video of the Malala Fund to understand how these organizations construct women’s educational empowerment as an innately good structure.[1]  The Malala Fund creates videos that highlight the stories women whose lives have been impacted by their education despite their challenging circumstances.

The Kenya video featuring Whitney, a 19-year-old from a Nairobi, opens with scenes of a slum at night as she describes the dangers of living there.[2]  The video transitions into Whitney’s educational journey and shows her determination to achieve a better life and to give back to her own community.  This video helps me to see how organizations conceptualize the issue of women’s empowerment by understanding how they construct this issue for public consumption.  Education represents the key factor in empowering and transforming individual lives and potentially societies by shifting toward ideas of equality.  The women speak to an unseen individual in documentary style who represents the public who can empathize with these women and support the work of these organizations through awareness or money.  In many ways, women are portrayed as resilient underdogs with the support of education, rather than helpless victims of insurmountable opposition.  This text connects to the discourses of documentaries, news media, and international organizations like the United Nations who might view empowerment more politically or economically.  The discourse of elite governments on female empowerment might create an interesting conversation between the goals of the empowered vs. those becoming empowered.  As of now I am restricting my context to the discourse of international organizations (based in western ideals) in the past decade rather than to a specific geographical region.  I justify this because many of the organizations describe issues like child marriage and sexual violence which span cultures and are not necessarily region specific.  The individuals interviewed in the Malala Fund video and similar interviews tell their stories and resist the stereotype of the helpless, marginalized, and un-educated girl.[3]  While the video does not ignore the marginalizing circumstances, the women empowered in education programs emerge with hope and agency for their futures.

[1] “Malala Fund Programmes: Kenya” (The Malala Fund, 2015), accessed November 23, 2016, https://www.malala.org/programmes/kenya.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Research Portfolio Post #8 Qualitative Data Sources

In order to research the question of “what explains women’s empowerment” in a small-n design I begin to operationalize my dependent variable of empowerment through its psychological dimension.  More specifically I look to sources like the World Values Survey in order to find indicators which measure whether social values of equality exist prevalently within populations.[1]  These “values” overlap with the empowerment dimensions of female political participation and economic independence.  I will most likely choose cases across different levels of development or choose a small number of cases within the same region so that I might best identify differences in levels of empowerment.  Most of the survey questions provide nominal data and use the Likeart scale to gage responses to “valued” statements.  For example, one survey question asks “when jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.  Though this data is typically used quantitatively, I might use this indicator qualitatively to select countries where values of gender equality are/are not (yes/no) present in female populations.  Based on these results I might look to more specific sources like state constitutions to see if labor equality laws are present there.  Then I might follow Howard’s logic by creating a twofold definition to evaluate the effectiveness of such laws.[2]  For example, equality laws may exist in print rather than in practice for many newer states that are in transition.  I would also need to find evidence that these laws are enacted in practice in labor force outcomes.  So far I have struggled to find case specific sources like country specific labor legislation or evaluation reports of labor laws.  As I continue my research for my small-n model I hope to also find data to operationalize educational (knowledge) as a dimension of empowerment- specifically the success or failure of female educational systems.  Again I might imitate Howard’s methodology by creating a twofold definition of “success” of education.[3]  Firstly, I might measure the presence of formal female educational structures in states.  Secondly, I might evaluate “outcomes” which better integrate women into the workforce.  With more exploration, I hope to find country specific legislation relating to labor force equality and educational accessibility, in comparable cases, in order to build up my own definition of empowerment.


[1] WORLD VALUES SURVEY Wave 6 2010-2014 OFFICIAL AGGREGATE v.20150418. World Values Survey Association (www.worldvaluessurvey.org). Aggregate File Producer: Asep/JDS, Madrid SPAIN.

[2] Lise Marje Howard, “Introduction: success, failure, and organizational learning in UN peacekeeping” In UN Peacekeeping In Civil Wars, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 11 & 353-354.

[3] Ibid.

Research Portfolio Post #7: Quantitative Data Sources

In order to research “what explains women’s empowerment despite oppressive developmental power systems” I must define and quantify variables like education, political representation, and values of equality.  In my large-n model I will use indicators to measure empowerment across economic, developmental, and social schools of thought.  For example, I will first use female education as a variable to quantify empowerment.  I might hypothesize that in a comparison of states, those with a strong sense of female empowerment will be more likely to have high enrollment of women and girls in school than those having weak opportunities for empowerment.  Using the World Development Indicators from the World Bank I found the gross percent of female primary and/or secondary school enrollment.  I will use this interval-ratio data to see if the percent of females in school indicates a correlation with other values of empowerment at the state level.  Since this data is collected through annual school surveys, it may not account for actual attendance or drop-rates.  Also differences in countries’ length of education might make affect enrollment rates.  In order to measure the availability of economic opportunities after education – that might empower women to be independent-  I might use the interval-ratio data of percent of female labor force with primary and/or secondary education.  Though I do not want to solely depend on economic variables, it will be useful to measure what share of workers are female with indicated levels of education.  This data might help me understand if education actually correlates with job participation.  I also might find patterns related to the surrounding circumstances necessary for “successful” educational programs to persist.  This data is collected through labor force surveys, censuses, establishment censuses and surveys, and administrative records.  It falls short as it gives a percentage of the overall labor force and does not discriminate between work sectors.  Also, countries might measure primary or secondary schooling differently.  Since both of these indicators measure interval-ratio variables I would be able to use their means as the measure of central tendency when I analyze my data.  I might control for variables like GDP and population in order to try to eliminate some of the innate economic bias and demographic variation in measuring development.

The World Bank. 2016. World Development Indicators. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank (producer and distributor). http://data.worldbank.org/data-catalog/world-development-indicators