Research Portfolio Post #3: Philosophical Wagers

Inherent philosophical commitments, as we have learned, are not necessarily bad things to have. Although no one methodology or theory is the ‘right’ one, it can surely be right for us, for a particular project. In order to understand and then properly employ these methodologies, we must have a firm grasp on what it is we want to explore—what do we know, what don’t we know, and how? This is where ontology enters. Put simply, ontology is the study of being, but also the examination of our beliefs about the nature of reality. Ontology is far more metacognitive than epistemology, its existential cousin, which asks how we come to have those ontological conceptualizations about the nature of reality.

Methodology, on the other hand, is a systematic collection of decisions about how research will be conducted and analyzed. A method is one choice; the methodology is the bundle of choices tied together. Within the schools of ontology and epistemology lie several different approaches to research—at times, vastly differing, at others, nearly indistinguishable—each of which has a range of methodologies emblematic of those approaches. For example, underneath the thought school of epistemology lies the neo-positivist approach to research, whose methodologies typically entail statistical analysis and large sets of data.

I in no way can be an objective observer of the social world. Humans tend to believe they are exceptionally good at self-removal and critical observation; this is merely self-deceiving. The opinions we are inclined to form, the observations we make (versus those which go entirely unnoticed), and perhaps even the reason for selecting the methodology at large are all results of our particular enculturation, largely immutable and often invisible to the self. This has reverberating effects on social science research, which is why it is particularly valuable to employ a large range of diverse pre-existing scholarship when crafting original research. These previous opinions—each of them a result of that particular researcher’s environment, historical moment, and inherent assumptions—can provide a sort of buffer to my own opinions and assumptions, creating a smorgasbord of different backgrounds to draw from. It is not a perfect approach—using a wide range of others’ study to make my own less personal and subjective—but it is certainly a reasonable one.

Jonathan Fox did just this. He did not seek to build his own tools of measurement based on what he thought would be adequate; he instead employed the already-existing Hafner-Burton scale. Whether or not this was the best scale for measuring the extent of state repression is another matter altogether—what matters here is that he buffered his own biases and assumptions by using another researcher’s tools.

David Edelstein, on the other hand, is an example of inherent political assumption as a driver of research. It is implicit that his work is driven by his hesitation towards US policy in Iraq at the time, and that his ulterior goals was to motivate others to heed similar caution. To be certain, his work is plenty buffered by objective historical facts (he spends the first several pages providing exposition for why this research is important regardless of the contemporary situation abroad), but here it is clear that sometimes what motivates us to undertake such projects in the first place are our own opinions.

The list of things we can make valid knowledge claims about is comically short. Even when presenting heavily-researched social phenomena, researchers are required to make all sorts of qualifications and caveats, because they recognize that their work is narrowed by the limits of time and space (although this, in itself, is another one of my fundamental assumptions—that not all knowledge can transcend time). Even when we see things with our own eyes, we see them as we are, not as they are. It is, to be sure, still worth it to make these knowledge claims, because hearing them from other people enables us to examine what might be missing from our own.

4 thoughts on “Research Portfolio Post #3: Philosophical Wagers”

  1. Rachel,

    I think that your examples of bias in the pieces which we have read in class brought up some interesting points. Jonathan Fox focuses on researching whether religious governments are repressive is a clear example of inevitable bias. Fox, an American scholar, hails from a secular government; his experiences with secular government, if positive, could lead him to be biased against religious governments, and unconsciously emphasize evidence which incriminates it as repressive. You point out his use of the Hafner-Burton scale, a widely tested and used method of measurement, in his article as a buffer for his own inherent bias. While that scale may not carry Fox’s bias, it will contain the biases of Hafner, Burton, and all those who have critiqued and assisted the scale’s establishment.

    This brings us back to the question of whether any of us can ever objectively observe anything. If Fox uses his own measurement method, his observations carry the weight of his bias. If he uses another person’s scale, he instead carries another’s biases. For anyone wanting an objective standpoint, the situation seems to be a lose-lose one. Is it actually any better, or less subjective, to entertain another person’s measurements on an issue, then?
    Edelstein’s article furthers the idea that bias is inescapable. His motivation is already filled with bias. Our specific interests and concerns about our world will inevitably be this way. The best thing we can do is acknowledge and be aware of these implications.

    Great job on such an insightful post.

  2. Hi Rachel,

    Nice job sourcing out to the various cases we explored! You writing about how Johnathan Fox employed others models and research to inform his own as well as eliminate bias definitely got me thinking. In research, nowadays, it is next to impossible to not include the works of others but a conundrum which I face is how to contribute enough research from others to eliminate bias, while also being my own writing. For example, a problem which I came across las year while sourcing for one of my history classes was how to select unbiased sources to talk about Africa. A problem with African history is that the vast majority of research is done by either “Western” scholars or done in the native language and inaccessible to the larger audience. What I found while doing research for that class is that while my own personal bias was not prevalent, I inadvertently collected sources skewed in a glaringly obvious way.
    In my own writing, I struggle with accepting the prevalence of personal bias in my own source collection and usage of other work to build on my own. This is where I agree that we, as novice researchers, are unable to be truly objective. Even when we, like Fox, employ others models to build on our own, we are inputing their potentially biased models into our own.
    Nicely done,
    Tristan*

    *You can join the Tristan club, just gotta spell it right 😂!

  3. Hi Rachel,

    I really liked your post! You brought up some very interesting points that have made me ponder my current beliefs about methodologies, puzzles, and research questions. I agree with you when you share how, “no one methodology or theory is the ‘right’ one, it can surely be right for us, for a particular project.” In order words, I believe that a researchers choice of methodology comes from the specific puzzle the researcher is attempting to analyze and the question(s) being asked. However, I feel as though the puzzle and question(s) the researcher is asking is a product of the researchers ontological view. For instance, a neo-positivist methodology helps analyze different questions than a interpretivist methodology does. But how does one think to ask those questions? That’s where I believe ontological views come in: where people will ask questions about the reality they believe in. Thus they, won’t necessarily ask questions about a reality they don’t believe in. Furthermore, I feel as though ontological views are products of environment and experience and changing ones view of reality is much more difficult than one might expect. Therefore, I was really intrigued when you mentioned that “even when we see things with our own eyes, we see them as we are, not as they are. It is, to be sure, still worth it to make these knowledge claims, because hearing them from other people enables us to examine what might be missing from our own.” While objective thinking might be impossible in our research, the closest we can get is by reading other scholarship regardless of of the methodology or ontological view of the researcher to understand the other realities people believe in since they may provide critical answers not present in our own realities.

  4. Rachel — you do a good job of tracing out some of the core concepts related to our philosophy of science discussions. You also do a good job of staking out where you fall with your knowledge commitments at at the moment. That is a good start, and you’ve also received some good comments from some of your classmates to consider as you continue to reflect on your own philosophical wagers.

    I would be careful when considering the idea of “bias” though. This came up in your post, in the comments here, and others. Even the most die-hard neopositivist would recognize that as humans we cannot be perfectly objective. The question is whether these biases are part of our research. And the entire knowledge aim behind the kinds of clear, transparent, systematic, and replicable procedures followed in neopositivist methodologies is to mitigate or eliminate the bias that a researcher might carry (in addition, peer review by a community of other skeptical experts also serves this function). It is a bit of a stretch to read all sorts of biases into the pieces from Fox or Edelstein. Indeed, Fox as a statistical analyst is not really drawing on a range of different backgrounds/experiences so much as he is applying a very strict and well-defined set of procedures (the very epitome of the types of procedures that one with this knowledge aim to be as objective as possible in observing and analyzing the social world would follow). Unpacking the ontological and epistemological assumptions that underpin a scholar’s approach is certainly valid, but this should not at all be confused with (or linked to) the idea of bias!

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