September 20, 2016

Are All Research Designs Pragmatic and Relativist?

Developing a research design is quite an experience, and is a complex mesh of investigating and exploring different philosophies, strategies, methodologies and methods and, in the case of my research design, the way in which they can be combined and / or amended to fit the research context and research questions. I continuously reflect upon my research design and question it, and the process of actually getting to the point where I have a research design therefore sometimes I wonder if the design, regardless of its philosophical positioning, is actually pragmatic and relativist process.

I reflect on this question because research design development is based on our own prejudices, experiences, philosophies and theories, and the identified research problem. The way that we interpret and understand reality can in some way limit the way that we choose to investigate reality, or in some way restrict ourselves with our research design preferences, and the reality of the research problem. But should our own preferences determine the research design or should it be the research questions? This depends, in my opinion, on several factors including our experiences and developed skills, and enthusiasm for other approaches. A solid quantitative experimental researcher, for example, might not be able to learn about qualitative ethnographic or coding approaches within a short space of time required to complete a research project. They might not even be willing to actually do this instead continue to view reality and all research problems through the lens of an experimentalist. Research textbooks do emphasise the idea that research questions do drive the research design, but is this absolute? Are research questions the only factor?

Where do research problems come from? Are they constructed by the individuals or are research problems already out there independent of human thought waiting to be discovered? What makes us identify research problems in a different way to other researchers? I identified the basis of my research project many years ago through observation, and it has taken many years of reading and an MSc course to really refine the research to where it is now and even then refinement is still an ongoing process. Perhaps research problems exist independent of a researcher’s perceiving, understanding and knowing them but each researcher perceives and chooses to explore the problem in different ways based on prejudices, experiences and so on. Perhaps they are not actually independent and depends on our interpretations and engagement with the natural or social reality?

Our perspectives of reality do not have to be fixed and certain: my own philosophical views have changed from a relativist perspective to a critical realist perspective, and this has entailed a change to my methodological approach to investigating reality and the research problem. The research questions have changed numerous times as I have read and explored the phenomenon of interest further. Understanding reality is more than just statistically analysing two or more variables in order to correlate them and create a cause-effect relationship and then to go on testing this relationship. Understanding reality is also more than just a researcher enveloping or immersing themselves with participant observation and experiences. Reality is more than just being a single, certain, absolute reality easily accessible and understandable through using hypo-deductive scientific methods and it is more than just being based on our subjective knowledge and experiences of reality

Does this make the process pragmatic and relativist? Pragmatic as in, I am selecting “whatever works” to address the research questions and the research problem therefore I perceive from reflection upon my own perspectives of reality that a critical realist case study using a mixed methods approach is the most appropriate design for this research. Relativist as in, I have developed the research design relative to the research problem, relative to my own philosophical views, and relative to the methodological concerns that I have identified in existing published literature.

This is something that is worth continuing to think about!

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