October 18, 2016

Updated thinking about researcher influence on research design

A couple of days ago it was a year since I laid out a few questions in a blog post that I was asking myself at the time regarding the role that researcher beliefs and perspectives of reality play in the research design. I thought I would provide an update on the current thinking regarding these questions.

First Question: Could a researcher, even within a Social Science discipline, really be objective?

Whilst this is being continuously thought about, at the moment I do not have the belief that any researcher can really remain objective, even quantitative researchers. When we talk about qualitative researchers, the argument is obvious in that objectivity is difficult to achieve although this really depends on the way in which objectivity is actually defined. For example, the nature of qualitative data requires the construction of a grounded interpretation of what the data is trying to suggest. Qualitative researchers construct meaning of the data, but this construction of meaning is an interpretation but grounded in the data.

It can be argued that it is this interpretation that gives the process subjectivity whilst the grounding of the interpretation can give research a sense of objectivity. This sounds similar to retroductive and abductive analyses and to some it does not make sense, but it is making increasing sense to me as it appears in my opinion to be good common sense to continuously construct an interpretation and ground any beliefs that stem from that interpretation in the data. Grounded interpretation means all beliefs, thoughts, ideas, and so on, coming from an interpretation that do not fit within the data itself should be discarded. This however does not necessitate the use of grounded theory but everything that is observed must be grounded in the data in some way.

Even social scientists using quantitative data could be viewed as subjective because from a broader sense the research questions and the fact that the social scientist has decided to use quantitative approaches is subjective because it is based on the way that they understand the research problem and the research question. So, whilst an experimental or quasi-experimental and other positivist, objective leaning approaches do collect and analyse data in a matter of fact way, the way in which those findings can be applied to different situations and indeed the way in which the findings are perceived will differ between social science researchers, in my opinion.

What I am considering further is the way in which we really relate to the data and therefore the way in which we interpret the data, and this is important for qualitative researchers. What is the relationship between the researcher and the data, and what factors are involved with such a relationship?

Second Question: Is a researcher drawn towards research methodologies more so because that methodology and methods match their framework of perceptions, beliefs, perspectives, values and attitudes of and towards reality?

Though I am still thinking about this, I would say yes: a researcher is drawn towards not what is actually best to answer a research question and to solve a research problem but is drawn towards that which best aligns with a researcher’s framework of perceptions, beliefs, perspectives, values and attitudes of and towards reality. But what are we talking about when we are talking about perceptions? Perceptions of what exactly? The research problem? Our own interpretation of the research questions that we ask? Where do these perceptions come from and what is it that we are meant to perceive? In what way do our perceptions influence our beliefs, values and attitudes?

My Philosophical perspectives have changed during the past year from constructivist to critical realist because I have come to realise the complexity of reality relative to the phenomena of investigation; that neither exploring the process of the phenomena nor exploring the experiences that people have of the phenomena are enough to gain a full understanding of the phenomena. Risk taking has and still is involved, but so far I think I am on the right track with my philosophical and methodological development and development of argumentation for them. It’s been especially easier since dropping case study. Well, that’s the other issue: sometimes we can become quite set on a particular methodology that we come across difficulties and struggles when we attempt to integrate particular methodologies and methods with other methodologies and methods, but this really depends on the way in which methodologies and methods are used. E.g., I was proposing to use a case study approach as a strategy for question formation, data collection and data analysis but came to the realisation that it was not compatible with grounded theory therefore dropped all case study elements. Since then in my opinion the methodology has been more workable.

I suppose we could say that researchers are initially drawn to methods and methodologies that meet their frameworks of preferences, but then later when they really begin to think about their design, the phenomena and the context of exploration they begin to understand what really might or might not work.

Third Question: Are we as individuals within our society really able to reach or understand objective truth about reality, or will people forever be led by their own preconceptions, perspectives, values and attitudes of and towards reality?

Answer to this for me is a lot more stable than it was a year ago: from a critical realist perspective the answer is, whilst objective truth about phenomena might be out there independent of our thinking, experiencing and perceiving such phenomena, our understanding and knowledge of this phenomena is subjective and always prone to fallibility and defeasibility. This is exactly because our personal frameworks of observation and understanding reality are based on our own experiences of and interactions with reality.

Fourth Question: What should be the extent or role of a researcher’s subjective framework of beliefs of reality play on their role of being a researcher and the development of their research design?

I have the current belief that this is really down to the individual researcher to decide. For me personally, my philosophical and methodological approaches have changed as my own understanding of the phenomena and the context and situation within which the phenomena are to be explored has increased and developed. Has the research design altered based on my own framework of beliefs of reality? You could say yes, but then can also abstract a step higher and say that the research design has changed because of being open minded, cautious about being absolutely certain about research designs, and the willingness to change beliefs about reality: to let my understanding of the phenomena and its explorative context influence my beliefs about reality and therefore about the way in which reality and the phenomena, is to be explored and should be explored.


Thinking about the role of the researcher, the relationship that the researcher has between him/herself and the participants and between him/herself and the data is a current topic of thinking and consideration for my research. This is because if we do not think about ourselves as researchers, our positioning within reality, the way in which we view data, and the way in which we view research designs we are in danger of becoming stagnant and willing to accept any design that we come across just because it basically works. But, this pragmatic approach to “what works” does not necessarily mean that it is the right or best suitable answer.

‘till next time: keep designing!

- 2 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Liviu Damsa

    I think that ‘objectivism’ (like positivism) is over-rated in social sciences (and of course, you will fail the assessments if you do not play somehow this game….). You cannot solve a complex multivariate system (such as society) by providing a simple equation (even if people pretend in worthless papers they do so). You can only provide a sensitive take on the subject and an attempt to portray the reality in your own way. And as a student, you are only requested to provide your assessors that you have a fair knowledge of the research methods & a sensitive take on your subject. So, from my experience, you cannot fail any assessment if you provided your assessors a explanation on why you chose the particular methods you have chosen for your research….

    02 Jan 2017, 17:58

  2. Alex Darracott

    Thank you for your comment and for your feedback and you are right about the student perspective of research methods. Like you, I don’t necessarily agree with objectivism within social sciences especially given that I perceive reality to be multi-layered and that our knowledge of these layers (the objects and structures of social reality) is prone to refinement.

    My ideas have shifted a little and I’ve read a bit more since posting this up, and whilst ideas are continuously being revised I have taken an interest in Realism in general as a philosophical view of social reality (and indeed of social sciences and in particular within the context of my own research) and I do find it interesting that it hasn’t been taken up to a huge level within qualitative research. Granted, interpretivism, constructivism, and other subjectivism philosophies along with critical paradigms have dominated qualitative explorations, but I think there is room for Realism. There are some interesting papers on the subject of Realism as a Social Science philosophy. Particularly in the context of my own research Realism in general appears to make sense, though not strictly Critical Realism as I had shown interest in this at the time of writing this blog post. As long as I develop suitable justification for the methodology and methods used, the use of Realism should make sense.

    08 Jan 2017, 14:39

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