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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Holkenbrink-Monk

What We Know and What We Ask

I’ve found there are two major schools of thought when it comes to research - you’re a [qualitative, quantitative, etc.] researcher, or the question will always determine the methodological approach. When I began diving into coursework in my doctoral program, a lot of “big words” were thrown around that were never unpacked, such as ontology, epistemology, and other words that are found within the branches of philosophy, yet rarely explored and expected to “pick up” when reading article-after-article. After teaching research methods for years and being theoretically grounded, I realized that the reason it bothered me so much that there was so much philosophy in our research methods, yet it wasn’t discussed, is that who we are and what we believe about the world, absolutely influences our research designs.

For example, you can be a qualitative researcher while recognizing that your question(s) drive the research design. Why? Well, because your philosophical underpinnings as a person and researcher will influence the types of questions you ask and then, in turn, drive the research design. I do believe that most people can be rigorous and solid in a methodology that isn’t “their jam,” so to speak, but that is also influenced by why they would want to understand it, to begin with. While I understand quantitative research, and I teach social statistics and research methods, this does not mean the questions I ask will always be quantitative. This is because of my theoretical and philosophical findings as a teacher and researcher. Yet, because I understand the purpose of quantitative research, its value, and how it contributes to understanding data, I can conceptualize and make the material accessible to many students who otherwise feel they have a “bad” relationship with math. (I’ll share more on this as I have some, what I believe to be fairly strong, pedagogical tools and outlooks on teaching social statistics to undergrads.)

However, regardless of a person’s philosophical beliefs about the world and how they approach it, society values statistics and quantitative data over anything else due to its heavily rooted positivist beliefs and Westernized narratives of what research is and should be. Now, this does not mean that I am anti-science. In fact, this is rooted very much in the scientific method that we learn in elementary school. Let’s revisit that just for a moment.

On the first day of class and especially in social statistics, I use playing cards to discuss sociology, systems, the hands we’re dealt, and social capital to navigate systems that were not designed equitably and for all (such as knowing when to hit or stay in the game 21.)

When I begin teaching research methods, qualitative research, social statistics, or any methodology course, I go through research articles and discuss the scientific method. I talk about the philosophical roots of scientific inquiry and how, despite the fact that philosophy departments are being threatened and closed, it’s necessary to understand why we study what we study and how we interpret what we see. With that, we go through the steps of the scientific method. If you recall, they are:

  1. Define a problem/ask a question

  2. Create a hypothesis

  3. Collect (observable) data

  4. Analyze the data

  5. Evaluate it to our hypothesis

If you’ve taken a qualitative research class, you’ll know that in qualitative research, we do not create hypotheses. However, this does not mean that we cannot see some equivalent. Hypotheses are typically derived from the literature and other empirical research. With qualitative research, we are still using previous literature to help inform the process of our study, or at minimum, the analysis. We also will have assumptions and expectations, and at the end of the day, our lived experiences and observations end up informing our approach to our qualitative research design, or really, any research design. So, while we do not create hypotheses, we do not live in a vacuum and still understand our approach and expectations, as well as how we will collect data and go from there. Then, we collect data; for quantitative, we administer surveys, use databases, etc. For qualitative, we observe (which, by, the way, is one of the steps in the scientific method,) interview, or collect data in some other way. We analyze our data, and then we evaluate it, or discuss it, in relation to the literature.

The approach is similar to that of a scientific, peer-reviewed research paper. And this is why the social sciences are, in fact, a science, it’s just not a physical or life science. I bring this up because qualitative research tends to get a lot of dismissal in the research world. Even in various groups or threads, one can find somebody who will immediately undermine qualitative research, in search of “proof” or “empirical” research, meanwhile, qualitative research is empirical. If you recall, often during the first introductions to the scientific method in elementary school students will be introduced to observing leaves, or the infamous volcano. This is observable data - they are not running linear regressions, but instead, observing to collect data. This is because this process is absolutely scientific.

I bring together philosophy and sciences for a few reasons. The first is that, as mentioned previously, the philosophical beliefs about the world fuel the types of questions we ask. Furthermore, philosophical foundations of science are evident and necessary, yet so often dismissed. But I think the most important factor for me is that research methodologies that are critical in nature are often undervalued, scoffed at, and questioned, especially by those in the academy. Grassroots organizing, activism, and critical scholars recognize the importance of these critical epistemologies for creating counter-narratives that have historically been silenced or ignored by the very academy defining “approved” or “legitimate” approaches. However, the academy is often not representative of the people, and while science is valuable and important, and the anti-science narrative is already too heavy in our society, the definitions of a scientific approach have been infiltrated by folks who have not been minoritized in our society.

A photo of my supplies when I begin preparing to teach visual research with picture books and how to create lesson plans using research. I taught this in an undergraduate Sociology of Education course.

Then, when professors, researchers, and advisors are introduced to research approaches that may be “non-traditional” or “unconventional”, such as (youth) participatory action research, autoethnography, storytelling, or even in the reporting approach, such as the creation of books or graphic novels rather than a typical chaptered dissertation, they belittle it (of course, not all, but collectively and as part of the academy.) What is ironic is this dismissal of those approaches ends up being just another means to uphold white supremacy, heteronormative ideologies, ableist philosophies, and more, all in the name of “science.” Of course, this is not to say that science itself is the problem, but rather those defining science and what is, and is not, legitimate and valuable. In addition, theory is dismissed or, at minimum, cited in a systematic way that is only surface level, not truly engaging with the data, and literature, and the researcher is so far removed that a deep and critical understanding of the research and in turn, lived experience, is lacking.

I think the removal of ourselves from the conditions of research, and the philosophical foundations of methodologies, allows us to justify the dismissal of approaches and voices of people in the name of science, and further excuse inequitable practices for not being scientific enough.

Yet, if we were able to engage critically with the philosophical roots of social science research, we could see why and how research is valid, legitimate, and rigorous regardless of whether our data comes in the form of numbers or words, picture books, film, or secondary databases. Of course, this is not enough - we have to recognize that the academy was not created for all, and while growing research and literature, methodological approaches, and theory are present, representative, and evident, it does not mean these approaches are seen as such in dominant scientific research spheres.

Black and white photo of my dissertation, entitled Disruption, Dissent, and Dialogue: YPAR as a Pedagogical and Institutional Tool

My dissertation, entitled, Disruption, Dissent, and Dialogue: YPAR as a Pedagogical and Institutional Tool, utilized youth participatory action research.

While I was supported wholeheartedly by my committee, there were moments it felt overall that my approach was seen as questionable; not by any individual, but when discussing it, and even writing it at times; I even questioned my own approach as a large undertaking, the collaborative style, and whether it was fit to get me to the point of being “doctor”. While there is plenty of literature out there, the role YPAR plays in dominant research, and funding, is lacking primarily due to the lack of positivism it possesses and its philosophical foundations of disrupting the status quo in our society.

My qualitative-focused youth participatory action research dissertation received stellar remarks. I plan on writing a book and articles on it because when introduced to research methodologies many of my courses never explored these approaches. In fact, the social and philosophical foundations of education were not heavily discussed, and I think it would have been helpful for many when exploring research methodologies that align with who we are as researchers and ones that challenge the dominant narratives.

And, more so, not only does exploring these foundations help a researcher understand who they are as researchers, but to also critically engage with approaches that are not quantitative in nature and understand why they are vital, rigorous, and completely legitimate scientific research approaches.

Quantitative research is vital and necessary, but it is not the only valid approach. Reliance and belief in quantitative research as the sole scientific approach a narrow-focused perspective; it lacks imagination and, quite frankly, the very philosophical nature and foundations of scientific inquiry to begin with.

And, as a final note, but to doctoral students and candidates - if you have a methodological approach that may be seen as unconventional, go for it if you can. Find the folks who will support you, stand their ground for you, and guide you using that methodology. Don’t let the academy or those in it silence you in the name of the status quo masked as rigor.

You may even be faced with comments about your idealism, but do you know what progress and great things stem from? Ideas, damnit. The ability to reimagination a better future, one that honors your ancestors, honors you, and challenges systems in place that have subjugated ideas and people may seem idealistic, but many things seemed impossible before - so shower yourself in your beautiful idealism.

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