The purpose of research, and the research of purpose: Part 1

Part 1: The purpose of research.

It’s in all the science and social studies texts: What is the purpose of science? or What is the purpose of research? Usually the answer is simple, one designed to memorize for the test: The purpose of science is to predict behavior. The purpose of research is to understand complex phenomena, and to reduce them to their essential elements.

That’s what you need to know for the test. It will be choice (c), and it will be repeated exactly as it is in the text. Because I was a college professor, I can predict human behavior that far. I did it in my classes, too.

In my undergraduate days, it was a thrill to open a new textbook–so much to learn, so many theories to help me to understand myself and the world in which I lived. From organic chemistry to physics to psychology as a natural science, I lived and breathed science. I would “get inside” the texts, absorbing every word, agreeing and disagreeing with the ideas presented.

As a graduate student I wrestled with my textbooks, sometimes disagreeing outright, knowing that something essential had been left out. And when I got to be a college professor, having to choose among textbooks was a Herculean task: what did I have to teach, to prepare students for their chosen professions? What could I leave out? Was it permissible to challenge behaviorism, or for that matter, it’s seeming opposite, radical constructivism? Even now my stomach tightens, thinking about the material.

What I didn’t know then was that there are assumptions inherent in our system of research, theory, education, and practice that have been allowed to exist unchallenged for decades. It is possible to argue, for example, that there is a bias in publications toward quantitative (statistical) research, and this results in a particular trend toward theory that is able to be statisically tested. Our textbooks contain the theories that have received the most promotion (publication), and it is the theories that are emphasized that students and professors are most interested in researching.

In the academic world, it’s publish or perish. There’s not a lot of percentage in bucking the system, now, is there? So if you’re going to keep reading this blog you’ll have to decide whether you are willing to question conventional assumptions. Some of these assumptions will seem so obvious you can’t believe they should be under scrutiny.

So, for example, one of the cornerstones of psychological theory is nature vs. nurture. Indeed, the famous “twin studies” are considered the gold standard of research design. But this research is based on a series of assumptions that have never been validated (scientifically proven to be true). We’ll get to that another time.

Quantitative research is the most popular, and the most likely to be published, but there is another type of research, known as qualitative, that is becoming more popular and accepted. Each of these types of research has inherent assumptions, that establish the framework for conclusions that might be reached with this research.

By understanding assumptions, it is possible to begin to unpack our research, and systematically understand what this research can and cannot conclude. That is one of the important threads of this blog.

And perhaps along the way, we’ll expand our understanding of the purpose of research. And doing so will allow us to engage in the research of purpose. But that’s Part 2.

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