1.4 What makes research scientific?
We place special emphasis on the process of research because it is the rigour with which this is carried out (the scientific method) that distinguishes scientific research from other forms of enquiry, and scientific knowledge from other kinds of knowledge.
Scientific method is one means by which knowledge is created; however, it is not the only way we know or understand our world. Three other modes of knowing in human societies can be identified (Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias 1996).
- Authoritarian - individuals serve as sources of knowledge by virtue of their social or political position. These individuals may be religious or political leaders, kings or 'experts' such as respected scientists.
- Mystical - knowledge is sought from the supernatural world.
- Rationalistic - within the school of rationalism knowledge can be derived from the rules of logic and without reference to the empirical world.
In contrast to the modes listed above, scientific knowledge about the world is based upon empirical observation. Observation is used to develop theory to help us to describe, understand, and predict how our world works. The procedures by which observations are gathered, evaluated, and used to produce new knowledge are termed methodology.
Research methodologies are the rules and procedures by which knowledge is generated and shared. They allow research and therefore knowledge claims to be evaluated. The following criteria are commonly used to evaluate scientific research (Bryman 2008).
- Reliability - Is the research study repeatable? - that is: are the measures used reliable and consistent. If I go back and repeat the measurements in the same conditions will I get the same results?
- Replication - This refers to the idea that the procedures (methodology) employed in the study are reported in sufficient detail that a second researcher could repeat the study.
- Validity - This concerns the integrity of conclusions that are generated through a research study. There are a number of issues raised here including (1) does the measure employed accurately reflect the concept under investigation; (2) is the causal relationship robust - can we be sure that X is the cause of Y? (3) Can we be confident that we can extrapolate our findings beyond the research context?
In certain instances and particularly where a research study is not seeking to extrapolate statistical findings beyond the research context, the criteria of trustworthiness has been suggested as a means to ensure the integrity of conclusions.
All the criteria above are judged by perceived rigour in method; that is confidence that the researcher has followed accepted procedures to ensure to the fullest that the conclusions reached are robust. To achieve confidence in the results of a study demands 'disciplined inquiry' such that the data, arguments, and reasoning are able to withstand examination by other members of the scientific community (Punch 1998).