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What’s All This About Philosophy?

Tomorrow's Research

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Being aware of your philosophical or theoretical standpoint is an important aspect of your research.  The assumptions made at the heart of your investigation have a large bearing on how you approach your subject and investigate the aspects of interest. The opposite poles of approach are positivism - the belief that there is an inherent order in the universe which can be discovered if we possess enough information; and relativism - that as human beings within a culture, we can only understand the world from our own perspective, which could be different from that of other humans in other cultures.



The posting below looks at the importance of knowing and articulating your philosophical perspective when writing your thesis or dissertation. It is from Chapter 5, What's All This About Philosophy?, in the book Your Undergraduate Dissertation: The Essential Guide for Success.  It is part of the Sage Study Skills series and is by Nicholas Walliman and published by Sage Publications, Inc. 2455 Teller Road Thousand Oaks, California 91320. [‎] Copyright © 2014 Nicholas Walliman. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Research

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What's All This About Philosophy?


5.1 Can I believe what I see?  Do I see what I believe?

You might well ask, 'Why a chapter about philosophy? After all, I'm doing a degree in education, nursing, social science, geography, etc.?' The simple answer is, that your whole life is determined by your philosophical approach, whether you realize it or not. Everyone is a philosopher - everyone has his or her own concept of the world.

The alternative to philosophy is not no philosophy but bad philosophy. The 'un-philosophical' person has an unconscious philosophy, which they apply to their practice - whether of science, politics or daily life. (Collier, 1994: 16)

The research work involved in doing your dissertation requires you to take a conscious stance with regard to the nature of knowledge, its acquisition and analysis, and the quality and certainty of the conclusions that can be reached from it. You cannot assume that your position will necessarily be shared by your reader, so you will have to  make clear to the reader what your philosophical approach is.        

So, what is it that makes up this philosophical approach, and how can one recognize its nature? The best way is to look at some of the debate about different approaches to knowledge and enquiry - the sorts of issues that are inherent in the process of producing a dissertation. There is a wide spectrum of attitudes in the debate about research, with two opposing camps, the positivists and the relativists, at the extremes, and a range of intermediate stances. I will briefly compare these divergent attitudes.

5.2 Positivism

On the one hand, the positivists maintain that in order to know something it should be observable and measurable.  The observer must stand apart and take a detached and neutral view of the phenomenon. For example, an engineer testing the strength of a beam will make careful measurements of loading and deflection, and careful observations of cracks and signs of failure. It should not make any difference if the engineer's dog had died that morning and he or she was feeling really low. Any other engineer doing the same test elsewhere would come up with identical results and knowledge about that beam.        

This is simple enough to understand when dealing with controllable inanimate material and forces. But extreme positivists would go further. They would say that any observable phenomenon can be understood and explained in a logical way, if only enough was known about all the complexities of the situation. Hence, for example, the development of lifeon earth will be fully explained when enough information is gained and enough experiments are carried out to successfully test the theories about the process.        

Inherent to this way of thinking is a set of assumptions. It is these that underpin the positivist approach and form the basis of scientific method that has brought us so many advances in science and technology. The main assumptions are as follows.

Order - There is a conviction that the universe has some kind of order, and because of this, it is possible that we should be able to achieve some kind of understanding of it.  Consequently, we can find out the links between events and their causes and thus understand 'the rules of the game'. This then allows us to make predictions. Admittedly, some phenomena are so complicated that it is very difficult to possess enough information and understanding to make reliable predictions (e.g. long-range weather forecasting).

External reality - This maintains that everyone shares the same reality and that we do not all live in different worlds that follow different rules.  Although there is much philosophical debate about the nature of reality, the positivists rely on the assumption that knowledge is shareable and verifiable: that is, you see the same as I do when, say, looking down a microscope. A theory built upon observations can therefore be tested by any observer to see if it is reliable, in order that the theory can achieve general acceptance.

Reliability - Human intellect and perceptions are reliable. You can depend on your senses and methods of thinking. Despite the dangers of deception and muddled thinking, careful observation and logical thought can be depended upon. The accuracy of memory is also an important feature in this assumption.

Parsimony - This maintains that the simplest possible explanation is the best. Needless complexity should be avoided. Einstein's formula E = mc2, that sums up his momentous theory of relativity, is a good example of this.

Generality - It is no good if the results of one experiment are only relevant to that one case, at that particular time, in that particular place. It must be possible to generalize from particular instances to others, e.g. from the performance of one tested beam to the predicted performance of other similar beams. It is impossible to see every instance of a phenomenon, e.g. water boiling when it is heated, but it is possible to maintain that any water will boil if heated sufficiently.

When society is organized in a 'scientific' way, logical methods can be applied to all aspects of life, so as to share all the increasing benefits equally and to ensure that people themselves act rationally.

5.3 Relativism

On the other hand, the relativists maintain that we humans are inextricably bound up with the events of the world, and that it is impossible for anyone to stand aside and observe it impartially, as it were, 'from on high'.  We are all encumbered by our own experiences and viewpoints, and are enmeshed in our society. However well-established they are, facts are human interpretations of reality, and may well change with time or be understood quite differently by different cultures.

This approach is particularly relevant when studying anything to do with human society. Scientific method is poorly equipped to track the inconsistencies, conflicts, and subtleties of beliefs, ideals, and feelings that form such an important part of human life.

But even in what is regarded as pure scientific research, for example astronomy, physics and biology, the mindset of society, referred to as the current paradigm, is an enormously powerful force that distorts thinking away from idealistic detachment and channels it into socially (and sometimes religiously) 'acceptable' routes.  A striking example of this inthe past was the complicated solutions devised to explain the movement of the heavenly bodies to confirm the belief that the earth was the centre of the universe.  Commercial pressure can also distort scientific efforts, for example, in the development of particular drug treatments where heavy investment almost 'requires' that it be shown that the treatment works. In order to understand the basically different approach to understanding reality it is revealing to compare the relativists' attitudes to the previously listed assumptions that underlie the positivists' position.

Order - The creation of some kind of order in our understanding of the world is based on our own human perceptions of the world.  As time passes, our ordering of the world changes, not because the world has changed but because our attitudes to life, society and beliefs have changed.  However much knowledge is gained, we will never reach a definitive understanding of the world order.  The 'rules of the game' are constructed by our intellect which is irrevocably bound up in our society and individually.

External reality - Our perceptions of the world are uniquely individual. The world we actually perceive does not consist of a series of stimuli that we interpret through our senses and make sense of logically in a void. Rather, we already have a picture of the world, and what we perceive is interpreted in relation to our feelings and understanding - our reality. Admittedly, we might share reality by using the same meanings of words in language (even that is debatable), but this sharing is only a tiny part of our individual experience.  We look on the world from within it, and from within ourselves.

Reliability - Can we believe our senses?  Does our memory always fool us? We will answer 'not always' to the first and 'quite often' to the second, if we believe that human nature is inevitably bound up in its culture and past experiences.  These lead us to a personal interpretation of our perception and memorizing of events in our surroundings.  Our senses can be tricked in many ways, and our memory is far from perfect, so researchers cannot rely on these to give a definitive record and measurement of the work.  However, our skills of reasoning must be taken as a reliable method of organizing data and ideas, even though there may be several ways of interpreting data.

Parsimony - Life and society are not so simple and uniform that a simple explanation is possible. Hence simplification usually implies oversimplification. Although needless complexity should be avoided, it is rarely possible to sum any situation up in the form of a neat formula.

Generality - Relativists tend to reject the importance, or even possibility, of categorizing individuals and events into classes. Owing to the uniqueness of each person and the uniqueness of each event it is very difficult to predict what may happen in the future under similar conditions; it is dangerous to generalize from studied cases.

The function of language becomes an important issue in this debate. Actually, this issue is widened into the subject of communication, which goes beyond just the spoken and written message. We communicate by all sorts of gestures; we assume roles and follow conventions. Consider how difficult it is to gauge people's meanings and feelings when you are in astrange country where different social rules apply, even if you understand the language. This subject of communication is called 'discourse'. How things are communicated is often as important as what is communicated - remember Marshall McLuhan's (1976) phrase, 'the medium is the message'? (McLuhan and Fiore, 1976). Discourse analysis recognizes these important factors and stresses that there is no 'neutral' way of communication.

5.4 How do these attitudes affect your dissertation?

You will need to think about this. Your own philosophical approach to how we can see and understand the world around us will be a fundamental factor in your investigation. There are many ways in which any situation can be analysed. Each approach will have a tendency to be based on a particular philosophical line that influences what you look at, the data you collect and the types of conclusions that you aim at. This is best explained using an example.        

Suppose that you have decided to carry out some research into children's playgrounds in cities. You could base your research on official statistics about how many playgrounds there are in relation to population figures, their sizes, facilities and locations, and records of vandalism and child crime. Or you could arrange interviews with children and parents to find out what they felt about different playgrounds. You could also observe the playgrounds from above and plot children's playing patterns in the form of geometrical shapes; or you could observe from nearby and record how the children used each piece of equipment. You could also make measurements of how much force is exerted by children playing on the equipment, test its strength and measure rates of corrosion, in order to ensure that it is safely built. Each of these approaches involves basic theoretical as well as methodological decisions.        

Accordingly, you will have to decide which philosophical standpoint(s) to adopt when carrying out your research. This is not to say that any approach is better or more true than any other. Your research approach will depend on the characteristics of your research problem and your own convictions about the nature of research. It is even possible to take different approaches to different aspects of your research topic. Your decisions will help you to determine the nature of your enquiry, the choice of appropriate research methods, and the characteristics of the outcomes that you can expect.

5.5 Chapter Summary

Being aware of your philosophical or theoretical standpoint is an important aspect of your research.  The assumptions made at the heart of your investigation have a large bearing on how you approach your subject and investigate the aspects of interest. The opposite poles of approach are positivism - the belief that there is an inherent order in the universe which can be discovered if we possess enough information; and relativism - that as human beings within a culture, we can only understand the world from our own perspective, which could be different from that of other humans in other cultures.        

The concepts of order, external reality, reliability, parsimony and generality are all understood differently in positivism and relativism.  In positivism, facts can be established that are immutable so certainties can be achieved, while in relativism, it is understanding that is aimed at, that might be 'true' only in certain situations and cases.


Collier, A. (1964) Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskhar's Philosophy. London: Verso.

McLuhan, M. and Fiore, Q. (1976) The Medium is the Message. Harmondsworth: Penguin.