The Morality of Researchers

One of my favourite insights into research methodologies has been Knight's remark that “the most important thing in small-scale research is to be mindful about the sorts of claims that research is intended to enable” (p. 114). While a popular arena of considering the impact of claims is the academic field (with peer-reviews, for example), I’ve started to consider research methods as an impact to the social arena (not in the practical translation of the results, but how the methodology is a reflection of the society back on to itself). Isn’t there a moral backbone required in claimsmkaing, and if so, where does it come from — what instructs the researchers of the value of their research claim? Not to suggest that researchers all value the same types of claims, because the research value is as diverse and multiple as the individuals. But I am wondering where Luker’s “imposition of a schema on the social world” (p. 214) come from and if its ontology matters?

I’ll make this point a little more explicit by considering Luker’s discussion of data analysis. While canonical science considers linear patterns (the necessary and/or sufficient causal relations), Luker presents Ragin’s Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) as a valid alternative.

She exemplifies QCA through her own personal research, of finding the variables of opposition of sex education through a series of interviews that she codifies. Her conclusion (to summarize briefly) is that people oppose sex education because they either grew up in a conservative household or have converted to a conservative household. Sexual conservativeness is then a social phenomena (either, she argues, as a conservative birthright or born-again conservative).

What is the value of formalizing the sexual education debates into two classes, conservative and liberal? My worry is that this dichotomy automatically instills a hierarchy into this discussion, that conservatives are the ‘old, backward traditionalists’ and liberals are the ‘cool, progressive radicals’, and one is ‘obviously’ has the right view. Also, by locating this position into the social, there is a dismissal of the intellectual capability of opposing sex education: as if people only oppose because of the social comfort (she states this in the opposite, that conservative suffer ‘moral shock’ to the idea of sex education).

How does this sort of claim aid the conversation? Pitting two sides against each other only aids the stronger position; I suspect, however, that this dichotomy wasn’t an accident. While I am tempted to write about how this analysis dances around the sex education debate (a more direct approach would be to consider the difference of the views — is it as simple as religion/secularism, or perhaps a different construction of the individual and sexuality, and can these sides be reconciled or at least mutually respected) I started to think that that would be philosophy, not social science. But this boundary leads me to my last point: what’s the social value of research?

If all of research requires the researcher to impose their social world schema, isn’t all research a form of social activism? Claimsmaking seems to me to be much more important than answering the ‘so what?’ question, but looking at what is at stake in these positions and realizing what the impact of your research.

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