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Researchers’ objectivity, policy makers’ interests and the value of own values


The work I conduct for the Research And Policy In Development programme at the Overseas Development Institute is based on the hypothesis that evidence-informed policies are better policies, more objective, less influenced by the personal interests of policy makers. This hypothesis highlights the divide that exists between the research world and the policy making world. One element of this divide is the different meaning attributed to the word evidence in these two worlds.

It is assumed that researchers interpret evidence as the result of applying objective research methods which try to interpret reality in an value-neutral way. Policy makers, on the other hand, are not so interested in the objectivity of research results and need or want results that back up their decisions.

I was reminded of these differences yesterday, when preparing the presentation for the seminar series I am conducting at Silliman University, in Dumaguete. While working on my slides I was listening to Dr. Rey Rivera, the head of the School of Public Affairs and Governance, discussing with four students here in the office about Plato Republic, Machiavelli Il Principe,  and the work of C. Wright Mills. I was remembered some of my own readings and writing on the objectivity of research which I want to reproduce here.

Husén (1994) has argued that the methodological approaches of scientific research are shaped by paradigms defined as “cultural artefacts, reflecting the dominant notions about scientific behaviours in a particular scientific community” (p. 5051). During the twentieth century, the two main paradigms employed in researching in social science and in particular educational problems: the ‘scientific paradigm’ and the ‘humanistic paradigm’, which have often been juxtaposed to describe different and somehow incompatible research philosophies (Keeves 1988, Muijs 2004).

The ‘scientific paradigm’ is “modelled on the natural sciences with the emphasis on empirically quantifiable observations which lend themselves to analyses by means of mathematical tools” (Husén 1994: 5051). As the task of the research is to establish casual relationships and to explain (Erklären), quantitative research is considered to generate knowledge for understanding which may be independent of its use in planning and implementation (Husén 1994, Cornwall and Jewkes 1995). The ‘humanistic paradigm’, on the other hand, is “derived from the humanities with an emphasis on holistic and qualitative information” and helps to provide an interpretation or understanding of events (Verstehen) (Keeves 1988, Husén 1994).

The idea of opposed paradigms is useful to illustrate two theoretical ends. However, as mentioned by Husén (1994), in reality these two positions are linked along a continuum and complement each other to the point that it is possible to speak of “only one paradigm but many approaches” (Keeves 1988a in Husén 1994: 5054). Likewise, Cornwall and Jewkes (1995) argue that the separation of between qualitative and quantitative approaches, with the former being the field of participatory research and the latter the field of conventional research, is actually too simplistic. This recognition has led to a generalised consensus that in most cases research in the social sciences is to some extent participatory, and participatory research relies on quantitative as well as qualitative tools of data collection and analysis that today more and more tend to be combined and characterise the so called ‘post-positivist’ approach (Muijs 2004). According to this definition, post-positivists “accept that it is not possible to observe the world we are part of as totally objective and disinterested outsiders … [post-positivists] believe in the possibility to approximate reality by realising that our own subjectivity is shaping that reality (ibid.: 5).

At the beginning of the twentieth century, one important element of the ‘scientific paradigm’ was the neutrality and objectivity of the researcher in order to limit or avoid biases. The underlying belief was that the scientific method could handle social reality “without any moral commitment” (Husén 1994: 5053). In the 1930s, Swedish economist and politician Gunnar Myrdal, was among the firsts who questioned this assumption, arguing that social researchers could not be free of their own values and political convictions and that researchers could arrive at more valuable and credible conclusions by actually making their premises and values explicit (Myrdal 1969 in Husén 1994). The need for the researchers to remain a neutral observer of social reality has been questioned by other authors as well. C. Wright Mills, for example, in The Sociological Imagination (1959), argued that “there is no way in which any social scientist can avoid assuming choices of value and implying them in his work as a whole” (p. 196). The research is influenced by external political and economic factors and the social scientist can not be considered as an “autonomous being standing outside society” (p. 204). Similarly, American anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, argued in the late 1960s that “a professional commitment to view human affairs analytically is not in opposition to a personal commitment to view them in terms of a particular moral perspective (1968: 157). Austrian-born philosopher Feyerabend (1999), writing during the 1970s and 1980s, has posited that, given the complexity of reality, objectivity is difficult to reach since researchers are influenced by their worldview (Weltaschaung), personal values, the aim of their research, and the social and economic environment they live in. Both Mills (1959) and Feyerabend (1999) argue that the simple physical presence of the researcher creates a non-neutral situation and that information is absorbed through the prism of our experiences, interests, and values.

The policy recommendations that researchers provide to policy makers are therefore non-neutral and influenced by the the researcher values and interests. They contribute to the complexity of policy decision-making processes.

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Cornwall, A. and Jewkes, R. (1995).  What is participatory research?, Social Science and Medicine, Vol. 41, N. 12, pp. 1667-1676.
Feyerabend, P.K. (1999).  Conquest of Abundance, B. Terpstra (ed.), Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Geertz, C. (1968).  Thinking as a moral act: ethical dimensions of anthropological fieldwork in the new states, The Antioch Review, Vol. 28, N. 2, pp. 139-158.
Husén, T. (1994).  Research paradigms in education, in T. Husén and T. N. Postlethwaite (eds.), The International Encyclopaedia of Education, 2nd edition, Vol. 9, Oxford: Elsevier Science, pp. 5051-5056.
Keeves, J.P. (1988).  Towards a unified approach, in J.P. Keeves (ed.), Educational Research, Methodologies, and Measurements. An International Handbook, Oxford: Pergamon Press pp. 3-8.
Mills, C. W. (1959).  The Sociological Imagination, London: Penguin Books.
Muijs, D. (2004).  Doing Quantitative Research in Education using SPSS, London: Sage Publication.
Myrdal, G. (1969).  Objectivity in Social Research, New York: Pantheon.

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