Monday, April 25, 2011

The Paradox of Inquiry: Searching for Methodological Innovations

Fisher Fuller has posted another comment.  He is certainly persistent in by demanding that I specify the criteria we used to define and select methodological innovations.  That’s challenging but fair.  It’s challenging because, as I suspect he already guessed, we did not know at the outset exactly what we meant by an “innovation in social research methods.”  I copy and paste his comment below.

Vogt did not reveal any criteria for deciding what is and is not an innovation in research methods.  He only told us that he talked to some people and informally polled others. Consensus among friends and vote counting do not add up to principles of decision making on this important issue.  I agree that Williams and Vogt discovered what seem to be some important innovations, but I disagree that they have a reliable method other researchers could use in the future to discover more.

Our method for studying research methods was more ethnographic and exploratory rather than confirmatory.  We were studying, so to speak, the culture of researchers, specifically what they believed about developing and using new research methods.  If one of our informants suggested that a particular method was an important innovation, we recorded it, reflected on it, collected it, and juxtaposed it with the beliefs other researchers shared.  Then we thought about it quite a bit about our collection of beliefs and made our choices.  That was the nub of our method.

I doubt that Fuller will be satisfied with this approach.  We asked people who we thought would know, and we paid careful attention to what they told us.  Fuller is right that we don’t really explain how we knew whom to ask and what to ask them and what kinds of answers would be satisfactory.  Obviously, Malcolm Williams and I didn’t know exactly what kinds of innovation we were going to find, but we did have some ideas—some sensitizing concepts in Herbert Blumer’s terms.

Fuller’s questions returns us to Plato’s paradox of inquiry.   Meno asks Socrates, “How will you inquire into that which you do not know?  What will you put forth as the subject of your inquiry?  And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?”  While this view is sometimes described as one of Plato’s principles, Plato/Socrates clearly rejected it.  Socrates replies to Meno that we ought not to listen to this sophistical argument about the impossibility of inquiry because it will keep us from actively seeking knowledge.  Still, while Socrates dismisses the sophistical argument, he spends the rest of the dialogue trying to answer it. 

And exploratory researchers are still working on how to deal with the paradox of inquiry.  It is a perennial question, one that is always worth asking and trying to answer.  But any answer will be incomplete and temporary.  Rejecting the paradox of inquiry, as Plato points out, is necessary if we are to be active seekers after knowledge.  Plato’s argument, I think, can be read as ultimately being pragmatic.  Rejecting the paradox and forging ahead—all the while remembering the kernel of truth it contains—makes critical inquiry and the growth of knowledge possible.  Simply accepting the paradox chokes off further inquiry.  The paradox’s threat to the vigorous pursuit of knowledge is especially great in empirical and therefore partly inductive fields of inquiry such as social research. 

1 comment:

  1. This is a big question of the non familiar people that how to write a solicitation letter because it is vigorous pursuit of knowledge is especially great in empirical.