Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | April 29, 2012

Inside or Outside

A question that often bothers researchers is whether the knowledge they seek is free of their personal values and preferences. Is the sky blue to everyone? Does the apple fall at the same speed from the tree irrespective of who is measuring its speed? Yes and Yes. Is knowledge of how to use the iPod same for everyone? Maybe – a group of teens, say, that hang out together probably use the same apps. Are love, loyalty and friendship the same for everyone? No, no and no. The difference between the three sets of questions is the interpretive flexibility of their answers as understood by the person who is examining them.

For the first set, the essential phenomenon that makes the sky appear the color it does, or makes the apple fall as fast as it does, does not change, no matter who is observing it. In other words, the observer is outside the situation that he or she is observing. This is largely true of the physical sciences such as chemistry, biology and physics – where one can set up experiments to observe the phenomenon one wants to study and can repeatedly observe the same sorts of results. In the second case, groups of similar demographics understand a device such as the iPod in different ways. Older people might see it as a phone, business executives might see it as an email device and phone book and college students may see it as some thing that can do “everything”. How so? Because each group is involved in the process of understanding how to use the iPod through actually using it, not through watching someone else or reading about how to use it. True, that their peer groups tends to direct them towards certain uses more than others, but that understanding is combined with their own interpretation of what they want the iPod to do for them, to shape what it actually does. In this case then the observer is partly inside the observed phenomenon. For the third set of questions, each person will have a different answer. That is because a useful or meaningful understanding of love, loyalty or friendship can happen only through enacting them. There is not much that we can measure about them in hard terms that is independent of the person who is observing them.

How do these ideas shape the methods and tools that we use, to understand the world around us? As we go from the first set of questions to the third, the answers become less material and more subtle. At the material end of the scale, we apply methods that are generally known as “positivist”, that is, we frame experiments and based on them express the answers as formulae or axioms that are independent of those who conducted the experiments. We do this for instance, in engineering and physics. At the subtle end of the scale, our research methods become “interpretive”. That is, the researcher embeds himself or herself in the phenomenon, experiences it and then expresses the results in the form of descriptions or ideas that are influenced by his or her values and preferences. The researcher’s subjective experience of the phenomenon sculpts its description. Therefore the methods that we use to understand what goes on around us depend on the particular phenomenon examined. For studying material phenomenon the researcher is situated more on the outside, for subtle phenomenon, more on the inside.

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