Two Tribes: 1. The Paradigm Wars

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

The “paradigm wars”, the crisis in the social sciences, arose in the 1980s, predominantly across Anglo-American research institutions. This was due to the rise of qualitative research, and the resulting discussions on what was the appropriate approach to researching social phenomena. Quantitative methods were lauded as providing an ‘objective’ means of modelling, interpreting and therefore understanding the universe, up to and including the social world. On the other hand, qualitative methods embraced, to varying degrees, the ‘subjectivity’ of the social world and attempted to understand it on a ‘deeper’ level, rather than trying to quantify it, reducing the world to regression models and means.

Of course, the positions I describe above are, in essence, caricatures of both quantitative and qualitative methods. I present them to give some small idea of the context that ignited the crisis in the social science: the paradigm wars.

Most scientists will be familiar with the paradigm wars mainly thanks to the Sokal Hoax, when Alan Sokal (the professor of physics whose famous quotation we took our site’s name from– found at the bottom of the front page) submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment testing the magazine’s intellectual rigour; specifically, to learn if such a journal would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”. The article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, published in the Social Text Spring/Summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue, proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. At that time, the journal did not practice peer review fact-checking, and did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist. On May 1996, the journal Lingua Franca’s date of publication, Sokal revealed that the article was a hoax, identifying it as:

“a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense . . . structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics he] could find about mathematics and physics”.

This ignited a great deal of debate about the right and wrong of what Sokal had done, and he’d forever written his name into the history of the paradigm wars, leading to the publication of (at least) two books on the subject: Gross and Levitt’s ‘Higher Superstition’, and Sokal and Bricmont’s ‘Fashionable Nonsense’.

Gross, Levitt, Sokal and Bricmont lampoon (rightly to my mind) and point out the flaws of logic, argumentation and lack of scientific understanding found in many postmodern or poststructuralist texts. They also explore the culture of such epistomologies, but in doing so, fall into the “two tribes trap”.
Both sides run the risk of becoming entrenched in their own epistomologies, declaring themselves to be either qualitative or quantative researchers– embroiling themselves in long drawn out philosophical discussions (or perhaps heated arguments) on the nature of reality and knowledge. To my mind, this achieves little more than further promoting arbitrary, and arguably, ultimately artificial boundaries between researchers. This is built around three unhelpful concepts: that there is an inherent and inconsolable difference between qualitative and quantative paradigms; that paradigms themselves exist and are important; and that lazy battle-cry of some on the academic left: “positivism”.

None of these are points that I find either particularly useful or important.

Then again, the philosophical standpoint I take to research (as a psychologist) is a variation on pragmatism, or the view of “the research question as dictator”. When planning a quantitative study, you should plan what type of analysis you will do on the data before collecting, it in order to ensure it answers your question. Apparently, in many fields, statistical analysis is tacked on as an afterthought. If this describes your field note, then you are doing it wrong! Similarly, when approaching qualitative research, you must pick a method that will give you access to the social phenomenon you are trying to explore. Why not decide upon which method, or combination of methods, you wish to use going by which will best help you explore or understand your research question? Trying to twist, squeeze and shape your research question around paradigmatic concerns seems (to me) to be based more around wanting to be part of some unnecessary philosophical or epistomological club.

In my next article, I will look at how a pragmatic approach to social research using mixed methods can work, and some of the issues it raises at various conceptual levels. I will also look at how well pragmatism works as a philosophy under which to conduct research.