Research in psychology

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RESEARCH IN PSYCHOLOGY What counts as ‘‘good’’ quantitative research and what can we say about when to use quantitative and/or qualitative methods? 1. How interpretation enters into inquiry To set the stage for discussing the scope of ‘‘good’’ quantitative research, I will briefly reconsider the role played by interpretation in the process of inquiry. In my position paper, I argued that when we try to understand psychological phenomena, we have to take as bedrock the practices in which people are engaged. These practices are concretely meaningful in a way that cannot be explained by other, supposedly more basic, terms. I also pointed out that this idea is very closely linked to the view that psychologists themselves are participants in the world of practices.

Inquiry in psychology is itself practical activity. As I discussed elsewhere at some length (Westerman, 2004), practices of inquiry in our field are based in part on the ways in which we learn about things in everyday life (e.g., a teacher trying to discover the best way to teach 7-year-olds how to read) and also on the practices in which we participate in our lives in general (e.g., all the practices in the given culture in which reading plays a role). Two points follow from this view of interpretation that will provide the basis for my responses to issues raised in the commentaries. The first point is that research in psychology is irreducibly interpretive. It cannot be a transparent process of learning what human behavior is ‘‘really like’’ in a final sense—the kind

of understanding an uninvolved subject might garner from a removed point of view. On this point, all three commentaries at least appear to agree with me. Stiles directly asserts his agreement with this idea, and Dawson et al. and also Stam argue against the notion that research can provide us with a ‘‘view from nowhere.’’ The second point that follows from what I have said so far concerns what it means to say that research is interpretive. Most often, calls for an interpretive approach to research—for example, by proponents of qualitative methods—emphasize the subjective appreciation of meanings. We see this in the fact that almost all qualitative studies are based on interviews aimed at learning about participants’ subjective experiences. But this approach also

appears when we go beyond interview-based research and consider efforts that emphasize the investigators’ ‘‘views’’ of the phenomenon of interest, for example, themes they identify in their research. In contrast to this focus on how we think about or experience things, my understanding of ‘‘interpretation’’ emphasizes how research irreducibly refers to how we do things as participants always already engaged in practical activities. As I discussed in my position paper, my approach centers on the role played by prereflective understanding, or a familiarity with things that is prior to any efforts aimed at thematized knowledge. In our everyday example of figuring out how to teach a class to read, the teacher’s ‘‘investigation’’ takes place against the

background of his or her sense of what counts as progress (e.g., reading with some indications of comprehension, unless this is a class in reading Hebrew aimed largely at preparing students to sound out words in order to recite prayers in the synagogue). This background is not primarily a matter of how the teacher thinks about things. One way to put it is that the relevant background is what comes prior to what the teacher thinks about.1 This point holds for psychological research as well. The process of inquiry is always embedded in our ways of life. Research is indexical in the sense that every aspect of what we do as investigators, including what we take as important problems to explore and what we learn from our inquiries, always refers beyond itself to our prior involvement