This post is the first of a new series here at Southern Fried Science called “State of the Field”. The series is meant to introduce key ideas, methods, and theories to support later research posts and to spread these concepts across disciplines. For the first month, I’ll be covering what’s known as “big T” theory to my lab group – that is, grand social theory about how the world works and also the theory that guides research question and method development. Please discuss!
Somewhere in the introduction of most social science papers is a short statement about the author’s philosophy. Scholars in physics have long recognized that you cannot observe something without perturbing the something. In a research world where that something is a person, the subject can tell you how much a researcher is perturbing the observed system. This realization then begs the question – since we can’t observe a pristine system, is there a single reality out there to describe? Or will each researcher have a slightly different, though correct, description of reality based on their interactions with that reality? Or, taking the idea farther, is there no reality at all but instead a world completely constructed by those who describe it? These philosophies are called positivist, critical realist, and social constructionist, respectively.
Depending on the philosophy chosen, there are lots of things at stake such as objective methodology, legitimacy of certain types of knowledge, and the authority of science. Stay tuned for further discussion of these – first let’s get into more detail about the philosophies themselves.