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Research Methods in the Social Sciences

Philosophical Design*

Definition and Purpose

Understood more as an broad approach to examining a research problem than a methodological design, philosophical analysis and argumentation is intended to challenge deeply embedded, often intractable, assumptions underpinning an area of study. This approach uses the tools of argumentation derived from philosophical traditions, concepts, models, and theories to critically explore and challenge, for example, the relevance of logic and evidence in academic debates, to analyze arguments about fundamental issues, or to discuss the root of existing discourse about a research problem. These overarching tools of analysis can be framed in three ways:

  • Ontology -- the study that describes the nature of reality; for example, what is real and what is not, what is fundamental and what is derivative?
  • Epistemology -- the study that explores the nature of knowledge; for example, on what does knowledge and understanding depend upon and how can we be certain of what we know?
  • Axiology -- the study of values; for example, what values does an individual or group hold and why? How are values related to interest, desire, will, experience, and means-to-end? And, what is the difference between a matter of fact and a matter of value?

What do these studies tell you?

  1. Can provide a basis for applying ethical decision-making to practice.
  2. Functions as a means of gaining greater self-understanding and self-knowledge about the purposes of research.
  3. Brings clarity to general guiding practices and principles of an individual or group.
  4. Philosophy informs methodology.
  5. Refine concepts and theories that are invoked in relatively unreflective modes of thought and discourse.
  6. Beyond methodology, philosophy also informs critical thinking about epistemology and the structure of reality (metaphysics).
  7. Offers clarity and definition to the practical and theoretical uses of terms, concepts, and ideas.

What these studies don't tell you?

  1. Limited application to specific research problems [answering the "So What?" question in social science research].
  2. Analysis can be abstract, argumentative, and limited in its practical application to real-life issues.
  3. While a philosophical analysis may render problematic that which was once simple or taken-for-granted, the writing can be dense and subject to unnecessary jargon, overstatement, and/or excessive quotation and documentation.
  4. There are limitations in the use of metaphor as a vehicle of philosophical analysis.
  5. There can be analytical difficulties in moving from philosophy to advocacy and between abstract thought and application to the phenomenal world.

*Source

Sample Philosophical Studies