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Charlotte Davis
Careers and professional development, Sex and gender, Teaching and learning

Hi, I’d like to return this philosophical stance, please?

Charlotte Davis questions how much power she has over her own early career research decisions.

03 January 2023

For years, I considered myself an empiricist and even a positivist. I believed that good research was objective, neutral, based on the tangible. Yet, outside of research I am passionate about creative writing, deep reflexive thinking and nuanced individual life experiences. So, the question is, why did I take on a philosophical stance that was so jarringly different to who I am as a person outside of university? I’m not talking about a quantitative vs. qualitative debate, or even a post-positivist vs. constructionist debate. Rather, it is a question of why we make the philosophical and methodological decisions that we make. I believe that in reality my decisions were not fully my own, and that is one of the key challenges we face as early career researchers.

It was only recently that I realised just how little power I have had over my own research decisions. Until this year, every piece of research that I conducted was solely quantitative and written in a way that aimed to be completely objective and free from bias. I saw myself as an empiricist through and through, so strongly that I had viewed embarking on a PhD as leaving behind my dream of writing creatively. But as I completed a recent taught module on the philosophy of science, I learned that there are many ways of doing research. This year I was introduced properly to feminist critiques and post-colonial philosophies, I was introduced to the likes of Elizabeth Dauphinee and Lee Maracle. I realised that ‘good science’ and creative writing could, and sometimes should, go hand in hand.

I can see how my decisions were influenced by how those teaching me viewed good science, and that they were likely influenced by others before them.

It prompted me to think back to those early decisions. During my undergraduate degree and throughout conducting my first real piece of research, what mattered to me most was doing research the ‘right’ way. I would get mad when my friends joked that psychology was not a real science, like chemistry or physics, and I endeavoured to prove them wrong. I started looking at the literature, to my lecturers and supervisor. I quickly developed the view that to do ‘good science’, it needed to be free from bias, it needed to be objective, and it needed to be empiricist.

Reflecting on this experience now, I can see how my decisions were influenced by how those teaching me viewed good science, and that they were likely influenced by others before them. If I had different lecturers or a different supervisor, what would my early research have looked like? Now, as I continue to learn and develop as a researcher, I can take a more critical approach to making research decisions. And yet, the challenge does not end there. Understanding how we are influenced by others and having supervisors that support our goals is not enough, it goes far beyond that. It comes down to what the research community views as ‘good science’ and who has the power to decide what knowledge gets shared and what doesn’t.

In her 2021 article, Marie Beauchamps argues that others, typically the white, male, (and straight) mainstream, have dictated what knowledge is produced and shared. By doing so, valuable sources of knowledge are lost in favour of the myth of neutrality. This is something that very much resonates with me. As early career researchers, it is our goal to be accepted into academia and to be viewed as successful. To do so we need to publish, we need to get funding, and we need to present our work at conferences. This means that ultimately our careers are in the hands of those with the power to decide what is accepted and what isn’t, it’s in the hands of the reviewers, the journal editors, the funding bodies. And if those decision makers don’t agree with our philosophical and methodological decisions, then where does that leave us?

From my experience, it leaves us in a challenging position. I am working on a dissertation that uses a feminist lens and as such I have taken a highly reflexive approach. But I nearly changed my mind when I found that there were so few published feminist, reflexive papers in my field. It dawned on me that if that was the case, then it was unlikely that my research would get accepted to any of the main journals. Similarly, a colleague recently said to me that she felt mixed methods would be the best way to answer her research questions, but that her supervisor advised against it because it would be near impossible to publish, and she was planning on taking his advice. It is concerning that despite finding an approach that would best answer the questions at hand, the research will ultimately be carried out using different methods because that is what the journal editors dictate. Are we really choosing to abide by constructed rules over using approaches that are going to further knowledge best?

Marsh, Ercan and Furlong (2018) stated that ontology and epistemology are ‘like a skin, not a sweater’. But I disagree, I believe philosophy is a sweater and I’d like to return mine.

Take saturation as another example. Many qualitative researchers will go on to write work that argues they have the best sample size because saturation was reached – as in, no additional information or themes will come from further data. This is a widely accepted method of justifying sample size for qualitative interviews. Yet, some researchers are questioning whether the idea of saturation makes any logical sense at all, considering more data will always mean more information (see Braun & Clarke, 2021). When you really think about it, why are we using saturation as the reason for our sample sizes? And depending on our philosophical approach do we really need to justify our interview sample sizes at all? ‘Sample size is too small’, they say… but too small for what? Are we only continuing to play this saturation game, because everyone else is and everyone expects it? If that’s the case, then surely this cannot be the best way to do research. 

Even in fields that are by definition critical and innovative, there are boundaries in place. For example, in several feminist journals, the qualitative research often uses methods for improving coding reliability, despite feminist qualitative research viewing coding as interpretive with the intention of giving a voice to others. Researchers like Victoria Clarke and Virginia Braun push back against the boundaries that are put in place by those with power in academia. But I argue that they can do so because they have power themselves. As early career researchers, we are in a unique position in which we have comparatively limited life and research experience, and we have yet to be fully accepted into academia. Therefore, we have much more at stake when we question the ‘rules’, and it is that bit more difficult to make philosophical and methodological decisions that are truly our own.

To sum up, I will leave you with this analogy. Marsh, Ercan and Furlong (2018) stated that ontology and epistemology are ‘like a skin, not a sweater’. But I disagree, I believe philosophy is a sweater and I’d like to return mine. I believe that editors, reviewers, and funding bodies are like parents who have picked out a sweater on our behalf and expect us to wear it with pride, along with the methods which are like the matching shoes. And we early career researchers are like teenagers, perhaps grumbling about it but in the end giving in to the clothing that our parents are forcing us to wear. But do you know what? Sometimes it’s good to rebel and wear that outfit you love but you know they hate. I applaud those who are already doing so. If the young women of the 60s managed to swap parent-chosen jumpers for liberating belly tops, who’s to say we can’t do the same with approaches to research? As early career researchers we have both the opportunity and the challenge of shaping the future of science. It is a challenge to be critical, to go against the grain, to do our research in a way that may not be accepted by the norm. It is a challenge, but one that I encourage all to rise to.

About the author

Charlotte Davis is working towards her PhD at Aston University, investigating bias against female leaders. She completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology at the University of Kent, and her Master’s in Occupational Psychology at Birkbeck.

Key sources

Beauchamps, M. (2021). Doing Academia Differently: Loosening the Boundaries of Our Disciplining Writing Practices. Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 49(2), 392–416.

Braun, V. & Clarke, V. (2021). To saturate or not to saturate? Questioning data saturation as a useful concept for thematic analysis and sample-size rationales. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 13(2), 201–216.

Clarke, V. & Braun, V. (2019). Feminist qualitative methods and methodologies in psychology: A review and reflection. Psychology of Women and Equalities Section Review, 2(1), 14-28.