In search of an adequate theory of human interaction; an account of my thoughts on scientific research.
 Introduction (the context of this paper)
 Ontology and the definition of the object of research (What is?)
 Epistemology and the semantic theory of human interaction (Why do we study ‘What is’?)
 Methodology and the way to do research (How do we study ‘What is’?)
 Choosing a theoretical framework (A possible way to study nursing leadership)
Some issues in social research (Methodology)
Methodology can be defined as a set of principles and procedures that can or should be used for investigating (a subset of) the world. Generally speaking, methodology involves a series of choices about the information or data to gather and the way you should analyse these. In this section I will not discuss what ‘methodology’ is and what the general issues are, like reliability, validity, generalization, sampling, research design, hypothesis testing etc. (there are plenty of excellent books about these subjects, see for example Bryman (2008)), but I will discuss some issues about social research strategies that seem relevant for my search of an adequate theory of human interaction.
Let me start with a statement made by Johan van Benthem. In discussing the nature of logic (in: Metselaar & Den Dulk (2012); p. 66) he stated that in classical Indian logic there were three sources of knowledge: observation, reasoning and asking people.
I think that all these three activities (sources), with some extensions, are needed to understand and explain human interaction as described in the preceding two sections. This because in my opinion, social phenomena are complex phenomena that cannot be fully investigated by one single approach or method only. The meaning of the word ‘observation’ as mentioned by Van Benthem should include activities like experimenting, counting etc.; that of ‘asking people’ activities like interviewing and conducting surveys with questionnaires and that of ‘reasoning’ activities like development of models and theories.
In my view there is not only no unity of method (except perhaps in having some overlapping aspects like the use of instruments or mathematics) but such a unity is impossible altogether. But we could use different methods in a process C.S. Pierce called ‘abduction’ as being “a process by which a scientist gather data, make assumptions explicit, proposes hypotheses, the tests these hypotheses against experience, as well as the experiences of others (Nasher, 1997, p.72). In a manner of speaking, peirce gave a name to the process that scientists had finally accepted as a way to transcend opposition between induction and deduction.” (Harter, 2006, p. 11).
But can there be a unity of theory? I don’t think so, but I agree with Du-Babcock (2009) when she writes: “To prevent a jungle from emerging, it is important to distinguish the goals and methods of each research project and to integrate concepts from all of the approaches where they contribute to better understanding”.
But her efforts do not mean that there can be a unity of theory. As Rosanas (2007) states: “In both the social and the natural sciences there are always competing, incompatible theories that explain the same phenomena and there is nothing wrong with that”.
So an effort to integrate or assimilate theories is a good strategy in successfully developing a competing theory. We should remember though that integrating different theories can mean the necessity of changing the meaning of the terms used because facts are always ‘facts within a theoretical framework’ (Rosanas, 2007 and De Leeuw, 1974).
The second issue I want to discuss are questions related to the use of research results: who uses the results of the social sciences and how? As Sorge & Witteloostuijn (2004) state: “… much of organization studies’ evidence never leaves academia’s inner circle”.
In her discussion of Evidence Based Management (EBM), Rousseau (2006) states that managers should make decisions by moving away from personal preference and unsystematic experience to those based on scientific evidence. EBM means translating principles based on research into organizational practice. But she also notices that there are very few managers who are making decisions based on scientific evidence. So she proposes some remedies.
A very interesting debate in this respect is whether technology is only ‘applied science’ or that it has also a body of knowledge of its own.
Layton (1974) and Channell (1982) support the view that technology (‘know how’) is a system of thought independent from science and Channell (1982) gives us a beautiful example showing how technology can be seen as knowledge that uses natural laws within well-defined systems, like steam engines.
So I would like to stress the importance of the study of one of the remedies of Rousseau (2006): how EBM works in practice.
My third and last issue concerns the importance of the use of clearly defined concepts.
We should always know when discussing or reading, whether a concept refers to empirical entities or, through connective links, to other concepts. Feigl (1970, p5-6) gives us a simple diagram to illustrate the situation:
“As the diagram indicates, the basic theoretical concepts (primitives) are implicitly defined by the postulates in which they occur. These primitives, or more usually derived concepts explicitly defined in terms of them are then linked by correspondence rules to concepts referring to items of observation… These empirical concepts are in turn ‘operationally defined’, i.e., by a specification of the rules of observation, measurement, experimentation, or statistical design which determine and delimit their applicability and application”.
And with ‘postulates’ Herbert Feigl (1970) refers to concepts that are self-evident or assumed without proof.
As I stated earlier, plain facts do not exist, they are always captured within a web of theoretical concepts (a theoretical framework) and I think Feigl (1970) shows this in a superb way.
In discussing naïve empiricism Rosanas (2007) quotes Elster (1983, a Robert K. Merton Professor of the Social Sciences / Political Science): “It is generally accepted that in science there is no ‘theory-neutral’ observation language” and “The apparently simple notion of a temperature reading embodies a vast amount of theoretical assumptions”.
I end this section with some remarks on theories. Theories, seen as sets of different interrelated concepts, are important because they are the tools with which our brains understand the world they live in and attempt to master it.
A classical dichotomous distinction in the way theories are that of deductive ones and inductive ones. On my science website https://syndor.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/inductief-en-deductief-onderzoek/ I have discussed briefly this distinction.
A second distinction within organizational theories is that of the perspective in which an organization is divided: “organization, group, and individual levels, each level the province of different disciplines, theories, and approaches. The organization may be an integrated system, but organizational science is not” (Klein & Kozlowski (2000)).
But of course you could distinguish theories by their aim: exploration, analysis, explanation, prediction and so on.
In searching for a theory that will adequately guide my research efforts in understanding leadership phenomena, it is important to understand and appreciate the role of theories, their nature and the process by which they are generated.