This chapter explores the context of educational research. It sets out three significant lenses through which to examine the practice of research: (a) scientific and positivistic methodologies; (b) naturalistic and interpretive methodologies; (c) methodologies from critical theory. Our analysis takes as a starting point an important notion from Hitchcock and Hughes (1995:21) who suggest that ontological assumptions give rise to epistemological assumptions; these, in turn, give rise to methodological considerations; and these, in turn, give rise to issues of instrumentation and data collection. This view moves us beyond regarding research methods as simply a technical exercise; it recognizes that research is concerned with understanding the world and that this is informed by how we view our world(s), what we take understanding to be, and what we see as the purposes of understanding. The chapter outlines the ontological, epistemological and methodological premises of the three lenses and examines their strengths and weaknesses. In so doing it recognizes that education, educational research, politics and decision-making are inextricably intertwined, a view which the lens of critical theory, for example, brings sharply into focus in its discussions of curriculum decision-making. Hence this introductory chapter draws attention to the politics of educational research and the implications that this has for undertaking research (e.g. the move towards applied and evaluative research and away from ‘pure’ research).
People have long been concerned to come to grips with their environment and to understand the nature of the phenomena it presents to their senses. The means by which they set out to achieve these ends may be classified into three broad categories: experience, reasoning and research (Mouly, 1978). Far from being independent and mutually exclusive, however, these categories must be seen as complementary and overlapping, features most readily in evidence where solutions to complex modern problems are sought.
In our endeavours to come to terms with the problems of day-to-day living, we are heavily dependent upon experience and authority and their value in this context should not be under-estimated. Nor should their respective roles be overlooked in the specialist sphere of research where they provide richly fertile sources of hypotheses and questions about the world, though, of course, it must be remembered that as tools for uncovering ultimate truth they have decided limitations. The limitations of personal experience in the form of common-sense knowing, for instance, can quickly be exposed when compared with features of the scientific approach to problem-solving. Consider, for example, the striking differences in the way in which theories are used. Laypeople base them on haphazard events and use them in a loose and uncritical manner. When they are required to test them, they do so in a selective fashion, often choosing only that evidence that is consistent with their hunches and ignoring that which is counter to them. Scientists, by contrast, construct their theories carefully and systematically. Whatever hypotheses they formulate have to be tested empirically so that their explanations have a firm basis in fact. And there is the concept of control