I was recently speaking to a (deservedly) famous and prominent UK academic about a meeting on research methodology. We were to invite mathematicians and sociologists; statisticians and psychologists; epidemiologists and economists. All the subjects cognate to applied health research were included – save one. When I suggested that we include the philosophy of science, my interlocutor was dismissive to the point of ridicule. As I said, he was a very senior fellow and I did not wish to annoy him (senior fellows are quite easily annoyed), so I let it drop. But his reaction is not atypical – when have you heard a health economist, epidemiologist or psychologist argue from an explicit epistemological or ontological premise? Granted, Lindley wrote a very famous article about the “Philosophy of Statistics”, and formal Bayes can be considered a philosophical tradition with a distinct epistemology. But that aside, only one of the cognate disciplines listed above uses the “E” and “O” words – sociology.
And here is my problem. Scientific methodology is underpinned by philosophical premises and this remains the case, irrespective of whether these ideas are made explicit or remain implicit. The result is that disciplines that tend to be explicit about their philosophical assumptions have more influence over methodology than those where the underlying principles are only implicit. In short, if epidemiologists, economists and psychologists remain silent on epistemology, then they abrogate intellectual authority. Likewise, sociologists who do not dwell on these topics, delegate ‘authority’ to those who do. And with apologies to my esteemed colleagues in that discipline – the intellectual basis of applied research is too important an issue to leave to a sub-section of sociologists. This would not be so important, but for the constructivist flavour of much of the methodological literature in sociology. I am a vociferous, but lonely, critic of this viewpoint. I would invite readers who have not already done so to enjoy the story of a hoax perpetuated by a Professor of Physics at the expense of constructivist sociologists – just type Alan Sokal into Google. 
There is, however, one point on which constructivists and sociologists are absolutely right – we should talk about these things. However, philosophy of science does not seem to be prominent in philosophy departments and most disciplines ignore the subject. Why this reluctance to engage?
I do not have the answer and look forward to your views. One theory is that the more successful a discipline, the less it worries over its epistemology. Physicists (Sokal aside) take little notice of the subject. People who find bosons and black holes are content with their methodology, thank you very much. The role of philosophy is back to front in physics – a ‘mopping up’ exercise to describe how the physicists succeeded (so called ‘naturalism’), rather than a normative prescription for future work. Does this mean that sociologists struggle to come up with riveting discoveries and so become self-conscious about how they should go about their business. I do not believe that; witness the many sociological results we carry in this News Blog – the iconic Miguel & Fisman study, the Good Samaritan study, and the blog on how disrespect towards patients can lead to a downward spiral. Maybe sociology produces great insights, but it is difficult to translate these into action. In that case, it would be natural to search for the link between research findings and decisions. Or could it be that there is some sort of ideological motivation rooted in existentialism? After all, sociology lies very close to politics. So maybe some sociologists are buying into a liberation ideology that paints reductionist science into the ‘bad’ corner, along with capitalists, industrialists and (now) bankers? Or is it connected with the subject matter in some way that chemistry, psychology and medicine are not?
News Blog reader Frances Griffiths suggested a further reason for philosophical pre-occupation in sociology. She made the point that in studying society, sociologists have to be aware of limits on objectivity arising from belonging to that society. It could be supposed that this applies particularly to qualitative work where separation of observer and observed cannot be achieved in the way it can in quantitative work.
As always we seek the views of readers on this point. One may make a further point in passing. While research methodology is not philosophically aware, save in sociology, some scientific findings are so curious or ineffable that they provoke philosophical reflections. This applies in the area of astro- and quantum-physics, and also consciousness studies as discussed later in this News Blog.
In the meantime, we must accept that sociologists are the main group making the running in the philosophy of scientific methodology and many lean towards a constructivist (if not a relativist) point of view, as promoted by Lincoln and Guba. Why don’t the rest of us engage? When applied health researchers – especially those with a biomedical background – are confronted with constructivist arguments, they appear either not to understand them, or to be so incredulous that they cannot take them seriously. I bang on about the enemy at the gate and they look at me pitifully. So there you have it. I am a lonely voice in an epistemological wilderness.
— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director
- Lindley DV. The Philosophy of Statistics. J Roy Stat Soc D-Sta. 2000; 49(3):293-337.
- Paley J, Lilford R. Qualitative methods: an alternative view. BMJ. 2011; 342:d424.
- Sokal AD. A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies. Lingua Franca. 1996. pp. 62-64.
- Sokal AD. Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Social Text. 1996; 46/47:217-52.
- Lilford RJ; Chen Y-F. Challenging the Idea of Hospital Culture. CLAHRC WM News Blog. 9 January 2015.
- Lilford RJ. A Culture of Quality: Join the Debate. CLAHRC WM News Blog. 131 June 2014.
- Lilford, RJ. Care that is not just unskilled but abusive. CLAHRC WM News Blog. 8 May 2015.
- Lincoln YS, & Guba EG. Naturalistic Inquiry. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications. 1985.