Thinking about the steps in ‘the’ scientific method

When I learned about research methods in my undergraduate degree it was presented in a fairly standard way that I am sure many are familiar with – and perhaps are still being taught.

We were told about ‘the scientific method’. With an emphasis on the ‘the’ (that largely stood for lab based experiments). This method always worked in the same way. It began with thinking of a question followed by formulating a hypothesis, running an experiment, generating results, analyzing data and presenting findings.

Nobody ever got us to think about whether the steps in ‘the scientific method’ were always the right ones to take. Or if they could be altered. Could any be dropped or the order changed? What would happen if we did a different dance?

Thinking of research in a stepwise, linear format can be helpful if you’re introducing what is ultimately a messy and complicated issue to people who may have little or no experience of methods and running studies. It can also bring a sense of order and a checklist to ensure you’ve covered everything you ought to. Very handy in large scale, complex pieces of work with multiple players involved.

But it can also miss out vital issues, it imposes a pathway that may not always be suitable, and it implies if any step doesn’t go right for you (or doesn’t make any sense) that you are at fault.

Crucially it suggests to us there is only one way to do research and to even question otherwise is ‘bad science’.

If we’re going to be taught research works in a stepwise format, what better time might there be to think again about the steps – and if we want to take them?

To help you with these reflections look for images of ‘the scientific method’ on Google, Pinterest, Instagram or similar. What are the general models being shared? What do they have in common? How do the steps suggested match with your experience of doing/teaching/being taught research? And what kind of model of research are they representing?

Next, read this piece from Wired entitled What’s wrong with the scientific method that invites readers to consider what they have been taught about a stepwise format for research, and whether this always works or even may be limiting.

You might also find this post about Rethinking the Scientific Method helpful as it draws attention to the messiness and unpredictability of research, rather than the ‘cleaned up’ version we’re shown in methods texts and journal articles.

Now search back through methods books you have seen or teaching materials you’ve been given and see how the process of working through your research from start to finish is presented.
For example these steps shown by Norton (found by Emma Sheppard) may be familiar to you. But you might also have experienced what Lucy Kimbell and Joe Julier describe as a ‘loopy model’ (p.13) in their Social Design Methods Menu

If you’ve done a study before you might want to write out the steps you took – do they match the formats you’ve seen elsewhere or have been taught? If you haven’t done research before can you imagine how a study might look – or find a study in a textbook or journal and try and draw the stages of research? Having done that can you see any other ways of doing the research – can you break or change or play with the steps? Or do you even need steps at all? Could you have lines, scribbles, doodles, loops or something else? How might this help – or hold back – your work?

We don’t do research in a vacuum – despite what some methods teaching tells us. We are drawn to a particular topic or question. We select how we’d like to answer the question and what theories or ideas will inform that work. We have feelings and (sometimes) strong beliefs about why we are doing the work and what we hope to get from it.

So as you draw out a stepwise (or other) format for your work, how might it make you feel? This lovely paper by Carol Kuhlthau encourages you to map your feelings onto the stages of the research process while noting how research is not as certain as many methods texts imply.

Write down your thoughts and observations on all these activities – does the kind of research you do require a steady, linear and clearly defined pathway or are you open to more creative approaches. What would your participants best respond to or need? And how might this impact on your overall goals?

Ultimately what steps do you need to take to move through, into, away from or around your research? And how do you want to choreograph that?

If you’ve any preferred examples from your work or other people’s please share below.

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