Approaches to Social Enquiry: Advancing Knowledge
Polity Press, Cambridge
Literature on the philosophy of social science often seems aloof from the practical wrangling over theoretical and methodological issues directing social research. Books attempting to bridge this gap are rare, so much credit is due Blaikie for providing one. Those familiar with the first edition will notice a number of revisions, including some updating and reorganisation of the material. Updates include some discussion of postmodernism, a section on complexity theory, new material on phenomenology and ethnomethodology, plus a discussion of 'fundamental choices and dilemmas in social research' (p. xi), with which the book now begins.
Here, Blaikie takes us from three foundational 'Research Questions' ('what', 'why' and 'how') into the deeper waters of four logics of enquiry, or 'Research Strategies' (RS: 'inductive', 'deductive', 'retroductive', and 'abductive') and, thence, to a number of 'Research Paradigms' (RP) distinguished by fundamental ontological and epistemological assumptions. A chapter follows overviewing fundamental dilemmas in social science concerning the nature of social reality and the status and character of the knowledge social scientists produce – broadly, the standard issues addressed by the philosophy of social science. The bulk of the book is then taken up with detailed discussions of 'RS' and 'RP'.
Blaikie's aims are clear enough: to show that social research, however 'practical' a matter it may seem, necessarily involves commitments of a more 'abstract' philosophical nature; and to outline what kinds of commitment inform different ways of doing research and the theoretical perspectives they either implicate or infiltrate. He manages this with some success. In respect of the first matter especially, the book does an admirable job and for this reason alone claims a place on my Business MSc course. Aiding this, the text is largely clearly written, the complex issues unpacked with considerable care but no loss of focus. Some individual sections, such as the discussion of feminism (pp. 163-176) are especially strong.
Nonetheless, the utility of the book both as a general discussion and more so as a teaching tool is compromised in important ways. Inevitably, there is simplification; the question is what kind of simplification is most helpful. Blaikie's approach is multilevel and, in addition to four 'RS' and ten 'RP', distinguishes six ontologies ('shallow realist', 'conceptual realist', 'cautious realist', 'depth realist', 'idealist', and 'subtle realist') and six epistemologies ('empiricism', 'rationalism', 'falsificationism', 'neo-realism', 'constructionism', and 'conventionalism'). Despite the inclusion of visual aids mapping these across the levels, there is room here for considerable confusion, not helped by the choice of terms – distinguishing five kinds of ontological 'realism' surely invites confusion for the uninitiated. Adding a further 'realism' amidst the epistemologies invites more trouble for those students who find the ontology/epistemology distinction tricky enough already.
Similarly, the mapping of the various 'realisms' onto 'RS' and 'RP' is also problematic, as is apparent especially in the discussion of feminism, where Blaikie brings out internal philosophical tensions within this 'paradigm'. One is then left wondering if feminism is a 'paradigm' in quite the same sense as, say, structuration theory – and that leaves aside the broader question of whether any 'RP' is properly described as such, an issue Blaikie does not adequately address (and given his adoption of this term, it is something of a surprise that Kuhn does not much figure in the book at all).
This is not merely a question of semantics as it has a bearing on the whole approach. Blaikie acknowledges that his choice of 'RP' is selective and that readers might decry the absence of their favourites. But surely this misses the point? For the text to achieve its aims, a claim must be made to present reasonably comprehensive coverage of the range of positions currently taken up within social science and, if not, then some consistent rationale for the selection made is needed. None is given and so we are left to assume the selection reflects Blaikie's personal preferences. There is nothing wrong with this, except that it hampers the pedagogical utility of the book. For example, some of the inclusions, such as hermeneutics, stretch the meaning of 'research paradigm', whereas some approaches that fill the bill so much better, such as genealogical analysis, are excluded.
There is a deeper issue here. A notable absentee is marxism. It is true that critical theory is included, but with no background discussion of either the philosophical tradition, or the body of marxist-inspired research, amongst which it is situated. Notable also is that Blaikie avoids the term 'materialism'. This seems to me very unhelpful. Rather than so many 'realisms', it is both simpler and – what is more important – in keeping with the philosophical tradition in social science to incorporate the 'materialism'/'idealism' distinction. There is then a lurking suspicion that something else is going on, more systematic than idiosyncratic. Kuhn, of course, tells us that the process of paradigm replacement includes the textbook rewriting of intellectual history. Is this perhaps an example?