Quality Vs Validity in Action Research – A Reflection on Applied Science

By | June 6, 2023

How is concern for quality different from concern for validity in conventional social science?

Conventional science, and by extension, conventional social science ,are concerned with reproducability, validity and objectivity. As such, principles of rigor and falsifiability are important components of any research, which come from a 3d person point of view, where the researcher remains outside of the system under study. This can be considered an objectivist approach to the ontological question. By this I mean a belief in an objective reality, which is knowable, and in which knowledge is discovered through a rigorous process of proposing hypotheses, testing them under controlled conditions with carefully constructed instruments, which generate reproducible results and from which conclusions may be deduced or inferred with degrees of confidence that come from the quality and form of the data. Sir Karl Popper’s work on falsifiability and the growth of scientific knowledge through trial and error is fundamental here.

A problem with this approach has been the requirement to scope problems so that variables and environments may be controlled, and cause and effect relationships established. Complex problems and especially those involving human social networks present problems of computability, uncertainty, non-falsifiability and irreproduceability that may not be solvable using conventional means. In addition, the value that social science places on neutrality will offend our sensibility concerning what it means to be human.

My sense is that AR intentionally relinquishes the premises of objectivity and value neutrality and a 3d person perspective in the formal sense, and seeks quality instead, based on values of simultaneous 1st, 2d and 3d person engagement, social justice and democracy, and using methods that embrace subjectivity with full acknowledgment of the power as well as the limitations of that approach.

Quality, as a value, implies a set of priorities and value judgments about social conditions, and furthermore posits action as a legitimate end, even when outcomes are not foreseen at the start of a project. The iterative native of AR and the possibility of reframing goals, purposes, methods and outcomes seems like a natural consequence of this different orientation.

Kuhn’s work on paradigms and the methods of objective science in The Structure of Scientific Revolution critically examines the sociological phenomenon of the artifact of science. Kuhn’s treatment of the argument is criticized for his fuzzy use of language,and he forthrightly acknowledges legitimate concerns with the shortcomings of language in the postscript to his second edition. nevertheless his main arguments about the limits of scientific inquiry, and the social construction of scientific knowledge remain important and informative of this debate.

It’s not my sense that AR practitioners are arguing for a replacement of Validity with Quality in all areas of science, but rather that with a desire to get on with improving lives and environments they propose a rigorous methodology that seeks to add to the body of practical knowledge in human affairs, informed by and informing more conventional scientific knowledge.

Kuhn, T. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2d edition). Chicago. The University of Chicago Press.

Popper. K.(1989), Conjectures and refutation: The growth of scientific knowledge (5th ed.) New York. Routledge Press.