Introduction of the debates regarding taking sides, funding or

Introduction – What are
politics?

Arguably, politics are not a main
area of ethical concern in research despite being closely entwined with ethics
and having the potential to be a “main constraint … on research projects” whether
it be a result of the debates regarding taking sides, funding or topic choice (Babbie,
E.R. 2016: 60 / 77). However, despite their power to potentially devastate some
research, they are distinctly different from ethical constraints (Babbie, E.R.
2016: 77). Unlike ethics, there are no existing formal codes of acceptable
political conduct, thus, the assertion that ‘all social research is political’
is hotly debated, whilst the term ‘political’ remains distinctly undefined
(Babbie, E.R. 2016: 77). On the other hand, similarly to ethics, politics’ play
a paramount role within the social research process from its outset, centring
“on the substance and use of research”, and withholding the “potential to shape
action”; arguably it is impossible for social research to be anything other
than inherently political (Babbie, E.R. 2016:77), (Sarantakos, S. 2012), (Ransome,
P. 2013: 7).  Although the view that
social research can be conducted in a “wholly objective, value – neutral way”
is now less common, it has not always been believed (Dillon. M. 2014: 148), (Bryman,
A. 2016: 141). Classical
sociologists such as Comte (1855) maintain the belief that social research
should remain value and politics free – with some stating that it is the duty
of social scientists and sociologists to ensure that politics do not enter the
lecture room, or research (Bourdieu,
P. 1991). Here I will address the “various respects in which research is indeed
political,” (Hammersley, M. 1995:
xii).

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Politics and Social Values

There is no
set political code of conduct for social research, thus, the singular “partial
exception to lack of political norms” is the accepted view that a “researcher’s
personal political orientation should not interfere with” or influence their
research (Babbie, E.R.). However, this ignores the impossibility of value –
free research.

As Functionalist,
Talcott Parsons (1951) stated, throughout childhood we are socialised into a value
consensus shared by society and argued that socialisation is necessary to
“fulfil the functional requirements of the social system” (Parsons, T. 1951.
Dillon, M. 2014: 162/163). Therefore, as social research is a social action, it
is bound to be influenced by social values that form the value consensus. This
is because, “all social action is saturated with social values, and so, like it
or not, these are bound to have some impact on the events that occur” (Ransome,
P. 2013: 7). Furthermore, as all social scientists are citizens with engrained
values, they have not only a “knowledge of their subject matter” obtained via
their scientific research, but an additional knowledge “from their own
experience and socialisation.” (O’Connell Davidson, J and Layder, D. 1994: 26).
Thus, social research is underpinned by politics and social values explaining
why “social research can never be totally objective” as humans are “necessarily
subjective” (Babbie, 2016: 78). For this reason, arguably, all social research
is political.

Additionally,
early positivist Weber (1949), acknowledges the vitality of values and politics
within research, stating that they can play an essential role in the research
process, despite initially stating that “sociology…needed to be unencumbered by
personal values” in order to make a special contribution to society.” (Weber,
M. 1946), (Babbie, E.R. 2016: 78). He notes the presence of politics and values
in some stages more than others. For example, in the early stages of social
research (upon choosing a research topic) politics are undoubtedly present as
what is important, or research worthy is determined by our personal values,
thus essential in the selection of topic. However, upon collecting data or
testing the hypothesis, personal values or politics should not be included.
This is because, the inclusion of leading questions (a result of bias or
politics) may assist researchers in obtaining desired research, as opposed to
research of which reflects the beliefs of the sample. By acknowledging that
politics often perform a useful role within the research process, Weber (1949)
highlights how research can remain objective or unbiased despite their
presence. Signifying that “research should be value relevant” as opposed to
“being designed in order to serve particular political purposes”, (Hammersley,
M. 1995: 118). However, as a result of their presence, there is truth to the
statement “all social research is political”, even if unintentionally.

Not only
does Weber (1949) acknowledge the impossibility of value or politics freedom,
Babbie (2016) and Bryman (2016) state that social research cannot be free of
politics and personal values, as it cannot be conducted inside a vacuum. Social
research yields more informed knowledge regarding the social world than the
common – sense, subjective assumptions themselves. Thus, these arguments suggest
that social and personal values remain a starting point, with new, actual and
factual knowledge being consequently produced; reinforcing Weber’s (1949)
argument that politics can perform an essential role in the social research
process, highlighting that their presence can be productive.

 

Politics and Social Movements: taking
sides

Babbie’s
(2016) statement “politics and ideology can enrich social research practice and
method”, is particularly notable within social movements.  (Babbie, 2016: 83).  Despite varying enormously,
“feminists, environmentalists and other social activists” utilise social
research, and take sides in doing so (Martin, B. 1998:  141). Although taking sides is most notable
in feminism. Becker (1967) stated, the question of “whose side are we on?” is
essential in all social research, as it “appears in research of all kinds”
(Becker, H. 1967: 239). Proving that “all social research is political”.

As I
addressed above, taking sides is most identifiable in the feminist movement. Feminists’
deem society as wholly patriarchal, so they seek to understand and explain the
position of women with the intention of achieving gender equality.  Thus, to challenge the male bias, they
identify in objective knowledge, feminists adopt a “distinctive approach to
enquiry” when conducting research solely aimed at the benefit of women. By
doing so, feminists take the side of women when conducting research, and argue
that, sociological research and knowledge must begin “from within the context
of the people studied” (Hammersley, M. 1995: 45), (Dillon, M. 2014: 363). Hence,
when researching, until recently feminists focused on “women’s disadvantages in
the family, the workplace, and elsewhere, and on the possibilities for
improving their position” (Hammersley,
M. 2000: 141). However, in more recent
years have focused upon issues which impact males also, thus suggesting that
taking sides may not be as much of an issue now as it has been previously.

The
statement “all social research is political” is most applicable to feminist
research, as to do research in an objective, value neutral way would be
undesirable (as well as being difficult to achieve)” due to its incompatibility
with the views of Feminism (Bryman, A. 2016:141). However, it is wrong to
assume that feminists are not cautious of imposing their values or values upon
research (McRobbie, A. 1982: 47).  On the
whole, despite their unorthodox, politics – laden approach, there is no doubt –
according to Hammersley (1995) – that Feminism “has made, and continues to
make, a major contribution to the social sciences”, even if some do argue that
the process of taking sides in Sociology is pervasive (Hammersley, M. 1995: 141).

 

Power and Politics

Beals (1969)
notes that “social research of whatever kind occurs in a political environment”
as politics impacts research both directly and indirectly (Beals, R.L. 1969:
pv). Most significantly, the work of social researchers is greatly influenced
by power, hierarchy and competition as all factors contribute to the issue of
funding. A large majority of research in the UK is funded by institutions of
higher education, funding councils, firms or government departments – all of
which are political influencers (McRobbie, A. 1982: 49), (Bryman, A. 2016:
141). Thus, it can be said that “research is the focus of those who have an
interest in knowledge and who wish to own, control and manipulate it so as to
produce desired outcomes,” and consequently, we encounter “the issue of whose
interest the research is intended to serve” (Sarantakos, S. 2012: 12),
(Ransome, P. 2013: 72).

When
discussing the controller of research, it is essential to note that politics
obtain the power to crush some research due to a variety of factors. For
example, the funding of some research and refused funding of others, signifies
that organisations “seek to invest in research that will be of use to them” or
supportive of their work (Bryman, A. 2016: 141). For example, if a feminist
were to apply for funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, it’s
highly likely that their application would be declined. This is because, the
ESRC focus on research including “enhancing the performance of the UK economy”,
“population change” and “health and wellbeing” – amongst other topics (Ransome,
P. 2013: 73). Therefore, their funding is useful for researchers in those
domains, however limits support for other equally important areas of research.
Thus, signifying how funding bodies can impact the political nature of social
research.

Furthermore,
applications for research grants are affected by the personal, ideological bias
“of the assessor” which aids the promotion of a specific type of research,
whilst supressing others (Sarantakos, S. 2012:14). Consequently, if aiming to
avoid politicisation of research, social researchers must manage relationships
with sponsors or funders efficiently, to ensure that the interests of different
stakeholders “do not impinge on the credibility, reliability and validity of
the research findings” (Ransome, P. 2013: 73).

To overcome
political interference from controlling or funding bodies, there are some
counter-measures that can be taken by researchers, such as: developing
independent publication outlets or locating funding sources of their own. But
it is essential to note that they may still be able to take other routes to
enhance findings, thus suggesting that politicisation of research may never be
avoidable. Mills’ reaffirms this approach in his marxist model of the
intellectual, as he argues that he personally operated in a manner “closest to
the freelance intellectual”, researching as an “independent critic of society. (Hammersley,
M 2000: 46). Mills’ highlights the vitality of “autonomous” researchers whom
are not affiliated with political parties or funding bodies and suggests that
perhaps not all social research has to be impacted by the political influence
of the powerful (Hammersley, M. 2000:46). This does not, however, disassociate
social research from the influence other political factors.

Although
funding bodies play an essential role in the politicisation of research,
Sarantakos (2012) notes that the consumer of research also plays a decisive
role. This is because, consumers dictate the type of research to be conducted
and the type of findings to be published as “research is geared towards
producing data where there is a demand for information” demonstrating that a
broad spectrum of powers play a decisive role in the politicisation of social
research (Sarantakos, S. 2012: 14).

 

Conclusion

This essay
highlights how all social research is inherently political, even if sometimes
unintentionally. Although, also acknowledges that there would have been a time in
which this statement would have been denied by positivists (Hammersley, M. 1995:
100). The debate regarding social research has evolved throughout the twentieth
and the twenty first century, with the conclusion “social sciences are not
value free but a social enterprise of some complexity” being drawn, acknowledging
the unavoidable impact of politics and external influences – such as: personal values,
side-taking or funding bodies –  on
social research (Orlands, H. 1971: 28).  Furthermore, this essay also signifies that for
most, valueless, politic-less social research is now worthless. As Orlands
(1971) argues that without the politics present social research “should be
consigned to the realm of temperatureless water,” (Orlands, H. 1971:30). Hence perhaps
why social movements such as Feminism are now popular and successful. Arguably,
the most unavoidable aspect of politics addressed in this discourse, are the politics
inflicted on social research by the powerful institutions – the funding bodies.
Proving that even if a value – free approach (such as that likened by early sociologists)
was adopted, all social research would remain political, due to external impacts
social researchers cannot control. Thus, it can be said that ‘all social research
is political’.

(Word count – 2011)

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