How do we know social science is ‘true’?

In Museums, what i'm reading on March 16, 2013 at 2:17 pm

I undertake quite a bit of audience research – helping organisations from the cultural sector to better understand the people who visit their buildings and consume their content.

We look at how people ‘learn’ when they are in an arts-based venue and how we can create the best content we can for them.

I was presenting some findings back to a client recently – it was a piece of research where we’d asked the same set of questions to around a couple of hundred people. The client asked me “how do you know these findings are true?”

I was a bit thrown by this.

What I think she meant was something along the lines of “how reliable is your data?” or “did you ask enough people “or this to be representative?” or even “are you sure your research wasn’t biased in any way?” I must have given her a good enough answer about my research methodology and the ways we try to ensure that our findings are as robust as possible.

I found myself pondering this question further. It took me back to my first journeys into the world of epistemology – how do we know anything is true?

I hark on to my clients all the time about the only real way to know what visitors are thinking is to ask them. It makes sense, logically. One can’t find out about another person’s thoughts and experiences with logic alone. But then I was suddenly getting rather nervous that my a posteriori research methods – which Descartes and Bentham would call anecdotal, at best – have the potential to be riddled with inaccuracies and could be very far from what the ‘truth’ might actually be.

But then I found myself listening to a thought-provoking – and dare I say it rather jolly – podcast by my good chum Nick Hopwood, an academic at University of Technology, Sydney who set my mind straight. If you’re interested in social science and how people analyse information, have a listen to the podcast here.

To cut a long story short, I came to the conclusion that doing research – talking to people, writing down what they say and then analysing that, flawed as it may be – is better than not doing it all.

I tend to get rather nervous whenever staff in cultural institutions start sentences with words like “Visitors think …” or “Visitors come here for …”. Unless I’ve planned the research project I’m sure I’ll be able pick holes in the methodology somewhere – but surely it’s much better to have done the research in the first place and to ‘know’ a bit more about what visitors really think, than simply sitting in a meeting room, closed off from the outside world, making a priori statements based on hot air.

Power to the social researcher. And to the heritage venue that commissions them!


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