In considering different forms of research, particularly the juxtaposition between activist research and “traditional” research, one can often find oneself (or, at least, I personally find myself) left with more questions than answers the more consideration is given to the topic. Activist research refers to research conducted by social scientists in such a manner that a particular stand is taken on and action is implemented to solve a social problem (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2005). Often, activist research is participatory, meaning that the community that is being researched is actively involved in and/or has control over the research itself; however, that is not necessarily always the case. “Traditional research,” in this context, refers to research that attempts to be as objective as possible, and does not pick a side. At face value, this dichotomy seems relatively easy to understand and digest–in reality, though, I believe it is difficult to accurately and conclusively label a given study and/or experiment as “activist” or “traditional,” with some exceptions. I would argue that the two are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, the best research is both high in internal validity and attempts to reduce bias and encourage objectivity (aspects of “traditional” research) while simultaneously bringing to light & attempting to solve a social problem in the most holistic way possible (true of activist research).
A good example of research that strikes such a responsible balance is given in the Schneider (2005) text as an example of non-participatory activist research. Social scientist Nancy Russo conducted a study that analyzed large-scale data from thousands of people that showed that women who had had abortions did not, as had been claimed by pro-lifers, show more long-term psychological stress than women who had not had abortions. In fact, the results pointed to the exact opposite being true. Already, the data collection and analysis methods are fairly unbiased (i.e the large sample size and the fact that the initial raw data was not even collected with the goal of proving or disproving the claim in mind), and in addition to this Russo chose not to argue that abortion somehow causes higher self-esteem (which she arguably could have done based on her results) and said about partnering with a pro-choice group to share the information, “This is our attempt to disseminate the facts” (Schneider, et al., 2005). In my opinion, this is an example of a responsible researcher prioritizing accuracy while still working to create social change. The most obvious criticism of activist research is that it is biased, pushing an agenda (and thus potentially presenting misleading results) rather than providing a simple observation. I think Russo’s study is a counterexample to this critique. While she found evidence that, in refuting a claim made by pro-life lobbyists, supported one side (pro-choicers) in a highly controversial issue, she did so using traditional research methods. As far as I can tell from this study, regardless of Russo’s personal stance or the fact that she teamed up with a pro-choice organization to disseminate her results, if the reality had in fact been that abortion causes long-term psychological damage to women, her methods would have led her to that result instead. For me, this is a good test to decide whether results can be trusted, and why the “Methods” section of a study is the most important part to analyze thoroughly; if the research methods used could have led to opposite results in the case that conflicting results were truer to reality, then it’s likely that the results are giving you an accurate depiction of whatever social issue is being studied.
In my opinion, the obsession with “objectivity” is fundamentally flawed, as being truly “objective” is not something a human being can achieve. Even the most rational, logic-minded researcher still has his or her own perceptions, values, and biases, which are deeply ingrained in our identities as human beings: so deeply ingrained, in fact, that they are impossible to effectively ignore, and will (potentially) unconsciously manifest in the form of researcher bias or in the way a scientist interprets his/her results. Therefore, I would argue, it is paradoxically more scientific to directly acknowledge your lack of ability to obtain total objective scientific-ness than to attempt to act, from your limited, individual human experience as if you are somehow outside of it. Not even the most remote-seeming outcasts are simply observers of humanity and society; we are all a part of it. In a way, this renders all social research “participatory” to some extent.
Many of the problems that arise from methodological flaws can be assuaged by admitting your own biases and/or agendas to both yourself and those who are consuming your research. Once you have completed this first step, you can both better control for accuracy in your process through that self-awareness as well as present findings more honestly and realistically. As a consumer of and/or peer in the social sciences, you can also use critical thinking and healthily skeptical analysis to better understand where research is coming from and how it is being done, which will give you a better idea of its accuracy (or lack thereof) and hopefully stop inaccurate or misleading information from being accepted and disseminated.
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2005). Applied social psychology:
Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications