The debate regarding whether psychology is a science has been ongoing for many years, as those who remember the module from last year will recall. Many psychologists believe that it is the use of the scientific method in research that classifies the discipline as a science. However, what does the scientific method involve, and is this the only or best way that psychology should be studied? Evidence suggests otherwise.
There are various ways that the scientific method can be defined, whether it is through the use of structured experimentation, enforcing the principle of parsimony, or Popper’s use of falsification. The general definition taught to students like ourselves is that the scientific method involves forming an objective hypothesis, testing this using structured empirical methods, and evaluating the data to either support, reject or modify the hypothesis (Gravetter & Forzano, 2008). Popper believed that a hypothesis can never be proven correct, as not every case could possibly be tested, so in order for a hypothesis to be scientific it must have the potential to be falsified.
In psychology both qualitative and quantitative research methods are used, however many people question as to whether qualitative research violates the rules of the scientific method. Based on the features described above I am inclined to say no it does not. Although qualitative research does not usually manipulate variables or do experimentation in laboratory settings, it does not make the research any less structured or objective than quantitative methods. There are also many similarities between these two types of research, such as the selection of samples, requirement of validity, and the use of general and specific hypotheses, as described in more detail by Willig, chapter 9. As it can be hard to quantify characteristics of behaviour and the processes of research have many similarities, I believe qualitative research does follow the scientific method.
So is the scientific method the only way in which we should research in psychology? No it is not. Many important discoveries have been made by pure observation rather than testing a hypothesis. For example, B. Skinner began investigating behavioural processes, but did not have a hypothesis so he just observed the behaviour to see what would happen. Throughout the study he kept noticing new things about the behaviour of rats, so kept modifying his techniques and starting new experiments as he made new discoveries. This investigation led to the invention of the Skinner Box, and the discovery of reinforced learning. The research described was not done using the scientific method as there was no objective hypothesis or structured experimentation, but it did lead to important discoveries that have had a huge impact on psychology. Skinner describes his investigations in more detail here.
The use of the scientific method does not guarantee that a study will not have any credibility issues, such as the discovery of phrenology. In the 1700s Franz Gall hypothesised that different parts of the brain influence different functions, and that he could investigate this by measuring the size of external lumps of the skull and connect this to the development of different functions. His study led to the discovery of cerebral localization and has influenced lots of cognitive investigation. However, his method of identifying these areas was not valid, so even though the scientific method was employed it does not ensure investigations will be carried out correctly. This article provides more information about the history and theories of Phrenology and Gall.
Lewin founded a model of research similar to the scientific method that involved active participation of the researcher to employ their results in the real world, known as the Action Research Model. He believed that the scientific method works best when a limited number of variables are being investigated, but that due to behaviour being so complex and having so many influences acting upon it, the scientific method alone could not investigate the uniqueness of characteristics to the desired quality. The similarities and differences between the action research model and the scientific method are analysed in this article.
So has our need to be classified as a science restricted our views and forced us to reject other methods of research that may be just as effective, if not more so, than the scientific method? Or could these methods be used alongside the scientific method to optimize our understanding even more? Is it possible that the need for high objectivity and a hypothesis has resulted too much on the focus of the attributes and behaviours that we are investigating, and miss the opportunity to perceive unique mannerisms and find patterns regarding characteristics we hadn’t initially set out to investigate? These are all questions that need to be considered thoroughly when contemplating whether the scientific method is the best research method for psychology.