Is the use of scientific method necessary in psychological research?


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.


6 responses »

  1. I think you have raised some really impressive points, i don’t think the scientific method is always necessary. Although I believe psychology is a science, it is a science of behavior, and behavior is fundamentally observed. If we take for example Freud, although considered “nuts” by the general population his theories of defense mechanism such as repression and denial (Freud, 1873), are still commonly used, when these theories were created without evidence from the scientific method, but from analysis of the unconscious which can not be tested empirically or scientifically. I do think although we should strive to be scientific in order to give psychological theories credibility, the scientific method does interrupt with the basic role of a psychologist to study behavior.

  2. hey, I really like you questioning “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?

    In a way i agree that the scientific method isnt the only method of research but i believe its the most effective. i doubt many psychologists were taken seriously before the scientific method, why would the public trust random scribblings of a psychologist (although they may be accurate) but as you know people interpret things differently and their take on things might be slightly biased in what they WANT to have happened. that is why we need the scientific method, the researchers must be unbiased and therefore they produce objective data for us to draw conclusions from. I like how youve said its possible we could be missing out on unique mannerisms, but the scientific method could allow for this. For example the scientific method could be carried out but also filmed, then when little interesting things are observed, this could lead to another study, further spanning our knowledge.
    You said about the skinner box, that he had no hypothesis, im not sure if i would trust this as it was rather controversial haha. We need a hypothesis ( as you mentioned karl popper) said the hypothesis should be something which can be proven incorrect by observable data within the experiment, or else the experiment is not useful in supporting the hypothesis. (falsifiable). In a way the null hypothesis makes the researcher work harder to find reliable data, he/she has to find solid data to support their hypothesis. This pushes the researcher to work harder, try different variables/methods, in a way being encouraged to improve themselves and find out more information, that is reliable and useful for us.
    (Sorry if this makes no sense, i want to go out and play!)

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  4. You did raise some very interesting points but over all if we have classified psychology as a science it is because it has been viewed in a scientific way. We have in the pasted used stats for research and maths is a fundamentally classed as a science subject. Our discoveries so far have been convincing that psychology really is a scientific class as in the past researchers have used scientific methods to find out about different aspects.
    I do agree that we have limited ourselves in the way we conduct research. However, I don’t believe it is down to the idea that it is because we have labelled psychology a science. I do think that it is related to the problem that researchers and others are so set in their own ways of doing things that they fear to think outside the box. That they don’t dare to explore the unknown. Its nothing to do with what psychology is classed as just that fear of the unknown is holding us back.
    Overall a very good blog. Your points were very thought provoking and definitely well worth reading! 🙂

  5. You obviously took a lot of time writing this blog as there a lot of good questions raised and a lot of links to back-up your opinion, which I like. However, I feel the need to disagree with you. As in psychology, and other sciences, we have been taught that the scientific method is the correct way of doing things, and due to this, it has been drilled into my head that it is the only way. I understand that sometimes more discoverys can be made by not having a hypothesis, such as Skinner, but thats because he did not know what he was looking for. Overall I enjoyed reading your blog, I just felt like being argumentative 😀

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