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Section 2 Becoming a Researcher/Scholar / Chapter 5 The Nature of Inquiry

2. Comparing Ordinary and Scientific Inquiry


Asking Questions and Discovery

Why do people ask questions? The answer lies in the desire to know something in more detail, or to reconcile experience with new information. What, then, is it to know? This requires much more explanation. In philosophy and science, the study of knowledge refers to how people go about obtaining facts, and how people justify their belief in such facts. For example, think about the image of an apple on a table (Thayer, 1990). When asked to describe these objects, a person might simply state “there is an apple on a table.”  There would be no apparent reason to ask questions. This is one difference between ordinary and scientific inquiry. Science would require a more complete explanation.































Words, such as apple, are products of language. Through language, meaning is assigned to objects. An apple, for example, can be understood as something that is relatively round, has color, such as red or green, and is a kind of fruit that a person can eat. Stating “there is an apple on a table” is evidence of a larger system of cultural and linguistic knowledge. Inquiry though requires an impetus. As Dewey (1938/1986) and Thayer (1990) suggested, inquiry starts with focused attention. A beam of light entering the room might focus the observer's attention on the objects. The sound of an apple hitting a wooden floor might do the same. In each of these cases, there would be a reason to ask the question, “What is that?” This experience of coming to know may change or prompt further inquiry if, for example, the beam of light makes the object on the table appear to be a different color, for example, orange. A person might then ask, “Is it an apple or an orange?” In this case, the observer would need to inquire further, maybe by touching or tasting the object (Thayer, 1990). The observer in these cases would have refocused attention, a cursory level of understanding of what was observed, and the need for intervention to clarify such understanding. This is the basic framework of scientific inquiry.


 The previous example illustrates in a simple way how people inquire and come to know things in everyday life. There was no apparent harm in wrongfully identifying the apple as an orange, but in social science, what is determined to be knowledge may influence such decisions as social policy, safety of pharmaceuticals, or appropriate therapy provided to a person with a severe psychological disorder. In each of these instances, ordinary inquiry would not be reliable and systematic enough to support such decisions. This is one purpose of scientific inquiry, to provide valid and reliable knowledge for decision making.


 Science is an outgrowth of inquiry, but there are many differences between ordinary inquiry and science (Dewey, 1938/1986; Garrison, 1996; Haack, 2010; King, Keohave, & Verba, 1994). In ordinary inquiry, inquiring ends when no additional information is needed. Once obtained, the observer may not be motivated to inquire further. More importantly, in ordinary inquiry, people typically do not have the tools, training, or experience to measure abstract constructs accurately, such as motivation or stress, or the impetus to use an exhaustively detailed description to explain a natural situation. Scientific inquiry, in comparison with other forms of inquiry, has proven indispensable in obtaining reliable information on various levels of analysis.


Levels of Analysis

The three general levels of describing are global, contextual, and situational (Vallerand, 1997). The more information given about a setting the closer a description is to providing contextual features. If a description provides information about actual events, with all of the vibrancy of human experience, the description would be one of a particular situation. Understanding the context and situation are crucial to inquiry, as they provide the boundaries, meaning, and grounding to what a person observes, and they help in categorizing local evidence. These details take one beyond simple descriptions. In contrast, the global level offers a panoramic view unlike either a context or a situation.


At the global level of analysis, an observer might analyze phenomena using general categories. For example, a researcher analyzing traffic patterns might be interested in the gender of the drivers, age, speed of driving, and total number of drivers on a stretch of highway; but the researcher might also be interested in strictly abstract concepts, such as the stress of drivers (affective state), the type and amount of experience of drivers on the highway (proficiency), or even the reasons individual drivers drive on a given stretch of highway (motivation). At the global level, in comparing the average frequency of these categories, the researcher would have additional details to predict future events or ways to make the driving experience more manageable. As shown in this traffic-pattern example, inquiry involves the description of different types of data.


Types of Data

  There are two types of data used in describing: numbers and qualities. Numbers can be used to explain phenomena and can be converted into words to describe qualities. As in a numeric rating system, a number 5 could indicate a person strongly agrees with a question. In this case, the number would represent an expressed quality, an agreement. In the traffic-pattern example, numbers were used to describe distance, frequency, and speed. By using numbers, the researcher might want to identify the distance between one location and another, frequency of highways or local roads, total number of drivers on a highway during a trip, the speed while driving, and travel time. In each of these cases, there is a relationship between a quality and a number.


 Qualities can be experienced emotionally, expressed in words, and converted to numbers for analysis. Describing felt qualities is expressing in words the subjective experience of a person. For example, a person might express generalized feelings of optimism, in which words like cheerful, confident, and hopeful are used to describe the emotion. In using words to describe an event, the objects of the event become more than just felt. For example, “it is quite possible to enjoy flowers in their colored form and delicate fragrance without knowing anything about plants theoretically” (Dewey, 1934/1987, p. 10). Upon reflection, these qualities become expressed as objectively related to other objects. Color and fragrance become interwoven with the ideas of air, soil, water, and sunlight that produced them (Dewey, 1934/1987). Discovery of this tension between the immediate apprehension and the interconnected awareness marks out some of the traits of inquiry into qualities (Dewey, 1934/1987).

In philosophy and science, the study of knowledge refers to how people go about obtaining facts, and how people justify their belief in such facts.

Sidebar 1:

Words, Continuity