practice" My writings often are
about "research and professional practice," meaning the practice of research and of professional
intervention. I am interested in research as a practice,
that is, in the question of how practical circumstances
shape the ways research is understood and used. Among the practical
circumstances in question are the aims researchers pursue; the
conditions under which they work (e.g., financial limitations,
institutional pressures, and professional standards); the roles
and responsibility researchers assume or are expected to assume
in different societal and cultural settings; and others.
addition, there is also a deeper, more philosophical (but by
no means less influential) dimension of research that I associate
with its "practical" side. I often refer to it in
my writings as the "other" dimension of reason (or
of rationality), the practical-normative dimension of reason,
which in my understanding of good research practice must
go hand in hand with its usually dominating dimension, the theoretical-instrumental
dimension. I have recently dedicated an entire Bimonthly
essay to the question of what practical reason is and
why it matters: it responds to the normative core of
all practice (see Ulrich, 2011b).
What is good research
these aspects come together in the central question that interests
me in my current work: What is good research
practice? The question interests me particularly in "applied"
contexts of research such as they are given in scientific advice
to politics or research-based professional intervention in general.
It then translates into a closely related question: What
is good professional practice? The crucial issue remains
the same: What does it mean to be proficient or "competent"
in the production and use of knowledge or any other form of
special expertise? (By expertise I mean all forms of proficiency
regardless of whether they are acquired through research training
and practice or through other forms of practice and experience.)
In short, how can we become competent research practitioners
question, of course, aims at the deeper connection between "research"
and "practice." My impression is that the connection
between research and practice is not well understood. I suspect
this is why there is so little secure knowledge and agreement
about what good research (often also referred to more
specifically as "sound science," meaning competent
practice of scientific research) and good practice (or
sometimes more specifically, "best practice," meaning
competent professional practice) mean. Accordingly little help
is offered to research practitioners who turn to the literature
on philosophy of research and philosophy of science on
the one hand, and to the literature on philosophy of practice and on professionalism
on the other hand. The two bodies of literature research theory
and theory of practice appear to suffer from the same kind
of illness: authors usually focus on one side while neglecting
the other. As a result, there appears to be widespread disagreement
and confusion about both concepts, "research" and "practice."
research To begin with research,
it has become a rather overused designation for any kind of
knowledge work (particularly paid work), regardless of how well-founded
and relevant its results may be. The circumstance mirrors both
the prestige of research and the lack of a general, yet operational
theory that would explain how research has to be done and what
criteria it needs to meet. The philosophical difficulty behind
this lack of theory is that the validity and relevance of knowledge
is hardly ever entirely independent of the issue or situation
for which it is to be valid and relevant. This is so because
validity and relevance are pragmatic, not logical categories.
What we consider as knowledge, and what not, has consequences
that different parties will tend to assess differently, depending
on the different ways these consequences may affect or concern
them. Chances are that claims to knowledge get contested as
soon as they really matter
for some real-world context of decision-making or action, which
is to say they make a difference to what counts as a rational way of
handling the situation.
when claims to knowledge move within a merely analytical universe
(as is the case with mathematics and deductive logic), the question
of what is valid and relevant knowledge thus always raises the
pragmatic issue: What do the different parties involved
or interested want to consider as valid and relevant
knowledge? Hence, as a further consequence, it also implies
the ethical issue: What should count as knowledge?
It is to these pragmatic and ethical dimensions of knowledge
that the two
knowledge sociologists Berger and Luckmann (1966) implicitly
refer when they assert that all knowledge is socially constructed.
These pragmatic and ethical implications explain why non-analytical
knowledge cannot be understood and justified in
abstraction from the contexts within which it is produced and used
(I will not further consider merely analytical claims here, as no kind
of practice can be justified on the basis of merely analytical
claims to knowledge mean and how valid they are is thus in
a function not just of theory but also of practice another
way to say that it makes sense, and indeed is philosophically
necessary, to understand and improve research as a form of practice.
To be sure, theoretical considerations and questions still matter;
but so do the practical considerations and questions that are
associated with claims to knowledge, in the everyday sense as
well as in the philosophical sense of the word "practical." Well-understood
research must consequently deal carefully with both the theoretical-instrumental and the practical-normative
presuppositions and implications of its own claims to knowledge,
that is, the claims it associates with its procedures and results.
Accordingly demanding is the quest for good research. It is
no surprise, then, that to date we do not
have a clear and operational much less a generally
accepted theory of research.
practice Perhaps even deeper goes
the lack of generally accepted and operational theory or,
to phrase it in a way that may be more adequate, the lack of
philosophical clarity with regard to practice. I suspect
this lack of clarity is one of the
deepest sources of our contemporary mess; of the disastrous state of the world in terms of justice and fairness, equality of chances,
human rights and dignity, social security, intercultural understanding,
environmental sustainability, and rights of animals, to mention
just a few major issues. Good practice would clearly be moral
practice; that is, we would need to be able to demonstrate
that its implications (including its long-term consequences
and possible side-effects) alleviate rather than exacerbate
existing deficits of justice, cooperation, and sustainability.
Once again we encounter the deep connection between research
and practice: the search for relevant knowledge and the
quest for responsible action cannot be separated. Because good practice raises
moral issues, it also puts correspondingly high demands on our cognitive
abilities to understand and foresee what may happen in the future
and what it takes to handle things responsibly, within and outside the current
context of practice. Nobody can really claim to have all the
necessary knowledge that others don't have,
just as nobody can claim to be the moral arbiter for all others.
In the complex and interconnected world we live in, the boundary
between cognitive and moral requirements has become slim and
difficult to draw. Accordingly demanding is the quest for good
practice. Not surprisingly, again, we do not have to date a
clear and widely accepted notion of good practice, much less
one that would not only be well grounded theoretically or philosophically
but would also lend itself to being practiced.
without a clear and arguable notion of good practice,
it is indeed difficult to secure adequate action, including
adequate use of available knowledge and production of new knowledge, so as to improve
things the ways we cooperate and compete with other people,
run our institutions and societies, and strive to improve our
lives as well as the human condition in general. In almost any
field of research and professional practice of which I can think,
ensuring good practice is a real challenge. Even where
a group of people agrees about their notion of improvement and
about the means to achieve it, one can hardly ever
claim to achieve it in a sufficiently comprehensive manner so
as to do justice to everyone's concerns, including the concerns
of those who
may be affected without being involved. Nobody
can get things right for everyone, here and now, there and in
is unavoidably selective with regard to the concerns it
serves and others which it cannot equally serve. Accordingly
precarious are any practical claims to securing improvement.
quest for improvement All improvement that
we can realistically hope to achieve will be of this selective
kind. Selectivity is the fate of even the best practice we may
hope to achieve. In this circumstance originates the genuinely
normative core that is inherent in all practice. Research-based practice
makes no exception; for research practice, like any other practice,
has no way of avoiding selectivity. Even the most carefully "rational" practice, research-based
and morally considered as it may be, will raise issues
such as whose problems should be taken up and whose not; whose
concerns should matter and whose not; and consequently:
whose rationality counts and whose not. Whatever the prevalent
identification of the rational with the scientific may suggest
to the contrary, there is no way to avoid or eliminate the normative implications of even the most rational practice.
We need to face this normative core of research practice no
less than that of any other practice, or
we will fail to improve it in ways that are conducive to improving
the human condition.
normative core expresses itself, among other "practical"
issues, in the earlier-mentioned question that always comes up with
the quest for valid and relevant knowledge and thus also for "good"
research that can secure it: What should count as relevant
And a determining factor for answering it will be the ensuing
should count as improvement?
Note that the second question cannot be reduced to a question
of ends only, in the sense that once the aims of a research
effort have been chosen in an avowedly subjective (because
value-based) way, researchers and professionals could then take
over and secure good and rational practice on the basis of sound
research. Rather, the normative resides in all the aspects of rational
practice, including its basis of research and knowledge (ranging
from "theoretical hypotheses" and "empirical
data" to "research methods" and "findings
A symptom of this pervasively normative character is the frequency with which scientific
advice to politics in virtually all domains of public policy,
from educational to environmental and energy policy, leads to
hot debates not only about the basic ends that such policies
should serve but also (and more often) about the specific means that researchers and
for reaching those
ends and the knowledge basis they rely upon. How could this be so if it were not because
the normative content in question indeed inheres not just in
the ends but resides in the midst of what, once the ends have been defined, researchers
and professionals are traditionally supposed to determine in impartial and value-neutral (if not value-free and "objective")
ways, based on "sound" science rather than on subjective
views and values: the means and knowledge that permit achieving
The normative is
inherent to the scientific
at its very heart: it
affects and pervades the very "technical" competence
that Parsons (1939, p. 38)
identified as the specific function and source of authority of researchers
and professionals in our society (see the discussion
in Ulrich, 2011a, esp. pp. 4-11). Necessary as technical
competence is, it has no grasp of the normative core of "good"
practice. It is a hopeless undertaking, therefore, to ground
the quest for good research practice and indeed the quest
for "improvement" in any field of practice in technical
competence alone. Theoretical-instrumental reasoning can ensure
good practice only inasmuch as it goes together with, and is
guided by, practical-normative reasoning. To be sure, there
is nothing wrong with theoretical and instrumental rationality,
so long as we do not mistake it for all there is to rational
practice which is precisely the trap into which most conventional
science theory falls in its accounts of "applied"
science and research. A still influential example of such a
theoretical-instrumental conception of applied research and
hence, of research-based practice, can be found in the work of Karl R. Popper
(e.g., 1961, 1963, and
1972; for critical discussion compare Ulrich, 1983, ch. 1, and
new research practice: two basic models If
research practice" we mean a practice of
research that promotes improvement not only in the world of
research itself but also in the world of practice outside the
research community, it becomes important indeed that we understand
the relationship between research and practice well. It is then
hardly sufficient to ask what it takes to improve research
on the one hand (the traditional preoccupation of research philosophy
and science theory) and, separately, to improve practice
on the other hand (the traditional preoccupation of practical
philosophy). Rather, we must ask how research and practice can
improve one another. I have argued why this is so: attempts
to ground good research in research only, and good practice
in practice only, fail to do justice to the deep link between
the two notions
of quality involved. We cannot understand well what it means
to improve the quality of either without understanding what
it takes to improve the quality of the other. This interdependence
understandable why in the past, neither research theory nor practical
philosophy have been particularly useful sources for researchers
who try to improve their practice.
appear to be basically two options for bringing the two sides closer
together. We may start from a proven model of research such
as science and can then attempt to expand its central notion of observational
quality (controlled observation, resulting in high-quality
experience and knowledge) so as to include other,
non-observational forms of experience. Are there new forms of
systematic inquiry that might help us achieve good practice?
(Participatory observation, action research, and user involvement
come to mind as examples.) Or we may start from
a proven model of practice such as discursive resolution of conflicts and can
to expand its central notion of communicative quality (undistorted
communication, resulting in high-quality argumentation and mutual
understanding) so as to include other, pragmatically and critically oriented
forms of argumentation. Are there new forms of communication
and discourse that might help us improve research? (Reflective
practice, practical discourse models, boundary critique and
what I call the "critical turn" of our notions of
competence and rationality come to mind.)
an example of the first, research-centered approach, my appreciated
colleague at Lincoln University in England, Gerard de Zeeuw, has focused
much of his work under the name of second-order research
(or "research on research," R2) on the idea of renewing our notion of science
by working from the inside out, as it were, and in this way
to encourage new models of systematic inquiry (Zeeuw, e.g.,
1992, 2001, 2005, and 2011). As an example
of the second, practice-centered approach, much of my work on
critical systems heuristics (Ulrich, e.g., 1983, 2003;
Ulrich and Reynolds, 2010) and, related to it, on "reflective
practice" (e.g., 2000) and "critical pragmatism"
(e.g., 2006a, 2007a, b), can be understood
to focus on the idea of renewing our notions of competent research
and professional intervention by challenging them from the outside, in the light of practical
philosophy rather than science theory, and in this way to encourage
of good practice.
perspective leads him to work at the limits of contemporary
notions of scientific research so as to expand them towards
new forms of science: "Let us try and see whether we can
render science applicable to new domains of inquiry and practice,"
is its motto. Conversely, my perspective works at the limits
of contemporary notions of rational practice so as to expand
them towards a new, critically-pragmatic access to the normative
core of practice: "Let us try and see whether we can bring
back in the normative dimension in a rationally practicable
I first encountered de Zeeuw's work in the mid 1990s, I found
it difficult to understand; but as I begin to appreciate it
more and more, I learn that his and my concerns, however different
our starting points and our language may be, are really in a
deep sense complementary and are ultimately bound to meet in
some richer, integrated notion of good (or at least, improved)
research practice. In one way or another, the two sides have
to move closer, if only because there is no good alternative. Fortunately,
as so often, the theorists are lagging behind what is actually
happening out there in the real-world of research practice.
For example, it is more and more becoming an accepted if not
mandatory part of good practice in an open and enlightened society
to involve all the parties concerned the so-called "stakeholders"
and to give them a voice in defining what in a specific situation
should count as improvement and/or
as rational practice (e.g., by institutionalizing
new forms of participatory practice such as citizens' juries,
planning cells, and hybrid fora of communication between researchers
and citizens). Likewise, though often indirectly via the institutionalization
of new forms of participatory practice, it is also becoming
quite normal that citizens have a voice in defining what should
count as valid and relevant knowledge in matters that concern
them (e.g., by drawing on the expertise of those who may be
affected by the consequences that some claim to knowledge or
improvement may have, or by bringing in multiple and
critical perspectives through outside monitoring and evaluation
I believe that recognizing and deepening the link between our
notions of good research and of good practice is key to making
both stronger. If this assumption is not entirely misguided,
a basic step towards improvement is surely to see and promote research as a form of rationally
that is, as a force that shapes (and can improve) mutual understanding
and deliberation on what is to count
as rational action both within and outside the world of research. Simultaneously, it
will help our
understanding of the quest for improvement if we always see and promote practice
as a form of critically considered inquiry, that is, a force that shapes (and
can improve) mutual understanding and deliberation on what is
to count as relevant knowledge.
have mentioned, along with the two basic suggested options for
developing a new understanding of research practice, a few examples
of change as it is already occurring in real-word research contexts
everywhere and which may be understood to point towards a gradual
strengthening of the link between research and practice. The
good news is that it happens; the not so good news, that it
finds us unprepared. It happens before we fully
understand its implications for "good research" as
well as for "good practice." Research theory is lagging behind all those many practicing
researchers who sense
that change is needed and who therefore are prepared, for example, to
experiment with new forms of user involvement. This situation
a lack of adequate theory meeting with a felt need for practical
change may explain the wide-spread attention and discussion
that "Mode 2"
research (Gibbons et al., 1994) has received. To be sure,
it remains a matter of dispute whether and to what extent the
proclamation of Mode 2
research relies on well-established facts, but such a state of the
matter is quite normal for a gradually emerging change. Of greater
concern to me is that the current hype around Mode 2
research appears to owe its prominence not so much to a philosophically well
grounded proposal for improving research practice (something
its authors, to be fair to them, do not claim to offer) than
to a carefully observed sociological statement of gradual
changes in the ways we produce and use knowledge. Let me explain.
central tenet of The New
Production of Knowledge is
that it happens in the context of application, a concept
that is also central to my understanding of research and professional
in Critical Heuristics (see, e.g., Ulrich, 1983, pp.
20n, 67n, 74, 134, 198 and passim; 1984, pp. 326-328; 1987,
pp. 276, 278, 281f; 1993, pp. 592-594, 598; etc.). To observe
empirically that the context of application is indeed gaining
in importance is certainly encouraging; but it is not sufficient.
It is equally vital to explain, as I tried in Critical Heuristics,
its theoretical and methodological implications for the pursuit
of high-quality research and professional practice, otherwise we cannot control and
improve its quality.
proper philosophy, we can do little to improve research practice
as we observe it or desire to see it. There is, I would argue,
no way round grounding the new research practice in
new research philosophy. The latter can at best be said today
to exist in fragmentary form (compare the two models
outlined above). One thing seems clear: an adequate research
philosophy for our epoch will need
to overcome the current split between, on the one hand, a research theory
that attends to the theoretical-instrumental dimension of reason
only and, on the other hand, a philosophy of practice that attends to the practical-normative
dimension only. Instead, it will need to be grounded in and
promote a genuinely two-dimensional concept
of adequate research practice, a concept that will take the
practical-normative dimension of rational practice as seriously
as its theoretical-instrumental dimension. Only thus, it seems to me, can
we "reasonably" expect to bring the two sides together
in a productive, mutually supportive way. The new production
of knowledge implies a far-reaching Challenge to Reason
efforts and opportunities In the past
I have pursued my personal quest for an adequate understanding of research practice
and for meeting the challenge to reason that it implies
by engaging myself both as
a research practitioner and as a research philosopher. My practical engagement
has included many years of practice as evaluation researcher, policy analyst, and poverty researcher
in the public sector, as well as efforts to teach good research
and professional practice to future professionals
and decision-makers along with some engagement in the area
of adult education. These efforts have certainly taught
me a lot about the difficulties (and indeed, the challenge to
reason) involved, but they have not left me hopeless. Philosophically
speaking, it is obvious after what I have said that I believe
there is room for improvement;
practically speaking, my years as a chief policy advisor suggest
to me it is equally obvious that decision-makers
and practically engaged people today need and are demanding
from "the experts" than they have received in the
past. The pressing
problems of our epoch, both in the public sector and in the corporate
world, leave us no choice.
to my theoretical and methodological engagement, I have
referred to some examples of my work above and there is no
need to repeat these hints; interested readers
may in addition want to compare
my three series of bimonthly essays available in this web site, on
"The greening of pragmatism" (beginning with Ulrich,
2007a), "Reflections on reflective
practice" (beginning with Ulrich, 2008), and "What
is good practice?" (beginning with Ulrich, 2011a).
would like to conclude this essay with a hint at an opportunity I
recently had to
specify some of my ideas about "good research practice"
for practitioners in the field of operational research (OR).
OR is a field of applied research and professional
practice that has been home to the development of the "systems
approach" (Churchman et al., 1957; Churchman, 1968a, 1971,
1979) and to many subsequent developments in applied systems
thinking, among them the efforts of my "systems" colleagues
Peter B. Checkland (e.g., 1981, 1985; Checkland and Holwell, 2001; Checkland
and Poulter, 2006, 2010) and Mike C. Jackson (e.g.,
Jackson and Keys, 1984; Jackson, 1990, 1999, 2000; Flood and
Jackson, 1991) and others. To readers who would like to gain
an up-to-date overview of the scope of contributions to this
discussion and the "systems thinkers" involved, I
recommend consulting the two excellent collections by Ramage
and Shipp (2009) and Reynolds and Holwell (2010).
field continues today to be open to lively and innovative discussions
of methodological issues. This has motivated me to
try and outline a critically oriented framework
for applied systems thinking in OR, a framework that
would take seriously the concerns formulated in the present
essay regarding the neglected "other," practical-normative
dimension of research practice. Taking up the challenge, a two-part essay
forthcoming in the Journal
of the Operational Research Society examines
what "good research
practice" might be understood to mean in OR and in related areas of applied
research and professional intervention (see Ulrich, 2012a and
another recent opportunity to try and develop new ways of
supporting research practice
arose as a result of my engagement as a co-editor
of the Journal
of Research Practice (JRP). I have reported about this
initiative in one of my last Bimonthlies (see Ulrich,
be sure, my
work on the notion of good research and professional practice
goes on. In the near
future I hope to complete my two uncompleted series of reflections on "Reflections on reflective practice" (the
first essay being Ulrich, 2008) and on "What
is good professional practice?" (the first essay of which was Ulrich,
2011a), whereby completing the latter is to help me complete
the former. This is how I hope to continue
my way, step by step and with some inevitable detours, towards the
long-term vision of a philosophy for professionals that would be grounded in practical philosophy and
pragmatized through "critical pragmatism" (see Ulrich,
2007b) and in this way would breathe life into the "new
research philosophy" of which I have been speaking here. It's a long and partly steep way to go, but without
daring to take some small steps at least, no progress can occur.
Thanks for sharing with me the present, small step.
For a hyperlinked overview of all issues
of "Ulrich's Bimonthly" and the previous "Picture of the
see the site map
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