Monday, July 02, 2012

Methods and methodology, questions and answers

Academics and journalists frequently cite peer-reviewed studies as though the peer-review process warrants validity, which indeed it's meant to do. However, when a report or research is cited, knowing the methodology and in fact the basic research question and frame is crucial to determining which question or questions are being answered.

For example, anthropologist Douglas Fry (2005) looked through the literature in his field to inquire after the basic question: Which societies operate without war or with very rare examples of war? What he found was a welter of answers, but most of them were to slightly or even completely different questions, yet those studies were often cited as 'proof' that most, or even all, human societies are warlike and the few that weren't either were still violent or not worth mentioning.

But upon examining those cited studies, he found problems and this should encourage all of us to go deeper when we are citing any report or study--or when one is cited that seems to 'prove' that peace and justice are either a poor idea or impossible to achieve.

For instance, when one study 'proved' that just a small handful of societies have never had or almost never had wars, they dropped 61 cultures from the study because of insufficient data. This should beg the question, well, why might there be insufficient data? Could it be because, in fact, those societies--or at least some, probably most, if not all--don't go to war? As Fry points out, that might not be a flaw in the methodology because the study was asking about war and not the absence of war, that study has been cited to prove something that it does not prove. Fry and others have begun a serious catalog of what societies might actually show us that peace is possible.

Whether we are using the best science to make our point or whether we are reading someone else's use of 'evidence,' we should be aware of the limitations of all research, in addition to the value of it.


Fry, D. P. (2005). The human potential for peace: An anthropological challenge to assumptions about war and violence. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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