Being evidence-based

Twice recently in different workshops one of the participants has appealed to the idea of ‘evidence’.

In workshop one we were talking about the importance of values, or principles as a way of starting to talk about the choices we might make. A senior manager intervened to say that this was all very well, but we needed to make our value choices ‘evidence based’. On the second occasion the participant was making a case that in order to stand up for ways of working and knowing which were less linear, less dependent on predictability and control, then one would have to establish the evidence for doing so.

To a certain extent both participants were talking about evidence as though it were incontrovertible, just as politicians on the radio do when they are trying to justify some government policy or other. A minister I was listening to the other day was talking about the importance of following ‘the science’, and letting ‘the evidence’ speak for itself. Evidence has become a big word often used in a way to stop or direct the discussion in a particular way. It is a big trump card. But what might it mean to talk about ‘evidence–based values’?

Clearly evidence in a medical setting, say, has helped to prove unambiguously that smoking causes cancer, where causal links can be statistically proven. But what might evidence look like in a social context, where there are multiple causes, and those wishing to interpret what is going on have been formed by the very social processes that they wish to comment on? This is what the sociologist Anthony Giddens has referred to as the ‘double hermeneutic’, where concepts that are worked out to describe social phenomena then re-enter back into the world that they were developed to describe and start to influence it. Nothing stands still in the social, what Giddens describes as the ‘dislocating, fragmenting nature of modernity.’

However, just because there are many causes of social phenomena and it is difficult to disentangle them does not mean that we should abandon the idea of evidence altogether. Rather, we might need to take a broader view of both scientific method and data. The social scientist Bent Flyvbjerg argues that social scientists should stop trying to emulate natural scientists and strive instead for what he terms ‘phronetic research’. In coining the term ‘phronetic’ he is drawing on Aristotle’s concept of phronesis, or practical wisdom. Aristotle used the word phronesis to describe the context specific judgement and wisdom that we bring to bear in navigating our way through specific practical situations. This is very different from the universal, context-independent methods widely used in the natural sciences which are striving for episteme, or scientific knowledge as commonly understood in the natural sciences.

Flyvbjorg gives as an example the ten year study that he carried on the political process surrounding the development of the transport system in the Danish city of Aalborg; he calls for a scientific method that draws attention to how power works in specific, concrete situations. He tries to rehabilitate narrative as a way of exploring power relations in context. Like the natural sciences he then argues that he should then present his theories to other engaged participants as a way of establishing their truth convergence. He invites contestation and argument just as any natural scientist would in publishing a scientific paper.

Perhaps what social scientists are striving for is reality-convergence, rather than correspondence with reality, which, in a permanently shifting world, is never possible. This does not mean abandoning the discipline or research, enquiry and the rigorous presentation of one’s findings to broader public argument and contestation. It does not mean abandoning an interest in evidence, even if this ‘evidence’ is necessarily partial, fragmentary and liable to change.

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