Reflecting on the methodological dualism in higher education research

by Tessa DeLaquil

Tessa DeLaquil is a PhD student and research assistant at the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE), Boston College. Her research interests include the philosophy of higher education, considering secularism, religious pluralism, and global public good theory as bases for ethical practice in international higher education and the internationalization of research.

It seems that a somewhat curious dualism exists in the methodological approach to research in our social-scientific field of higher education.  On the one hand, we are empiricists, strictly following the rule of objectivism and the analytic scientific method, eschewing all but the observable and the factual.  On the other, we engage wholeheartedly with value and subjectivism, partaking in hermeneutic methodology to interpret the influence of the social institution of higher education on the human person and on various sectors of society. 

This methodological dualism may contribute to both undertheoretisation and widely dichotomised theory and application in our research, as well as a persistent problem of ex-post rather than ex-ante ethical analysis of policy and practice.  How has this dualism come about in the social sciences? Why does it continue in the field of higher education? Is there a methodological gap in our approach to research?

These two modes of inquiry – scientific (or analytic) methodology and hermeneutic (or interpretive) methodology – appear to separately and successfully co-exist in supporting research in the natural/applied sciences and the humanities respectively.  In his text On the logic of the social sciences, Habermas (1988) claims that while “occasional attempts to bridge the gap have remained no more than good intentions,” (p. 2) the dualism of scientific methodology and hermeneutic methodology remains a source of conflict in one area – the social sciences.

The inheritance of Enlightenment-era philosophy of science declares itself in this dualism that resides in social science research methodology.  The effects of Hume’s law on logical positivism and the development of the fact-value dichotomy, as well as Weber’s philosophy of value and objectivity in the social sciences are thus made visible.  Hume’s law, based on his theory of the mind – that ideas are pictorial (meaning that for an idea to be representative of a fact, it must resemble it) – proposed that one may not infer an “ought” from an “is.”  Thus, non-pictorial ideas, including value and ethics, were considered non-factual.  Rudolf Carnap, a staunch logical positivist, extended this idea such that statements of metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology were deemed unverifiable, and so, unscientific. 

On this questionable foundation, the fact/value dichotomy was formed in the philosophy of science, separating scientific or observable ideas from the wealth of ideas of the human mind that are not observable. While this dichotomy was dismantled to a certain extent in the sciences with the rise of sub-atomic particles, the theory of relativity, and other non-observable concepts, the damage was done in the social sciences. (I recommend for further reading Hilary Putnam’s admirable review of the philosophical history of this development in the sciences, The Collapse of the Fact-Value Dichotomy and Other Essays, 2002.)

Weber’s influence on the development of social science research methodology, arguably extensive, is fairly well-represented in his 1949 essay ‘Objectivity’ in social science and social policy.  Weber acknowledged the initial purpose of social science research as practical in function, requiring value judgments regarding social policy. However, he considered such a task inappropriate to the function of an empirical science and the provision of “subjective” norms and ideals as constraining to the scientific validity of social science research across differing personal worldviews.  

Thus, this dualism continues in the positivist proposal for general social science methodology, in a unified empirical-analytic behavioural science, as often seen in psychology, in opposition to normative/theoretical/historical-hermeneutic methodologies present in other social sciences, such as sociology or political science.  As such, higher education, as an interdisciplinary field within the social sciences, “must bear the tension of divergent approaches under one roof… [as] the very practice of research compels reflection on the relationship between [scientific] and hermeneutic methodologies” (Habermas, 1988, p. 3).

I recently encountered a debate concerning the role and applicability of theoretical definitions that incorporate value components in international comparative higher education research. Questions that arose included whether ethical aspirations or ideals embedded within theory could be universalised (applied globally). Or whether such value-based theories are purely subjective (personally, culturally, or locally-bound). Or whether theory should be strictly descriptive of the observable and objective in order to be universalised.  These questions remain open for dispute, but the conflict due to the co-existing methodologies does indeed “compel reflection” on the effects of methodological dualism in the field of higher education.

Certainly, much mutually exclusive though excellent work continues within both methodological camps in higher education research.   However, what of suitability of methodology to the subject or object of research, especially when the subject or object is the human person and/or society? 

Habermas (1986) puts forward a valuable distinction with the term “hermeneutic consciousness,” that offers scope for reflection on methodological dualism.  Hermeneutic consciousness, says Habermas, requires:

  • reflection on the historical context of the object and the data;
  • a recognition of the restrictions on empirical measurement within social science methodology;
  • a recognition of the role of colloquial language in the natural science research process (as a meta-language for communication during research rather than the language of scholarship);
  • and valuing the use of scientific language in “rational goal-oriented behaviour” to advance scientific theory formation and technical progress (p. 300), as well as the use of mediation between scientific language and colloquial language for the transmission of knowledge to society.

Returning then to methodological suitability and applying hermeneutic consciousness to our field, it seems that appropriate subjects and objects for both methodological approaches are present in studies of higher education.  However, a methodological gap may exist as a result of our dualistic approach, which might limit the breadth and the efficacy of the research that we do. The nuances of speech and language use in scientific and hermeneutic methodologies, outlined by Habermas, suggest that complementarity is both possible and desirable in higher education research.  If we can find a way to bridge the methodological gap, we may instead reap the benefits of “divergent approaches under one roof.”


Habermas, J. (1986). On hermeneutics’ claim to universality. In K. Mueller-Vollmer (Ed.), The hermeneutics reader (pp. 294-319). Continuum Publishing.

Habermas, J. (1988). On the logic of the social sciences. The MIT Press.

Putnam, H. (2002). The collapse of the fact-value dichotomy and other essays. Harvard University Press.

Weber, M. (1949). “Objectivity” in social science and social policy. In E. A. Shils & H. A. Finch (Eds.), The methodology of the social sciences (pp. 49-112). The Free Press.

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