In starting my job in early 2006, I was confronted by a couple of seemingly glaring inconsistencies. As a researcher I am trained to produce what are essentially stories about peoples lives, through numbers and narrative. Saying that 16% of respondents agree with X is a story about how people understand the world around them. It’s not objective truth as Metro might have you think but it is a part of a story, albeit not a particularly interesting one. On the qualitative side of the page, people re-present their own views through talk and discussion and grossly at least, they can be loosely grouped into shared narratives about the topic under discussion. Again, another story.
So what’s the consistency I hear all three of you ask? Well consider this. What is produced by research projects and the reports that they derive is a form of truth. In this wonderfully relativistic world of ours, this form of truth means something to the people for whom the project was commissioned. Do they have faith in the process though? Do they believe that by following these sets of procedures (survey sampling, questionnaire compilation, analysis of results) it will produce a truth of some sorts? In other words they (and of course me too) have a faith about the process. The inconsistency arises when we think of divining the truth as opposed to possessing a faith. Science looks for evidence but belief requires faith.
Consider this though: in order for the project that I have carefully planned, implemented and written up to have some meaning beyond words on a page, it can be acted upon. Recommendation 1 says “do this and the 16% will be more palatable” and the agency acts on it. Evidence-based policy and all that jargon. However, the agency that I work with has to have a faith that this can work before it proceeds. A faith that the (social) science will help all concerned to note that the project was worthwhile?