Researching violence: power, social relations and the virtues of the experimental method
Introduction The aim of this chapter is to reclaim and rehabilitate the experimental method as a useful tool for those engaged in violence research. This is no easy task, not least because it will be extremely difficult to persuade violence researchers from across the social sciences to read beyond the opening sentence. Most social scientists see ‘the experiment’ as embracing both an outdated positivism and a naïve realism - stripping away what is important about social relations under the guise of experimental ‘control’. O f course, there is a level at which they are absolutely right. Some experimentalists are clearly unreflexive about their practice. They impose their own categories or assumptions upon data and assume that these are shared by research participants. They control the context in which information is generated and then imagine that their findings are universal rather than context specific. Finally, they treat research participants in a manner which fails to respect their experience or contribution to the research process. However, these are not charges which apply only to those who use the experimental method. Social scientists who employ questionnaire or survey methods, or those who conduct interviews or ethnographic studies, or even those whose data comprise official or historical records, are not immune from such criticism. They are all open to accusations of decontextualisation, reification or ‘imperialism’. In other words, all methods (including the experimental method) are theory in disguise. They contain assumptions (both implicit and explicit) and practices which are instrumental in creating the object of enquiry. There is nothing intrinsically evil about the experimental method. Researchers (including experimentalists) can be more or less reflexive about the degree to which their methods play a role in ‘producing’ knowledge. Just as good social science research is predicated on the reflexive examination of the researcher’s own practice (see the other chapters in this collection), so good experimental work (shorn of the non-reflexive tendencies of some experimentalists) can contribute to knowledge in the violence research tradition.