ERIC®/AE Digest Series EDO-TM-96-07 November 1996
The Catholic University of America Department of Education
Kerlinger's Research MythsLarry G. Daniel,
University of Southern Mississippi
Fred N. Kerlinger has been appropriately hailed as having "contributed to the transformation of the way behavioral scientists and educators read research reports, design and execute research, and draw conclusions and implications from their findings" (Pedhazur, 1992, p. 45). In 1960, he introduced the notion that educational research is fraught with mythology, that is "a body of legends and beliefs purporting to be the rationale, purpose, and methods of educational research" (p. 149). Three of the research myths pertained to "methods," "practicality," and "statistics." In discussing these myths Kerlinger leveled honest, and often blunt, criticisms toward the educational research community. Nevertheless, he possessed an unflinching optimism as he contemplated the future of educational research, predicting a progression toward excellence in the practices employed by the next generation of researchers.
Three of these research myths Kerlinger discussed were
"methods," "practicality," and "statistics." This digest will
examine these myths and discuss whether educational research
still contains deleterious mythological perceptions and practices.
The Methods Myth
The methods myth (Kerlinger, 1960) is centered about the naive misperception that research design is synonymous with research methodology. Becoming an educational researcher simply involves learning about methods for collecting and analyzing data. In correct practices, the researcher should not be so much concerned with determining "whether this method or that method should be used" (Kerlinger & Pedhazur, p. 450). Instead, the researcher should be concerned with answering the important questions of "which methods of observation, measurement, analysis--help the development and testing of theory?" (ibid).
Unfortunately, the methods myth tends to perpetuate itself as
commonly-used educational research textbooks generally
emphasize methods over design (Kerlinger, 1960). As the
"professors of the next generation are selected from the doctoral
students of this generation" (p. 151), the currently used textbooks
will influence how the future professors will teach and what they
will teach about educational research. Hence, researchers pass
on from generation to generation the tradition of blindly applying
"standard" data collection and analytic strategies without regard
for larger research design issues.
The Practicality Myth
Initially conceptualized as an "overconcern with practicality" (Kerlinger, 1959, p. 282) and later designated as the "pragmatic-practical misconception" (Kerlinger, 1977), the practicality myth is characterized by a preoccupation with usefulness (i.e., expectation of an immediate "payoff") when designing, conducting, or evaluating research. Researchers motivated by this myth would erroneously view the identification and solution of practical problems in education as the general purpose of educational research. However, "the solution of a research problem is on a different level of discourse than the solution of an action problem" (Kerlinger, 1979, p. 288). The actual objective of educational research is the advancement of theory. Although the advancement of theory can lead to the solution of practical problems, educational research should not be primarily driven by the desire to resolve specific difficulties.
The educational community and educational policy makers
have historically favored and continue to favor research that has
immediate practical implications (Kaestle, 1993; Kerlinger 1969,
1977, 1979). Hence, there has generally been a bias toward
educational research projects with a practical focus (Kerlinger,
1959). Critics of basic research (e.g. Ebel, 1973) have argued
that basic research promotes the virtue of uselessness and offers
little hope for the improvement of the process of education.
Nevertheless, basic research is more promising than applied
research as a means for understanding educational phenomena
(Kerlinger, 1959, 1969).
The Statistics Myth
While Kerlinger never indicated what precisely he meant by the "statistics" myth, a critical analysis of his writings would indicate he may have intended to use the term to denote at least two distinctive, though related problems: a) a fundamental disregard for statistics as an informational and methodological tool (Statistics Myth I) and b) a failure to understand that research design and statistical analysis are intimately related (Statistics Myth II).
Adherents to Statistics Myth I view statisticians as methodological shamans who "perform complex and abstruse operations with numbers derived in mysterious ways" (Kerlinger, 1979, p.81), with the result being a multifarious series of numerical abstractions that have little or nothing to do with reality. They also are prone to believe that behavioral constructs cannot and should not be quantified. Nevertheless, the purpose of behavioral statistics is not to attempt to mirror the reality of any particular individual within a given data set, but instead its purpose is to help researchers understand and interpret sets of data (Kerlinger, 1979).
Statistics Myth II assumes that the researcher and the statistician are two different (and unrelated) persons, and that forethought as to what statistical procedures will be utilized to analyze the data from a study is unnecessary. This myth causes researchers to settle for less sophisticated data analytic methods and/or do a poor job of interpreting the results of the methods they use. Additionally, limited knowledge of basic statistical concepts can also lead to inappropriate interpretations of statistical results (Tate, 1965). Chief among these misinterpretations of statistical results is the common misunderstanding of statistical significance testing, the assumption that a statistically significant result is necessarily a noteworthy result.
All statistical methods have certain inherent strengths and
limitations, and each method implies certain assumptions about
the data being analyzed. Because of this, statistical methods are
very likely to influence both the nature and selection of research
problems to some degree (Kerlinger, 1969, 1986; Kerlinger &
Pedhazur, 1973). Therefore, it is imperative that researchers
give considerable attention to the selection of statistical methods;
these decisions will help direct the research.
Status of the Myths in Current Research Practice
A substantial move has been made towards eradicating the methods myths, at least in regards to using the correct structural framework. The curricula in educational graduate programs indicate that, at least structurally speaking, research design serves as the foci of the various "methodology" courses. Additionally, most "educational research" or "social science statistics" textbooks anchor their discussion of methodological issues within the framework of research design.
Despite these advances in educational research curriculum and course materials, considerable evidence shows that the previously noted problems associated with the misapplication of methods are not defunct. Studies of educational dissertations have consistently found numerous instances of inappropriate or indiscriminate applications of methodological procedures (cf. Eason & Daniel, 1989).
Unfortunately, the practicality myth seems to be very prevalent in society. Even though educational research is probably more theory driven than it has been in past years, the public's quest for accountability frequently demands that there be an immediate and measurable payoff when efforts and money are expended. Policy makers still criticize and often fail to adequately fund educational research and development because there is no immediate payoff (Kaestle, 1993). Policy makers also frequently complain that research is not practical and should not be trusted because it is too confusing (Cooper, 1996). Hence the lure of practicality still serves as "a social norm, a rule of proper educational research behavior, that tends to force the scientist away from the really significant scientific problems in education" (Kerlinger, 1959, p. 286).
The basic misconception that statistical information is
mysterious and difficult to understand remains a problem
(Holmes, 1990). An awe and fear of statisticians causes many to
either put blind faith in those who are expert in statistics
(Holmes, 1990) or to doubt the validity of statistical claims
(Kerlinger, 1979). Many also believe that statistical analysis
cannot be trusted and that statistics is too rife with technical
jargon to be of any practical use (Sprinthall, 1990).
Nevertheless, there has been some progress made towards
discrediting the assumption that research design and selection of
statistical procedures are unrelated processes (statistics myth II).
Studies of methodological practices employed in published
research (e.g. Crandall, 1982) have indicated that the appropriate
application of multivariate statistical methods has increased over
time. Unfortunately, these studies have also identified other
types of methodological problems that are still quite prevalent in
Despite Kerlinger's bright hopes for the future, he also
foresaw the stalwart nature of the myths, noting that the
mythology of educational research "has an essentially mystical
character which seems to be rooted to the past. To question the
mythology amounts to heresy" (Kerlinger, 1960, p. 149). Even
though educational research in the 1990s is not "myth free,"
thoughtful researchers are willing to commit "heresy," working
both individually and collectively to deal with the problems
inherent to the presence of the myths.
Cooper, H. (1996). Speaking power to truth: Reflections of an educational researcher after 4 years of school board service. Educational Researcher, 25(1), 29-34.
Crandall, R.C. (1982). Characteristics of research appearing in gerontology journals between 1975-1980. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 226 041).
Eason, S.H., & Daniel, L.G. (1989, January). Trends and methodological practices in several cohorts of dissertations. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Southwest Educational Research Association, Houston, TX. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 306 299).
Ebel, R.L. (1973). Some limitations of basic research in education. In H.S. Broudy, R.H. Ennis, & L.I. Krimerman (Eds.), Philosophy of educational research (pp. 122-130). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Holmes, C.B. (1990). The honest truth about lying with statistics. Springfield, MA: Charles C. Thomas. Kaestle, C.F. (1993). The awful reputation of education research. Educational Researcher, 22(1), 23, 26-31.
Kerlinger, F.N. (1959). Practicality and educational research. School Review, 67, 281-291.
Kerlinger, F.N. (1960). The mythology of educational research: The methods approach. School and Society, 88, 149-151.
Kerlinger, F.N. (1969). Research in Education. In R. Ebel, V. Noll, & R. Bauer (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Education (4th ed., pp. 1127-1134). New York: Macmillan.
Kerlinger, F.N. (1977). The influence of research on educational practices. Educational Researcher, 6(8), 5-12.
Kerlinger, F.N. (1979). Behavioral research: A conceptual approach. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Kerlinger, F.N. (1986). Foundations of behavioral research (3rd. ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Kerlinger, F.N. & Pedhazur, E.J. (1973). Multiple regression in behavioral research. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Pedhazur, E.J. (1992). In memoriam--Fred N. Kerlinger (1910- 1991). Educational researcher, 21(4), 45.
Sprinthall, R.C. (1990). Basic statistical analysis (3rd ed.) . Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Tate, M.W. (1965). Statistics in education and psychology: A first course. New York: Macmillan.
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