Can built environment research ever be value free

In the process of built environment research the relationship between values and scientific practise is a controversial one. As May (1997) explains the constant interaction between the two variables, and the absence of a clear separation between beliefs within society, and ideas within science, makes it a problematic concept to attempt to separate the two when researching social phenomenon.

With specific relation to town planning as such a social phenomenon, this essay intends to provide an analysis of what is meant by ‘value judgements’, in an attempt to further situate the relationship between these ‘values’ within the context of built environment research.

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Planning theory involves thinking about some very general questions about the nature of town planning Greed (1998). As Taylor (1998) espouses this involves questions such as ‘what is town planning?’ ‘What are the skills needed to be a town planner?’ ‘What should town planning be trying to achieve?’ and ‘what effects has town planning had on towns and cities?’ More specifically, town planning exists not only to understand the world but also to improve it therefore; theoretical reflection based on normative or value concepts is fundamental within town planning research Taylor (1998). It is therefore evident that the theories, which reconnoitre this, form of social action potentially impact the lives of a large number of individuals and communities, and thus delineate the political nature of this activity.

Within the academic community it has been common practise to associate social research either as a political or non-political activity. The assertion that social research was not political also followed an epistemology similar to positivism and empiricism that prescribed concepts of objectivity and value neutrality in the validation of their claims. As Philips (1998) verifies the trend for social research within the last twenty-five years has been to adopt an epistemology and methodology that favour forging closer links with practical life, humanities and politics. The majority of contemporary social research rejects the notion that social research is non-political and has subsequently distanced their research practises away from natural scientific inquiry.

Despite debate surrounding the ability of built environment research, with particular reference to town planning, to adhere to the concept of value neutrality, Philips (1998) argues that this does not mean that an objective reality of this social phenomenon cannot be formulated.

The application of natural scientific methods within social research is strongly associated with the projection of an objective reality free from the subjective influence of the researchers own personal prejudices and biases Philips (1998). Debate surrounding the objectivity of the social sciences remains a contentious issue when value judgements present themselves as a fundamental variable within the research process. The question of the validity of traditional scientific interpretations of objectivity is one that is vigorously challenged by Philip’s (1998), he suggests that in invoking a methodology which infers a recognition of self there need not be an unrealistic interpretation of the facts. Thus the subjectivity inherent within social research acknowledges that people are the central focus of any related empirical study therefore, a realistic or objective approach to research reflects the different backgrounds, experiences and beliefs or value judgements the researcher and researched hold within any given social situation.

As Chalmers (1999) espouses natural science bases its research on what we can see, hear and touch. If observation is carried out in a careful, unprejudiced way then the facts established will constitute a secure and objective basis for scientific reasoning. The application of natural scientific method is viewed by some researchers as the only means of attaining objective explanations about the natural and social world. Chalmers (1999) challenges this claim to observable neutrality as a basis for science, highlighting the presupposition of values within any statement of knowledge. He further criticises the ability of the researcher to observe neutrality a population, organisation or any societal structure due to their preconceived knowledge.

Modern planning research and theory draws upon both quantitative and qualitative sources, Greed (1998) encompassing empirical, conceptual and normative aspects within research methodology. This mutli-faceted approach to research offers not only a spatially-based understanding of this social phenomenon but aims to offer equal consideration to how people make sense of their physical environment and of the social forces which shape this reality, and thus ultimately aim to facilitate better planning. The informative and relative meanings values give to the definition and operation of the discipline has already been identified by Taylor (1998) but more importantly it is May (1997) who situates these normative principles within the fundamental notion of the human condition.

Nevertheless, as Greed (1998), explains because town planning is a policy-based subject the prescriptive use of planning research requires a reflexive inclusion of the spatial and aspatial dimensions that directly inform methodology, theory and subsequent practise. Thus, the concept of value neutrality within town planning research still remains a problematic concept, despite Phillip’s (1998) challenge to the traditional definition of objectivity, due to the guidance arising from such research.

Without wishing to digress form the main point of this essay, it is nonetheless important to offer a clarification of what is meant by the term value neutrality. Using the original concepts espoused by Max Weber (1972), Hammersley (1992) offers an interpretation that highlights the relevance of values within Weber’s conceptualisation of the term value neutrality. Weber recognised that both natural and scientific researches commitment to formulating truth is its self-a value. However, Weber also recognised that various other external and internal value commitments inevitably influence social research. Social research is after all concerned with the explication of meaning and thus the subject matter is fundamentally different to that of the natural sciences May (1997).

Through the concepts of ‘value relevance’ and ‘value clarification’ Weber (Hammersley 1995) acknowledges the fundamental contribution and subsequent useful evaluation of policies in terms of their consistency with the ultimate values of those promoting them. However, his promotion of the principle of ‘value neutrality’ as an ideal to be striven for, was precisely motivated by the recognition of the values, other than truth which influence social research and the resultant threat they posed to the validity of research findings. Hammersley (1995).

Despite refuting Weber’s suggestion that values can be eliminated from the practical reality of the contemporary research process, Hammersley (1992) offers support to Weber’s prescription for the rejection of politically motivated research. Despite being comprehensively entrenched with value judgements, research should ultimately resist attempts to serve any other particular political goal or value, other than the production of knowledge. It is therefore possible to retain the principle of value neutrality within social research, without the disregarding value judgements, which inform its reality.

Built environment disciplines, especially town planning, must take into account the various value judgements of the people they aim to plan for. The suggestion, that the application of natural scientific methods to the research of social phenomenon produces value neutral explanations is an idea vigorously challenged by Chalmers (1999), Hammersley (1992) and May (1997). May (1997) refutes the idea values can be excluded from the research process and further illustrates this suggestion using a classification of five various stages of research, supporting an analysis of how external and internal value choices influence and determine the phases listed below:

1. Interests leading to research

2. Aims, objectives and design of research project

3. Data collection process

4. Interpretation of data

5. The use made of research findings.

The concepts of ‘community’ and ‘identity’ that were interpreted and researched by the four empirical studies attached to this essay, were particularly useful in providing an illustration of the relevance of value judgements within the built environment research process. Each article, despite adopting a variety of research methodologies, was united in their promotion of the importance of communities within society. Despite, Parker (2001) and Stanley’s (1995) negative definition of the postmodern community they still supported a value commitment, which defined this concept as a desirable social component and central determinant of individual identity.

The research into all aspects of the community concept has once again become prominent within contemporary urban policy and research Kearns and Parkinson (2001) reflecting the values evident within the current research climate. It therefore becomes important to understand what or who, has dictated that this concept should provide a prominent research focus again? In that the interests leading to the selection of a research problem for investigation, are constituted on the basis of values and it is vital to acknowledge both the external and internal influences which can discredit the objectivity of a specific research study.

As Hammersley (1992) states all questions and answers involve presuppositions which are politically motivated thus recognising that the value commitments researchers possess as individual members of society, inevitably influences their research interests.

Increasingly evident within contemporary research institutions is the presence of an ever-decreasing body of agencies providing funding for research studies. Predominantly government and big businesses are the majority sponsors within research institutes, which has lead to a selective influence being exerted over the aims, objectives and design of commissioned research projects.

As Philip’s (1998) reasons in an ideal world researchers would have autonomy over the choice of research methods they deploy in their work. Nevertheless due to the limited nature of research funding, the decisions over the strength and weakness of a particular research method is often based on external factors. Central considerations involving, who the research has been commissioned for, and the audience, to which the findings are to be communicated, become the dominant deciding factors, rather than the appropriateness of applicability.

Additionally, within the data collection process political and ethical decisions are not only influenced by the research sponsor but reflect the researchers specific cultural, historical and societal biases to the particularities of what is studied and the acceptability of research methods May (1997). As Forrest and Kearns (2001) highlighted in their paper, there is a distinct lack of research into the origins and dynamics of affluent communities, research has been particularly biased in concentrating on disadvantaged sectors of the population. This can be interpreted as a direct indicator, which can be seen to reflect the growing governmental concern with social exclusion, which has been manifested in the breakdown of poorer communities. Furthermore, as May (1997) illustrates it may be easier to gain access to social groups who cannot mobilise their resources to prevent control or access, than groups who are more powerful.

The interpretation of data is the fourth and penultimate area within the research process where problems arising from selectivity of research findings can be influenced by external and internal values. Anticipation of the needs of the sponsor can lead to the selection of data and interpretation of these research findings which ‘prove’ sponsors prejudices May (1997). Objectivity within any research is itself only a value position, as Philips (1998) reasons objectivity must not be subordinate to a specific research methodology but must be linked to issues of replicability where appropriate, but also to matters of honesty and transparency within the research process. The question of research ethics is an aspect of the research process, which is wholly dependent on the values of the researcher. Despite the amount of control a researcher can extend over the ethical considerations within the research process, ultimately they can always withdraw themselves from a particular project if it presents them with ethical difficulties.

This leads on to May’s (1997) final stage of the research process which, involves the use made of the research findings by specific agencies. Through the course of May’s (1997) analysis it has become clear that there are many external factors, which define the various stages of the research process but the dimension with which the researcher has least control, is the eventual use of his/her findings. Research does not have to be used comprehensively but can be selectively used to facilitate a particular value goal. Acknowledging that political circumstances can take over regardless of the original intentions of the researcher is a consideration that again involves the specific ethics of the individual.

In conclusion, the debate as to whether built environment research can ever be value free is not about the comprehensive elimination of value judgements. Values about the social and natural world have been proven to be inextricably linked to our experiences and beliefs, all of which are conditioned by our culture, history and social position within society May (1997). Nevertheless, the pursuit of value neutrality is a principle, which incorporates the relevance of these values, but distinguishes between research, which ideologically is driven by the sole objective aim of the pursuit of knowledge, and empirical studies that explicitly serve the realisation of ultimate values, increasing the likelihood of bias.

As Hammersley (1995) argues we need to remember that in research, as elsewhere, there is often a considerable gap between theory and practise. The promotion of value neutrality promoted by Weber is perhaps more appropriate as a theoretical concept rather than a research practicality. This essay is of the opinion that both Hammersley’s (1992) and May (1997) have successfully illustrated how values can affect every aspect of the research process, but Hammersley (1992) has also convincingly situated Weber’s concept of value neutrality within social research. May’s (1997) analysis of the research process could be viewed as a practical representation of contemporary research culture whereas Hammersley’s (1992) analysis adheres itself more to the formulation of theoretical debate.

It has been argued that the fundamental normative aims of town planning ideology and practise not only situate the discipline beyond the realms of natural scientific observation, but also opposed to the idea of value neutrality. The mutual dependence between the values, which define the discipline, and the research processes, which help to understand it, do so for radically political intents. Due to the normative and prescriptive nature of the questions and answers town-planning research incorporates the external and internal value judgements evident within the research process ultimately serve other goals than the production of knowledge.

Within the wider context the actual operation of a town planning system presupposes an ultimate value judgement concerning the social climate of the country, that of social democracy Taylor (1998). Town planning research as an entity hence serves under a political agency, which facilitates its very existence, therefore is inherently value committed to the surmise that town planning is desirable or that it is necessary.