Addressing Socio-technical Issues in Built Environment Research: A Philosophical Premise

Maren Mallo Daniel PhDhttp://orcid.org/https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2523-2620 1 , Jurbe Joseph Molwus PhD 2 , Joseph Tanko Nkup MSc 3 ,  and Nenrot Gombwer Wuyokwe MSc 4
  • 1 Department of Estate Management, Faculty of Environmental Sciences, University of Jos, Nigeria
  • 2 Department of Building, Faculty of Environmental Sciences, University of Jos, Nigeria
  • 3 Estate Management and Valuation Department, School of Environmental Studies, Plateau State Polytechnic, Barkin Ladi, Nigeria
  • 4 Department of Estate Management, Faculty of Environmental Sciences, University of Jos, Nigeria
Maren Mallo DanielORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2523-2620, Jurbe Joseph Molwus
  • Department of Building, Faculty of Environmental Sciences, University of Jos, Nigeria
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, Joseph Tanko Nkup
  • Estate Management and Valuation Department, School of Environmental Studies, Plateau State Polytechnic, Barkin Ladi, Nigeria
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and Nenrot Gombwer Wuyokwe
  • Department of Estate Management, Faculty of Environmental Sciences, University of Jos, Nigeria
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Abstract

Researchers within the built environment disciplines have increasingly drawn on a plurality of social methods in order to enrich their research. Three decades down the line the place of philosophy in the choice of appropriate research methods is yet to be appreciated by some built environment researchers. Consequently, a lack of adventure in interpretive research, wrong choice of methods and underrepresentation of the qualitative approach are reported, which suggests the existence of a knowledge gap. This study is aimed at illustrating the philosophical premise for employing social research methods to address socio-technical issues in built environment research. In achieving this, reference was made to a fire incident in a student dormitory in Nigeria as a problem upon which contrasting–subjectivist and objectivist–philosophical positions were examined. The consideration of these philosophical positions and the choices that resulted from both spectrums were seen to have their strengths and weaknesses. To offset the weaknesses in each approach while also leveraging on the strengths that each approach offers, the paper illustrated how a compromise–pragmatist–position can be reached to allow for the choice of, and mixing of multi-methods to solve research problems that could not be adequately solved using any single method.

Introduction

Over the last three decades, researchers within the built environment disciplines – architecture, construction management, real estate, surveying, urban planning, industrial design etc – have increasingly drawn on a plurality of social methods (Dainty, Bagilhole & Neale 1997; Dainty 2007, 2008; Knight & Ruddock 2008) in carrying out their studies. This paradigm shift did not come without its challenges. Dealing with qualitative material, for example, was documented as one of the challenges that researchers encountered and in regard to this, A.R.J. Dainty, B.M. Bagilhole & R.H. Neale (1997) proposed an analytical strategy to be employed. The handling of cognitive and behavioural components in built environment research was raised as another concern by D. Amaratunga, D. Baldery, M. Sarshar & R. Newton (2002) and they offered an approach to deal with it. In other instances, A.R.J. Dainty (2007, 2008) raised concern over the lack of adventure of built environment researchers in interpretative research design. In both studies, A.R.J. Dainty argued that adopting more diverse lines of approach would move the built environment research community towards a more balanced methodological outlook and also challenge the dominant positivist paradigm which seems so all-pervasive within the built environment community.

In furthering the appropriate use of social research methods in built environment research, J.L. Du Toit & J. Mouton (2013) put forward a typology of designs for social research in the built environment. This typology was to enable researchers within the built environment community to properly utilise social research methods. The typology was also designed to mitigate the criticisms that have been advanced against the use of social research methods in built environment disciplines. In spite of this typology and several other frameworks that have been published by writers from the social sciences and management disciplines (see Gray 2009; Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill 2012: 108–109; Bryman 2012: 36; Creswell 2014: 35) appropriate application of social research methods in built environment disciplines remains a major concern for many built environment researchers (Dainty 2008; Umeokafor & Windapo 2018a; Umeokafor & Windapo 2018b). This claim is further substantiated by an examination of 19 out of 93 papers that were randomly selected using a systematic approach from the Proceedings of the West African Built Environment Research (WABER) Conference (Laryea & Ibem 2017). Following the methodological considerations of M. Saunders, P. Lewis & A. Thornhill (2012: 108), we examined the 19 papers for their philosophical position, approach, strategy, choice, time horizon, and techniques and procedures. From the analysis, we found that none of the 19 papers explained the philosophical stance it adopted in arriving at the research methods employed, which is a concern that has been raised by A.R.J. Dainty (2007, 2008). Furthermore, only one out of the 19 papers specified a ‘case study’ as the strategy employed, while the rest were silent on this. Three out of the 19 papers reported a ‘case study’ as a method instead of a strategy. Regarding choices, all reported that their studies were based on mixed methods, but what was seen was actually multi-method. This suggests that there is a misunderstanding of mixed methods and multi methods as applicable to research problem solving. Regarding the time horizon, all the studies were cross-sectional and the techniques and procedures were mostly questionnaire, observations and documents. The use of interviews and other interactive means of data collection were underrepresented.

In a recently published study, N. Umeokafor & A.O. Windapo (2018b) expressed their concern about an over-reliance of the research into the built environment on a deductive/quantitative approach and found that, in some instances, quantitative approaches were inappropriately applied. In another study, the same authors were also worried that the underrepresentation of qualitative research approaches in built environment research was making researchers leave research questions that should be tackled from a qualitative standpoint, unaddressed or wrongly undertaken (Umeokafor & Windapo 2018a). N. Umeokafor & A.O. Windapo (2018a) also found that the challenges to qualitative approaches in built environment research include information constraints, socio-cultural issues and the negative attitudes of academics to qualitative approaches.

Research Aim and Objectives

The concerns raised above suggest the existence of a knowledge gap among built environment researchers that seek to enrich their research works through the use of a plurality of research methods. The aim of this paper, therefore, is to illustrate the philosophical premise for employing social research methods to address socio-technical issues in built environment research. It is necessary to undertake this so as to equip researchers within the built environment disciplines as well as those in other science and technical based disciplines with the knowledge that would help them to make informed choices of methods for their research. This paper uses a historical fire incident in a student dormitory in Nigeria with the goal of illustrating how an appropriate choice of methods can be made in an empirical investigation after taking philosophical considerations into account. This lofty goal will be achieved in two ways: firstly, the study will formulate research propositions based on the fire incident for empirical study; and secondly, it will use philosophical considerations as the basis for the choice of methods in addressing socio-technical issues such as the fire incident.

Formulating Research Propositions

Research propositions were formulated which examine a fire incident in a student dormitory in Nigeria. This incident has been carefully selected as an example for this study because it shows how problems arise from the relationship between humans and their surrounding environment (whether natural or built), and hence the use of the term socio-technical. The term socio-technical as employed in this study refers to the interaction between society’s complex infrastructures including buildings and human behaviour (Jaglin 2014). The fire incident under consideration occurred in March 2001 in a multi dwelling student dormitory at the Government Secondary School in Gindiri, Plateau State, Nigeria. This fire incident was reported in several newspapers (Adedoja 2001; Akintarinwa 2001; Atabo 2001) and according to the information on the incident presented by the school authority, the fire must have started 90 minutes after lights out at about 10:30 pm and was not put out until the entire building had completely burnt down. On that fateful night, 42 girls and a matron were sleeping in the affected dormitory according to the school authorities, 23 girls were burnt to death and beyond recognition. The matron and 19 girls were rescued with varying degrees of burns. All the students’ property and other chattels in the dormitory were completely destroyed by fire. The nature of the incident and the losses recorded allow us to formulate a number of propositions that could be ascertained through empirical investigation: firstly, the fire incident was occasioned by poor maintenance of the building installations in the students’ dormitory; secondly, the building did not meet the fire safety standards that are expected of modern buildings; and lastly, the fire disaster response arrangement within and around the school at the time was very poor.

Philosophical Considerations

Research philosophy is the entry point into any problem, no matter how complex it may be (Grix 2004). In view of its importance, sufficient space is dedicated to explaining research philosophies and how they guide us in deciding which research methods to employ. In analysing the fire incident described above, we will consider epistemological, ontological and axiological positions within ‘subjectivism’ and ‘objectivism’ in order to confirm whether or not the fire incident was occasioned by poor maintenance of the buildings; whether the building did not meet fire safety standards; and to prove if the fire disaster response arrangement was poor.

Readers will encounter the terms ‘epistemology’, ‘ontology’, ‘axiology’, ‘objectivism’ and ‘subjectivism’ over and over again and it is important to explain these philosophical terms at this point in order to enable readers to appreciate them. Epistemology has to ‘do with what is regarded as appropriate knowledge about the social world’ (Bryman 2012: 19). Ontology has to do with ‘whether the social world is regarded as something external to social actors or as something that people are in the process of fashioning’ out (Bryman 2012: 19). D.E. Gray (2009) notes that while ontology embodies understanding of what is, epistemology tries to understand what it means to know. Therefore, ontological and epistemological issues tend to emerge together (Crotty 2003). Axiology has to do with ‘the role that your own values (as a researcher) play in all stages of the research process’ because ‘researchers demonstrate axiological skill by being able to articulate their values as a basis for making judgements about what research they are conducting and how they go about doing it’ (Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill 2012: 116). Objectivism asserts that social phenomena and their meanings have an existence that is independent of social actors (Bryman 2012) and this is in contrast to subjectivism which asserts that social phenomena are created from the perceptions and consequent actions of social actors (Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill 2012).

Subjectivism as a Premise for the Choice of Research Methods

Subjectivism is the epistemology behind the theoretical perspective or the research paradigm of interpretivism (Gray 2009; Bryman 2012) and it has anti-foundationalist ontology (Grix 2004). Subjectivism is the epistemological view that knowledge and value are dependent on and limited by one’s subjective experience of the phenomenon under consideration. This is the epistemology underpinning the interpretivist stance (Crotty 2003). Interpretivism is an umbrella term which covers a very wide range of perspectives in the human sciences. In terms of epistemology, interpretivism is closely linked to constructivism. They both agree that there is no direct, one-to-one relationship between us (the subjects) and the world (the object). The world is interpreted through the classification schemes of the mind. Interpretivism asserts that natural reality (and the laws of science) and social realities are different and therefore require different kinds of methods to study them (Gray 2009; Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill 2012). In an axiological sense, research within the interpretivist perspective is value bound with the researcher being part of what is being researched (Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill 2012). Some interpretivist traditions include symbolic interaction and phenomenology (Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill 2012: 116); the associated methodologies are ethnography, phenomenological research, grounded theory and discourse analysis while the methods are interviews, focus groups, observation, content analysis and document analysis (Gray 2009: 19).

Subjectivism is the basis for most qualitative research designs (Creswell 2014). And if we take the subjectivist position, we will study the fire incident by limiting our inquiry to the subjective experience of the people affected by the incident. We would then seek answers to the following questions: What caused the fire incident in the students’ dormitory? How did the school authority respond to the emergency? Why did the emergency response fail? How can a future occurrence of the fire incident be avoided? Answers to these questions would come from the matron and 19 girls that survived the disaster as well as those who participated in the rescue operation, who were mostly male students and staff. The school authority would also be asked to explain what happened, how it responded and why the fire fighting and rescue operation failed. The matron and surviving students would tell us their experiences; and this will not be far from stories of bitter memories, traumatised feelings, agony, pains and so on and so forth. The findings would show how the live-world of those affected has been reconstructed against what they considered as the reality of the event. Engaging with those who carried out the rescue operations will tell us how difficult the situation was and how bitter and painful it was for those affected. Table 1 shows a possible choice of methods that can be made for the empirical investigation if we strictly follow the subjectivist perspective.

Table 1

Choice of Methods based on Subjectivism

Research QuestionProcedure/MethodsChoices
What caused the fire incident in the students’ dormitory?Interview school authorities, survivors of the incident and people who participated in the rescue operationQualitative
How did the school authority respond to the emergency?Interview school authorities, survivors of the incident and people who participated in the rescue operationQualitative
Why did the emergency response fail?Interview school authorities, survivors of the incident and people who participated in the rescue operationQualitative
How can a future occurrence of the fire incident be avoided?Interview school authorities, survivors of the incident and people who participated in the rescue operationQualitative

Source: own study

It is important at this point to underscore the advantages that a qualitative research approach can offer to the study. M.S. Rahman (2017) outlined some of the advantages to include: One, it produces a thick and detailed description of the participants’ feelings, opinions and experiences. It also helps in interpreting the meanings of participants’ actions. Two, it helps researchers to properly understand a phenomenon within a specific setting. Three, the research approach of the interpretivists, for instance, enables researchers to understand different people’s voices, meanings and events. Four, a qualitative approach allows a researcher to discover the participants’ inner experience, and to fashion out how meanings are shaped. Lastly, qualitative research design is interactive in nature and has a flexible structure that can be constructed and reconstructed.

The question is how far can the subjective experience of the interview respondents go in informing government policy on safety measures in multi-dwelling student dormitories, maintenance of installations, fire disaster response and management? The answer to this already exists in the literature. M. Crotty (2003), for example, states that our experience is no less than an existential encounter with a world which has a potentially infinite horizon. This human world is not predetermined, as common sense or physicalist language would indicate; it is a world that is open to the discovery and creation of ever-new directions for encounter and hence open to the emergence of as yet undiscovered significance. N.K. Denzin & Y.S. Lincoln (2011) noted that a qualitative research approach often gives more attention to meanings and experiences to the neglect of the contextual sensitivities around the phenomenon that is being studied. R. Donmoyer (2012) observes that a qualitative research approach lacks the capability to produce outcomes that are credible to policy makers. Furthermore, D.E. Gray (2009) notes that qualitative studies are often carried out on small samples through the use of in-depth, unstructured interviews, which is good for theory generation but not always a sufficient basis for determining policy. In this sense, the greatest limitation of the approach, therefore, will be an inability to make generalisations and develop a policy that will prevent or minimise the occurrence of fire disasters and improve the disaster response plan in the affected school and elsewhere. Lastly, M. Demetrius & B. McClain (2012) argue that qualitative research usually takes the form of either some form of naturalistic observation such as ethnography or structured interviews. In this case, it is not possible to automate qualitative-data collection as effectively as you can automate quantitative-data collection, which makes it extremely time consuming and expensive to gather large amounts of data, as would be typical for quantitative research studies.

Objectivism as a Premise for Choice of Research Methods

Turning to the epistemology of objectivism, it is the theoretical perspective or the research paradigm within positivism and has foundationalist’s ontology (Grix 2004; Gray 2009). Objectivism is the epistemological view that things exist as meaningful entities independently of consciousness and experience, that they have truth and meaning residing in them as objects (‘objective’ truth and meaning, therefore), and that careful (scientific?) research can attain that objective truth and meaning (Saunders, Lewis, & Thornhill 2012; Grix 2004). This is the epistemology underpinning the positivist stance (Crotty 2003). The argument of positivism is that the social world exists externally to the researcher, and that its properties can be measured directly through observation. In essence, positivism argues that inquiry should be based upon scientific observation as opposed to speculation, and therefore on empirical inquiry. J.W. Creswell (2014), A. Bryman (2012), D.E. Gray (2009) & M. Crotty (2003) support this argument. From the perspective of axiology, research is undertaken in a value-free way; the researcher is independent of the data and maintains an objective stance (Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill 2012). Some typical positivist traditions are empiricism and critical realism (Bryman 2012); the methodologies include experimental research, survey research and action research while the methods are sampling, questionnaires, statistical analysis etc (Gray 2009: 19).

Positivism lends credence to scientism which believes that ‘science, especially natural science, is the very paradigm of truth and rationality, and is by far the most authoritative sector of human knowing’ (Moreland 2018). The most important canons of positivism according M. Hammersley & P. Atkinson (2007) include: one, that the methodological model for social research is physical science, conceived in terms of the logic of the experiment. Two, it holds that universal or statistical laws are the goal for science. Lastly, it holds that the foundation of science is observation. Unfortunately, ethnography and other kinds of qualitative research that lend credence to naturalism, do not match these positivist canons. Consequently, scientism and positivism have been subject to criticism by anti-scientism researchers. Ethnographers, for example, have dismissed scientism for lacking scientific rigour as far ethnography is concerned (Hammersley & Atkinson 2007).

Objectivism is the basis for all sorts of quantitative research designs (Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill 2012; Kothari 2004). If we take the objectivist position, we will study the fire incident by bracketing out our values as well as the experience of all the social actors that were involved. One way to approach the problem is to design a descriptive survey to measure what occurred, making reference to the following questions: What caused the fire incident in the students’ dormitory? How did the school authority respond to the emergency? Why did the emergency response fail? How can a future occurrence of the fire incident be avoided? We can operationalise these questions into concepts that can be numerically measured, for example, on a scale. To operationalise is to define a fuzzy concept or variable so that it can be identified or measured empirically or be operated on (May 1997; Shuttleworth 2008). This will help in the construction of the questionnaire. After this has been done, the questionnaire will be administered on a sample population and statistical analyses will take place with subsequent generalisation. Table 2 outlines the possible choice of methods that can be made for the empirical investigation if we go strictly along with the objectivist perspective.

Table 2

Choice of Methods based on Objectivism

Research QuestionProcedure/MethodsChoices
What caused the fire incident in the students’ dormitory?Conduct a questionnaire survey on a sample of respondents cutting across teachers and studentsQuantitative
Observe the affected building and assess the condition of installations on other buildings in the schoolQuantitative (normative)
How did the school authority respond to the emergency?Conduct a questionnaire survey on a sample of respondents cutting across teachers and studentsQuantitative
Why did the emergency response fail?Conduct a questionnaire survey on a sample of respondents cutting across teachers and studentsQuantitative
Observe the affected building and assess the condition of installations on other buildings in the schoolQuantitative (normative)
How can a future occurrence of the fire incident be avoided?Conduct a questionnaire survey on a sample of respondents cutting across teachers and studentsQuantitative
Observe the affected building and assess the condition of installations on other buildings in the schoolQuantitative (normative)

Source: own study

Descriptive studies have the advantage of providing a lot of information that can inform policy (Gray 2009). M.S. Rahman (2017) documented that quantitative findings are much easier to generalise to a whole population or a sub-population. Also, quantitative data analysis is less time consuming as it allows the use of statistical software. M. Demetrius & B. McClain (2012) also reported that quantitative studies provide data that can be expressed in numbers. And because the data is expressed in numeric form, a researcher can apply statistical tests in making statements about the data. Another great strength of quantitative studies is that it provides data that is descriptive in nature (Demetrius & McClain 2012). These advantages notwithstanding, the quantitative approach and methods have been severely criticised. For D.E. Gray (2009), quantitative studies are often not able to provide a sufficient explanation of why an event has occurred. M.S. Rahman (2017) noted that those researches that are based on the positivist paradigm often leave out the common meanings of the social phenomenon being studied. Not only this, quantitative approaches have been indicted for failing to account for how the social reality is shaped and maintained, or how people interpret their actions and those of others. Additionally, the quantitative research approach has the tendency to take just a snapshot of a phenomenon without looking into the meanings and experiences around it.

Another way to approach the problem is to undertake a normative study (Tab. 2.). A normative study compares observed data against some standards (Gray 2009). In this case, the research may consider student dormitories (buildings) in the school as the population for the survey. The built environment researchers would then employ their expertise to collect data on the dormitories and compare these against established standards (such as fire safety codes, building codes, site plan and local planning regulations etc.) to confirm if they comply with fire safety regulations, assess the condition of the installations and check whether or not the fire disaster response arrangement in the school is adequate. This is good but it does have its weakness, it focuses on buildings (objects), leaving out the social actors who interact with the objects (buildings).

Pragmatism, a Compromise Premise for Addressing Socio-technical Issues in Built Environment Research

The preceding discussions suggest that over inclining to either subjectivist or objectivist positions as a premise for deciding on the research methods to employ in built environment research has its merits and demerits. In order to bridge the divide, it is more appropriate to adopt a pragmatic position. Pragmatism is not committed to any one system of philosophy and reality; it gives individual researchers the freedom of choice (Creswell 2014). Pragmatists argue that the most important determinant of the epistemology, ontology and axiology you adopt is the research question that one seeks to answer. Ontologically, pragmatism calls for a multiple view as the best approach to answering research questions. Epistemologically, either or both observable phenomena and subjective meanings can provide acceptable knowledge dependent upon the research question. Axiologically, values play a large role in interpreting results (Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill 2012). Pragmatism is the basis for mixed or multiple method research designs. The pragmatic researcher looks to ‘what’ and ‘how’ to research a problem based on the intended consequences (Creswell 2014).

A pragmatic approach gives us the latitude of combining both quantitative and qualitative approaches in trying to understand different aspects of the fire incident. Accordingly, methods will be employed based on the research question they are most suitable for as illustrated in Table 3. Combining the qualitative and quantitative approaches and methods in the investigation of the fire incident will offer multiple benefits. The use of a qualitative approach and methods, for example, will enable the study to produce a thick and detailed description of the participants’ feelings, opinions and experiences in connection with the fire incident. Secondly, it will allow the research to uncover the inner experience of the participants and also help in fashioning out meanings. Lastly, a qualitative approach will allow for interactive research design with a great level of flexibility. Regarding the quantitative approach and methods, these will make the study much easier as only a sample population (people and buildings) will be considered from which the findings will be generalised to a whole population or a sub-population. Furthermore, the use of quantitative data will benefit from statistical tests in making statements about the fire incident.

Table 3

A Pragmatic Choice of Methods

Research QuestionProcedure/MethodsChoices
What caused the fire incident in the students’ dormitory?Interview school authorities, survivors of the incident and people who participated in the rescue operationQualitative
Observe the affected building and assess the condition of installations on other buildings in the schoolQuantitative (normative)
How did the school authority respond to the emergency?Interview school authorities, survivors of the incident and people who participated in the rescue operationQualitative
Why did the emergency response fail?Interview the school authorities, survivors of the incident and people who participated in the rescue operationQualitative
Observe the affected building and assess the condition of installations on other buildings in the schoolQuantitative (normative)
How can a future occurrence of the fire incident be avoided?Interview the school authoritiesQualitative
Conduct a questionnaire survey on a sample population of the students in the schoolQuantitative
Observe the affected building and assess the condition of installations on other buildings in the schoolQuantitative (normative)

Source: own study

Concluding Remarks

This paper adds to the body of literature by illustrating the philosophical premise for employing social research methods to address socio-technical issues in built environment research. To make this paper a valuable resource for researchers, especially those within the built environment disciplines, a fire disaster that affected a building was employed as an existing problem upon which contrasting philosophical positions were considered before deciding on appropriate methods to employ in executing an empirical investigation. However, we noted that the spectrum of philosophical perspectives, and the methods that result from each, were seen to have their strengths and weaknesses. In order to offset the weaknesses in each approach while also leveraging on the strengths that each approach offers, a pragmatist approach was chosen as middle ground. This perspective gives us the latitude of combining both quantitative and qualitative approaches in trying to understand a complex phenomenon such as a fire incident that occurred in a multi-dwelling student dormitory. Given the inherently complex nature of built environment issues, it is important that, rather than try to align with any given philosophical stand point, built environment researchers should always focus on the problem(s) at hand. By focusing on the problem(s), the built environment researchers will be able to adopt the most appropriate methods for addressing different aspects of research problem(s) that may be identified.

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