On competence in research and methods

“Competence in research means more than mastering some research tools in the sense of knowing what methodology to choose for a certain research purpose and how to apply it in the specific situation of interest. Technical mastery, although necessary, is not equal to competence. It becomes competence only if it goes hand-in-hand with at least two additional requirements:

(1) that we learn to cultivate a continuous (self-) critical observation – in the double sense of `understanding’ and `respecting’ – of the built-in limitations of the chosen research approach, both in principle and in the specific situation of interest; and

(2) even more importantly and more radically, that we renounce the notion that we can ever justify the validity of our eventual findings by referring to the proper choice and application of methods.

The obvious reasons for (2) is that justifying findings by virtue of methods does little to justify the selectivity of those findings with respect to both their empirical content and their normative implications. Selectivity is the inescapable consequence of the limitations of any method (which is not to say that there are no other sources of selectivity). That is bad news, I fear, for some of you who base your search for competence on the idea of a theoretically based choice among methodologies. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with this idea – so long as you do not expect it to ensure critical inquiry…” (p. 7)


Ulrich, W. (2001). The quest for competence in systemic research and practice. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 18(1), 3-28.

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