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Inquiry, Criticism and Reasonableness: Socratic Dialogue as a Research Method?

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Inquiry, Criticism and Reasonableness:
Socratic Dialogue as a Research Method?
Eva Wortel and Desiree Verweij
Introduction
While Socratic Dialogue has been, and still is, used in education and training, it
has rarely been applied as a method for empirical research. The central question
of this article is whether Socratic Dialogue can be used as a research method. First
the relevance of Socratic Dialogue and the hourglass model will be explained.
We will make a distinction between the Platonic idea of a truth seeking dialogue
and the notion of an inter-subjective truth, and we will discuss Martin Buber’s’
idea of a genuine I-You encounter as the basis of Socratic Dialogue. Then, by
examining a concrete case, the utility of Socratic Dialogue as a research method
will be evaluated.
The examined dialogue in this article is part of the authors’ current research on civil-
military relations from an ethical perspective. The aim of this research is to facilitate
a higher quality dialogue between the (inter)national military, (inter)national
humanitarian organizations, and the local populations by identifying, clarifying
and discussing the moral values underlying tensions in civil-military relations,
in this case in Afghanistan. While the researcher introduced the central theme
- civil-military relations in the Baghlan Province in Afghanistan - the fundamental
question did not reect the values, ideas and assumptions of the researcher but
those of the participants, and it was exactly these values, ideas and assumptions
that were investigated.
The case shows how Socratic Dialogue can reveal the (moral) values of the
participants through inquiry, criticism and reasonableness. What is considered
to be reasonable may be regarded as objective, but it has to be borne in mind that
decisions of this kind carry value judgments at every turn and few situations would
be immune from their inuence.
Socratic Dialogue as a research method
Socrates’ philosophy was rooted in concrete problems; he tried to nd answers to
the seemingly simple questions that puzzled him, for example: ‘What is justice?’ or
‘What is a good life?’ Dialogue about questions such as these helped both Socrates
and his dialogue partners to achieve ‘practical wisdom’. Such wisdom, and not the
construction of a philosophical system, was, and is, the aim of Socratic Dialogue.
As Socrates stated time and again, practical wisdom starts by admitting one’s
ignorance and willingness to learn. It implies being aware of and preserving (not
denying or ignoring) what is true, and choosing and acting on this. The person with
practical wisdom knows which choices contribute to ‘a ourishing life’ (eudaimonia)
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not just for his or herself but for all the people involved (Aristotle, 1997). Practical
wisdom, then, includes both an aspect of understanding and an aspect of action.
A person, who claims to know what to do in a given situation but then does not
act on this, does not have practical wisdom.
Socratic Dialogue as a method for empirical research can be used to focus on
relevant questions for the ‘Other’ in order to create a theoretically vibrant and
rigorous research agenda. The term ‘Otherrefers to a person other than oneself.
The concept of ‘Otherness’ is integral to the understanding of identities, as people
construct roles for themselves in relation to an ‘Otheras part of a uid process
of action-reaction that could be, but is not necessarily, related to subjugation or
stigmatisation.
A legitimate question would be whether, with regard to non-Western cultures
(Others), standards of objective reasonableness (coherence, plausibility, simplicity),
which are undoubtedly values, can be applied. The American pragmatist Hilary
Putnam answers that without the cognitive values of coherence, simplicity, and
the like, we have no world and no facts, not even facts about what is relative to
what. These cognitive values are simply a part of our holistic conception of human
ourishing. We are left with the necessity of seeing our search for better conceptions
of rationality as an intentional activity’ (Putnam, 2002, p.15). Apart from focusing on
relevant questions of the ‘Other’, Socratic Dialogues combines empirical observation
with normative assessment. Therefore, they can also contribute to our understanding
of important (public) values. Socratic Dialogue is a cooperative (inter-subjective)
inquiry into the assumptions and values that underlie our everyday actions and
decisions and a collective attempt to nd an answer to a general question that is
relevant to all participants. This question will not be discussed in the light of a theory;
it will be exemplied in a concrete experience of one or more of the participants.
It is the systematic reection upon this concrete experience that forms the basis of
the group’s search for shared judgment about the general question.
To explain what we mean by this, we will make a distinction between the Platonic
idea of truth-seeking dialogue and the notion of an inter-subjective truth. We will
subsequently discuss Martin Buber’s’ idea of a genuine I-You encounter as the
basis of Socratic Dialogue.
Truth in Socratic Dialogue
There is a difference between the notion of truth in Socratic Dialogue as we
propose it (in the tradition of pragmatic theory) and Socratic Dialogue as we
know it through Plato’s middle dialogues. Plato’s concept of truth, as presented
in Plato’s texts, is part of Plato’s doctrine of ideas. Plato propagated the inuential
dichotomy between reality and appearance. He implied a distinction between
two worlds: the world of ideas and the empirical world. The phenomena of the
empirical world, the world we live in, are characterised by Plato as reections or
shadows of their original ‘idea’. According to Plato, what we see and experience
as ‘beautiful’ or ‘just’ is only an imperfect and defective image of what the idea of
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‘beauty’ or ‘justice’ really consists. These original ideas, which are only present in
the ‘world of ideas’ that is beyond our perceptive facility, are therefore not present
in our unstable and ephemeral world. For that reason the ideas are unique, stable
and eternal, and as indicated, we are only able to see the imperfect reection of
the original idea in our world.
The notion of ‘truth’ in Socratic Dialogue we propose is not Platonic, but based
on American pragmatist theory. Pragmatists give up the correspondence theory of
truth associated with metaphysical realism. According to Hilary Putnam, reality
does not have an existence wholly independent of human practices and beliefs.
In fact, these practices and beliefs are a very large part of the reality we talk
about, and reality would be quite different if we were different (Putnam, 2002).
Knowledge, as we understand it, is an abstraction from direct experience and
ultimately informs experience in turn. If we understand the nature of knowledge
this way, the long-standing dichotomy between fact and value becomes problematic.
‘Without inquiry we oscillate between a theory intended to save the objectivity (in
the sense of metaphysical realism) of value judgments isolated from experience,
and a theory that reduces values to mere statements about our feelings’ (Dewey,
1929, p.263). Putnam argues that through inquiry and criticism of our values,
reasonable, and therefore ‘objective’, values are possible. They presuppose what
Putnam refers to as standards of objective reasonableness (coherence, plausibility,
simplicity and the like). Reasonableness means reasonableness for human beings;
standards and rationality that transcend the limits of our own cultural or historic
context(s) (Putnam, 1995).
Inquiry is a cooperative (inter-subjective) activity based on standards of
reasonableness. Subjectivity, in the sense of taking one’s own perception as the
only perspective, can be avoided only by engaging with others — with all relevant
others. In Socratic Dialogue, the participants engage in a cooperative inquiry into
their assumptions and values concerning a concrete situation which applies to their
question. Hence, the question will be openly submitted for testing and inquiry by the
participants in order to clarify, justify or refute proposed values. These judgments,
by the participants, are what we refer to as ‘inter-subjective truth’.
The values and judgments in the dialogues are based on the active intervention by
interested inquirers (the participants of the dialogue), which is not at all the same as
mere communal acceptance. It is not simply the case, that whatever works is right
(which is an often mistaken view of pragmatism). The task of practical reasoning is,
therefore, not just to nd successful outcomes or answers to the principal question,
but rather to sketch out what ought to be reasonable outcomes.
We argue that these Socratic Dialogues can be part of what David Thacher has
identied as normative case studies (which could be connected to both causal and
interpretive case studies) (Thacher, 2006). Normative case studies combine empirical
observation with normative assessment, therefore, they can contribute both to
normative theory as well as to explanatory theory. Socratic Dialogues can be used
as a method in such a normative case study and thereby contribute to ideas, for
instance, regarding what good civil-military relations ought to be about.
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A genuine I-You encounter
The form of Socratic Dialogue we propose (a cooperative inquiry, in common
partnership, into the participants’ assumptions and values) is based on the idea
of a genuine I-You encounter.
According to Buber, in such a genuine dialogue the I is constituted in a conversation
between the I and the You: ‘The basic word
I-You
can be spoken only with one’s whole
being. The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished
by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a You to become; to become
I, I say You. All actual life is encounter’ (Buber,1970, p.62).
According to Buber, the other basic word is the word pair I-It. I-It involves distancing;
differences are accentuated and the uniqueness of the I is emphasised. Here the I is
separated from the self it encounters. An I-it relation is fundamentally instrumental
in nature. I-it relations are oriented toward domination because they are relations
in which the subject (the ‘I’) takes its partner (the ‘it’) as an object. Buber states
that modern society (Buber speaks of the ‘sick’ ages) is characterised by these I-it
relations in which a genuine dialogue cannot occur; in fact the I-It relation could
even be considered a monologue. Charles Taylor calls this the ‘modern malaise’,
which manifests itself primarily in a centring on the self, which both attens and
narrows our lives and makes us less concerned with others (Taylor,1992). In order
to escape this malaise. both authors believe genuine dialogues are required; in
which people meet one another in their ‘authentic’ existence.
For Buber, encounter (
Begegnung
) has signicance beyond co-presence and
individual growth. He looks at ways in which people can engage with each other
fully — to meet with themselves. When a human being turns to another as another
— as a particular and specic person to be addressed — and tries to communicate
with him through language or silence, something takes place between them which
is not found elsewhere in nature.
Encounter is a situation in which relation (Beziehung) occurs. We can only grow
and develop, once we have learned to live in relation to others, to recognise the
possibilities of the space between us. The fundamental means for encounter is the
dialogue. Encounter is what happens when two
I
s come into relation at the same
time.
Buber identies this encounter as a genuine dialogue, no matter whether spoken
or silent: each of the participants really has in mind the ‘Other’ or ‘Others’ in their
present and particular being, and turns to them with the intention of establishing a
living mutual relation between himself and them. This meeting involved in genuine
dialogue is rare, and is, in a sense a meeting of souls. The life of dialogue involves
‘the turning towards the ‘Other’’ (Buber, 1970, p.62).
The Socratic form of inquiry, as found in most of Plato’s dialogues, may not always
appear as such an I-You meeting. As indicated before, some of the dialogues prove
to be quite revealing and even embarrassing for those engaged in the dialogue.
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Socrates questions were in the most part leading questions eliciting no more than
‘undoubtedly Socrates!’, ‘Truly it is so!’ ‘How could it be otherwise?’ (Nelson,
1949, p.13). In this form of inquiry, questioning is used to force people to admit
their ignorance. Therefore, the Platonic dialogues are not always representative of
what we believe a Socratic Dialogue should be about. A relevant question, in this
context, is whether the I-You encounter, the turning towards the ‘Other’, should
be an encounter in which there are no power relations. We argue here that power
relations, which are always present, are not necessarily a problem for the genuine
I-You encounter.
In our view, the situation of encounter obeys the principles of what Habermas calls
‘discourse ethics’ which includes presuppositions such as that no force except that
of the better argument is exerted (Habermas, 1992; McCarthy, 1998). Putnam refers
to it as ‘the democratization of inquiry’ (Putnam, 2002). It does not block inquiry by
preventing the raising of questions and objections by others. At its best, it avoids
relations of domination and dependence.
1
The hourglass model
The hourglass model is one of the variants of Socratic Dialogue described by
Kessels in his book Socrates op de Markt, Filosoe in Bedrijf (Kessels, 1997). We have
chosen the hourglass model because it is in line with our suggestion of a dialogue
as a cooperative investigation aimed at an inter-subjective truth, and it is also in
accordance with the idea of a genuine I-You encounter. In addition, the model is
practical and convenient to use; by its structure it focuses, in particular, on the
values and principles at stake for the participants.
According to the hourglass model, the Socratic Dialogue begins with a general
question of principle which is important to all the participants. Note that this
question is not introduced by the facilitator (the facilitator can introduce a more
wide-ranging theme). It may be extremely difcult, or even impossible, for a specic
group of participants to think of such a general question which is important to
all the participants. This in itself could be an interesting observation which, the
facilitator can address in the group and which can possibly generate different
themes and questions.
The general question of principle will be discussed on the basis of the example
- a real-life situation of one of the participants. A core statement(s) concerning the
example will be formulated, and, in the last part of the dialogue, the rules and
values underlying these statements will be identied (Verweij and Becker, 2006).
1 Paolo Freire, one of the creators of Participatory Action Research, refers to dialogue as praxis; as an
encounter of other ‘is’ opposed to mere ‘its’ (Freire,1972:63). Freire (inspired by Martin Buber) argues
that love, humility and faith (which produce a climate of mutual trust) are the foundation of a dialogue
and not oppression.
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The Hourglass Model
Socratic Dialogue provides insight into the participants’ ways of thinking, the
values that they hold and the preconceived opinions they might have. At the same
time, it also has a normative aspect; it contributes to what we have called value
rationality. Above that, for the participants, it can be a learning process: one often
believes things that, if one really learns to think about them, are incorrect. The
ancient Greeks called this process elenchus, which means rebuttal or embarrassment
(Verweij and Becker, 2006). In asking people to state and defend the moral intuitions
which underlie their actions and their way of life, Socratic Dialogue inevitably
also reveals something about their character. In a Socratic context it is impossible
to defend a position at odds with one’s behaviour since this position is always
related to a concrete experience (to ‘what is’ rather than ‘what one is ought to say’
(Seeskin, 1984).
Becoming aware of the values underlying the core statement and rules, points to
another important process, which follows the process of elenchus, and which is
referred to as maieutics (midwifery). The facilitator’s role is, like a midwife, to give
birth to the participants’ thoughts by asking questions (Nelson, 1949; McDowell,
1924).
To stimulate these two processes, and in order for Socratic Dialogue to be successful
as a research method, much is required from the facilitator. The following
Question
Example
Core
statement
Rules
Values
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qualication criteria should apply. He or she must be:
• Gentle: give people time to think;
• Sensitive: listen to what is said and how it is said;
• Critical: is prepared to challenge what is said, for instance dealing with
inconsistencies;
• Ethically sensitive, ensuring the participants understand and apply the
guidelines of the Socratic attitude and guarantee that the participants
answers will be treated condentially.
• Engaged: is familiar with the culture and associated sensitive issues.
The Socratic attitude
The results of Socratic Dialogue are optimised when not only the facilitator but
also the participants have a ‘Socratic attitude’. This requires an open mind and
the willingness and ability to postpone one’s judgment. This is consistent with
the normative aim that there should be a minimum of domination (xed power
relations) in the dialogue.
This attitude implies abiding by the following guidelines:
• Take your time. A dialogue is a form of slow thinking aimed at depth.
• Listen carefully. Ask questions. Put yourself into the other’s place. See the
world through his or her eyes.
• It is the responsibility of all participants to express their thoughts as clearly
and concisely as possible, so that everyone is able to build on the ideas
contributed by others earlier in the dialogue.
• Abstract statements should be grounded in concrete experience in order
to illuminate statements made.
• Each participant's contribution is based upon what he or she has
experienced, and to a lesser extent upon what he or she has read or
heard.
• Do not think in opposition of the other (‘Yes, but … ’), instead, think along
with the other (‘Yes, and … ’)
• Don’t concentrate on solutions. Examine underlying reasons, values and
views.
• Participants should not concentrate exclusively on their own thoughts, they
should make every effort to understand those of the other participants
and if necessary seek clarication.
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• Anyone who has lost sight of the question or the thread of the discussion
should seek the help of others to clarify where the group stands.
• The thinking and questioning must be honest. This means that only genuine
doubts about what has been said should be expressed.
• Emotions may play an important role. They also should be carefully
discussed and claried. (Kessels,1997)
A Socratic Dialogue example
In order to discuss the question whether Socratic Dialogue can be a research
method, we will look at a concrete example of a Socratic Dialogue. One might
argue that one example is insufcient for discussing this question. However, the
aim of discussing the example is to not to prove that Socratic Dialogue ‘works’ in
all situations; rather it is to identify the advantages and disadvantages of Socratic
Dialogue by examining a concrete example in which Socratic Dialogue was tested
for research purposes.
While we invited four people to participate in the dialogue, two of them cancelled
at the last moment for practical reasons (both of them did participate in other
dialogues). For that reason, there were only two participants. Nevertheless, we
have chosen this case because it clearly shows the values as well as the moral
dilemmas and the related issues for military personnel in Afghanistan. The entire
dialogue lasted three hours.
The theme of the dialogue was ‘civil military relations in the Baghlan province in
Afghanistan’. The participants were two Dutch Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC)
ofcers who had been deployed in Pol-e Khomri, in the Baghlan province in
Afghanistan as part of the Dutch Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). This PRT
team combines humanitarian efforts with military work. The theme was introduced
by the facilitator, the general question was introduced by the participants themselves.
Note that the example does not contain a full transcription of the dialogue, it
reects the main points.
The participants agreed on the following general question:
What is the effectiveness of CIMIC?’
To explain why this general question was important to them, the participants
explained the situation they faced in Pol-e Khomri:
One of the main problems for the local people in the Pol-e Khomri region was
enormous ooding (snow was melting in the mountains). Most people live
near the river in houses made of mud and clay. Since the river was bursting
its banks, most of these houses were ooded or have even disappeared. The
land was devastated and unusable to the farmers. On a daily basis these
local people visited the PRT compound to ask for aid. Our role as CIMIC
ofcers was to advise our commander about what to do with these requests.
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The mayor of Pol-e Khomri was not interested in the situation; according
to him most people were staying there illegally. In addition, there was no
aid from either aid organisations or the local government. These people
had no one else to turn to.
Both participants were able to give a concrete example from their own experience
related to the question: ‘What is the effectiveness of CIMIC?’
The rst participant: ‘What we have been taught is to ask local people to think of
a solution themselves. So we asked them which solution they thought would be
best considering the situation (in which the river had burst its banks). The solution
they offered was to dig out the river. We knew this wouldn’t make the situation
any better but in order to show them that we were listening, I decided to spend
the money to dig out the river.’
The second participant: (who had arrived in Pol-e Khomri when the money
to dig out the river had already been spent) ‘After the river was dug out, the
situation worsened. We went to the location and saw for ourselves that this was a
serious natural and humanitarian disaster. Building a dam was not an option as it
overreached the budget by far. I decided not to help the people and to put back the
responsibility to the governor. We told the people that we understood the urgency
of the matter and that we would discuss it with the governor of Pol-e Khomri. If
the governor had the same opinion with regard to the situation, he would be able
to convene the ‘emergency committee’.’
Because both participants had been in Pol-e Khomri as CIMIC ofcers, they were
both familiar with the situation and consensus was reached to investigate the
example of the second participant (the presenter).
The facilitator asked the presenter to describe the example once more in full detail.
Presenter: ‘The rst plan of the PRT was to dig out the river; by the time I arrived
this project had been completed. Unfortunately, this had made things even worse.
We visited the area and we came to the conclusion that even more houses had
disappeared. People were living in a dreadful situation; it was a true humanitarian
disaster. The only solution would have been to build a dam. However, this was not
an option as this plan did not t our budget. My decision was to wash my hands
of the situation. We would not help the local population and decided to put the
responsibility back to the governor.’
Facilitator: ‘Why did you make this decision?’
Presenter: ‘I felt this would be a win-win situation. The local government would
have the opportunity to do something about the situation and we would be
able to support the local government with diesel and blankets. This would not
take much of our budget and we could perhaps even increase the permissive
environment - which is the main objective of the PRT. In a permissive environment
our mobility and ability to interact with the population is much better than in a
hostile environment.’
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Facilitator: ‘Did the governor care about the situation?’
Presenter: ‘The people living near the river are not related to the governor or to
his tribe; therefore I knew that their well-being would not be a priority to him.
[pause] Nevertheless, we did advise the governor to convene the ‘emergency
committee’. The PRT also takes part in this committee and there is also some (local)
Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) present. We were able to support the
governor with some blankets, fuel and sandbags.’
Participant: ‘How did you feel when you made this decision?’
Presenter: ‘I knew that there was nothing we could do about the situation. I felt it
was best to stop being involved.’
Facilitator: ‘Why did you feel that?’
Presenter: ‘I never had any problems making this decision. I went to Afghanistan
to complete my task. [pause] It might have been a moral dilemma if my priority
had been the well-being of the local people. From the perspective of an NGO I
might seem hard-hearted. I was in Afghanistan to complete my task; which was
to increase the permissive environment.’
Facilitator: ‘What happened afterwards?’
Presenter: ‘People continued visiting our compound informing us about the
situation; those were dreadful stories, and they were asking us for aid.’
Facilitator: ‘What would be the perspective of an NGO concerning your
decision?’
Presenter: ‘They might have looked for alternatives: such as a tent camp or providing
for the local people.’
Facilitator: ‘Would this have been possible for you?’
Presenter: ‘Yes, that would have been a possibility. [pause] But even for NGOs this
was not an attractive project. Eventually even NGOs need to consider the amount
of budget and time invested versus the ‘success-factor’ of a project. They also need
money from donors.’
Facilitator: ‘Can you focus on a crucial moment: an act, experience or judgment of
this situation? This will be the core statement.’
Presenter: ‘My core statement would be: I have solved the problem well’
Facilitator: ‘Is it possible for you (participant) to put yourself in the presenter’s
place and tell us if you agree with this core statement?’
Participant: ‘I agree.’
Facilitator: ‘What would be the rules that underlie this core statement?’
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Presenter: ‘As a CIMIC ofcer you are in Afghanistan with a military task, which
is to preserve the permissive environment or increase the permissive environment.
This situation was likely to harm the permissive environment. It was important
to turn the situation in such a way that we could not be held accountable for not
being able to solve the problem.’
The rst rule: to maintain or increase the permissive environment. (Both participants agree
that this is the rst rule.)
Facilitator: ‘Are there any other reasons why you think you have solved the
problem well?’
Participant: ‘I feel the problem is solved well because the problem has become the
problem of the local community and not the problem of the PRT. For example, if we
built a well in Afghanistan, it would be our well; if it is damaged we are expected
to repair it. If the well is built by the local community, they will consider it to be
their well and they will also maintain and repair it. I believe it is important to
stimulate people to solve their own problems.’
The second rule: stimulate the local population to solve their own problems. (Both participants
agree on this second rule.)
Facilitator: ‘Which values underlie these rules? Let us rst look at the rst rule: to
maintain or increase the permissive environment.’
Presenter: ‘It could be that the military mission is prioritised. [pause] Is this a rule
or an underlying value?’
Presenter: ‘To be loyal to your employer. [pause] The value could be loyalty.
[pause] My aim was to increase the permissive environment. I wanted to do my
task well.’
Facilitator: ‘Was it loyalty or do you think it could be more than loyalty?’
Presenter: [long pause] ‘It is very difcult to describe it as a value. [pause] I think
it is important that I want to do my task well. [long pause] The value underlying
that could be to be achievement-oriented. Yes, I think that is an important value
for me.’
Facilitator: ‘Let us look at the second rule: stimulate the local population to solve
their own problems. What could be the underlying value?’
Participant: ‘The value could be that people can build their own future. [pause]
Is that a value?’
Facilitator: ‘Why is it important to you that people can build their own future?’
Presenter: ‘I don’t think this is important to me.’
Participant: ‘For me it is important that the local population is satised. This will
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increase the permissive environment. If they are satised, I believe they are more
likely to be happy with their lives. [pause] Happiness is also a value. This is related
to the ability to do things independently.’
Facilitator: ‘Would you be able to answer the initial question?’
Participant: ‘It is funny to see that these values: the local population to be satised,
to be happy and to be able to do things independently, are all crucial in achieving
and increasing a long term permissive environment.’
Presenter: ‘That is what CIMIC should be about.’
Socratic Dialogue as a method for value research?
Whereas the researcher introduced the central theme, civil-military relations in
the Baghlan Province in Afghanistan, the fundamental question did not reect
the values, ideas and assumptions of the researcher but those of the participants.
Because exactly these values, ideas and assumptions were investigated, the level
of bias was minimised.
In the dialogue example, the general question was ‘What is the effectiveness of
CIMIC?’ Since, at the beginning of the dialogue, there is no explicit denition of both
central concepts in this question - effectiveness and CIMIC - during the dialogue,
different points of view can be discussed. In Socratic Dialogue the objective is to
identify the values, ideas and assumptions of the participants concerning these
concepts.
Initially it might seem that the general question is just a practical, instrumental,
question concerning the practicality of CIMIC. The North Atlantic Treaty
Organisation (NATO) denes CIMIC as: ‘The coordination and cooperation in
support of the mission between the NATO commander and civil population
including national and local authorities as well as international, national and non-
governmental organisations and agencies.’ (NATO, 2003)
During the dialogue, it appears that for the participants the general question is more
than just a practical question; apparently it is also an ethical question. CIMIC, in
their view, also concerns an aspect of human security: satisfaction and happiness
of the local population.
However, it should be noted that they (particularly the presenter) refer to
human security in rather instrumental terms: in order to increase the permissive
environment. The presenter decided to dig out the river while he knew in advance
that this was not a solution. In fact, it only worsened the circumstances for the
local population. Both participants referred to the situation as a humanitarian
disaster but, at the same time, they did not feel responsible to nd a solution for
the ooding, and they did not feel bad about passing the responsibility to the
governor of Pol-e Khomri.
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It seems that the happiness and satisfaction of the population are only important
because of the permissive environment. Their encounter with the local population
is certainly not a genuine encounter as Buber denes it. It seems the relation is
mainly instrumental in nature (an I-it relation), it focuses on the self and, for that
reason, is less concerned with ‘Others’.
The facilitator could have made these points more explicit by asking at the end of
the dialogue (when the participants formulate an answer to the general question),
if they still understand the question in the same way as in the beginning of the
dialogue.
Apparently, the quality of the dialogue depends to a large extent on the quality
of the questions posed by the facilitator: to stimulate the participants to critically
examine underlying reasons, values and views, and to ask questions themselves.
Since it is impossible to make a list of questions in advance, the facilitator needs to
have enough experience with Socratic Dialogues to be able to use it as a research
method.
One might argue that the facilitator could have tried to ask the participants for a
denition of ‘effectiveness’ at the beginning of the dialogue. The essential objective
of Socratic Dialogue, however, is to discuss the question, and the concepts within
it, in relation to a concrete experience. All insights, including the values and
principles, rendered by Socratic Dialogue should stay in contact with reality and
with the personal experiences of the participants. This is the main reason why
this dialogue can also be part of a normative case study which not only describes
values but also contributes to our understanding of important values relating
civil-military relations.
The example shows that it takes time, and slow thinking, to reach underlying values.
For the participants, it was not easy to formulate the underlying values. There were
some profound silences during the last part of the dialogue. It is interesting to see
that the ‘real’ thinking occurred during these silences. Eventually, the participants
were able to formulate the values they considered most important
2
.
It would be interesting to see what would emerge as the values and principles
regarding this concrete example in a larger group, or in a more heterogeneous group
of participants, for instance, with some people from NGOs or local people from
Pol-e Khomri. On the other hand, it is likely that if the group is more heterogeneous,
more time would be needed for the participants to create and experience an open
and safe environment.
2 Buber also acknowledges that silence plays a crucial part in dialogue: dialogue, especially when people
who are open to an I-You relation, is likely to involve both silence (stillness) and speech. In stillness
there is communion. When people are able to release themselves to silence: ‘unreserved communication
streams from him, and the silence bears it to his neighbour’ (Buber,1947:4)
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Constraints
The above Socratic Dialogue example, as well as other experiences with Socratic
Dialogues, provides background for some comments on the main constraints of
Socratic Dialogues as a research method.
3
The rst main problem is ‘Who Participates?’. One might want to include all relevant
others, but who turns up for the dialogue? Apart from physical presence or absence,
whose knowledge is accessible? People are not equally good expressing themselves,
using arguments and participating in a dialogue. In the military context it is obvious
that hierarchy, and thus lack of balance of power, are not easy to overcome. In the
dialogue example here, the participants did not wear their uniforms so their rank
was not immediately obvious, but it remains an important factor and, if necessary,
it should be made explicit by the facilitator. More generally (although it denitely
also plays a role in the military), gender relations should be considered. As there
is a minimum of woman perspectives in Participatory Rural Appraisals and in
ethnographies this could equally be a problem for Socratic Dialogues (e.g. Mosse,
1994). In order to deal with existing power relations, the facilitator should ensure that
the participants understand and apply the guidelines of the Socratic attitude.
Second, there is a problem concerning the security of the participants of the dialogue.
The Socratic Dialogue example here shows that the process of elenchus and maieutics
allows hidden knowledge of the participants to enter their consciousness. People
might say things which not only embarrass them but which might also put them
at risk. As we stated before, for the presenter of the example it is impossible to
defend a position at odds with his behaviour; and this position might not be the
‘ofcial view’ of his organisation or community. Our advice is that all studies
should include a statement (safety protocol) on how the Socratic interview will
be carried out. Most importantly all the interviews will be entirely voluntary and
condential. Without permission, by the participants, no specic reference will be
made to them.
Trustworthiness and authenticity
As the objective of Socratic Dialogue as a qualitative research method is
fundamentally different from more traditional, quantitative research, the criteria to
determine the possibilities of Socratic Dialogue as a research method should also
be different. In order to further determine the successfulness of Socratic Dialogue
as a research method we shall discuss the trustworthiness and authenticity of this
research method (Lincoln and Guba,1985; Bryman, 2004).
Trustworthiness consists of four elements: credibility, transferability, dependability,
and conrmability. These elements parallel validity, generalisability, reliability, and
objectivity in the conventional research paradigm (Bryman, 2004). Authenticity
3 These comments arise from analysis of Socratic Dialogue as a research method in our projects. Clearly,
there is a continuing need for further exploration and critical analysis of this method.
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criteria, which focus on knowing, action, and fairness, have no counterparts in
the conventional research paradigm, but are primarily demonstrated through
stakeholder testimony and are supported by an audit trail of evidence of fairness
and authenticity. The major reason for Guba and Lincoln’s use of the terms
trustworthiness and authenticity was their unease with the application of reliability
and validity standards to qualitative research. These criteria presuppose that a
single absolute account of social reality is feasible. In contrast with conventional
causal epistemology, they argue that there can never be such an ultimate account
of social reality. As pragmatists argue, it is recommended that we remain open to a
plurality of theories and a plurality of descriptions about the world since no belief
or theory is, in our view, immune to revision.
Inquiry, Criticism and Reasonableness: Socratic Dialogue as a Research Method?
Trustworthiness is made up of four criteria:
Credibility: The establishment of the credibility of ndings entails both
ensuring that research is carried out according to the canons of good
practice and submitting research ndings to the members of the social
world who were studied for conrmation that the investigator has
correctly understood that social world.
Transferability: researchers are encouraged to produce ‘thick description’,
rich amounts of details of a culture, which will provide others with a
database for making judgments about the possible transferability.
Dependability: researchers should adopt an ‘auditing’ approach. This
entails that complete records are kept of all phases of the research
process.
Conrmability: it should be apparent that the researcher has not overtly
allowed personal values or theoretical inclinations to sway the conduct
of the research and the ndings deriving from it.
Authenticity is made up of ve criteria:
Fairness: Does the research fairly represent different viewpoints among
members of the social setting?
Ontological authenticity: Does the research help members to arrive at a
better understanding of their social milieu?
Educative authenticity: Does the research help members to appreciate
better the perspectives of other members of the social setting?
Catalytic authenticity: has the research acted as an impetus to members
to engage in action to change their circumstances?
Tactical authenticity: Has the research empowered members to take the
steps necessary for engaging in action?
(Lincoln and Guba, 1985:301; Bryman,2004:276)
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If we look at the trustworthiness of Socratic Dialogue as a research method, what is
distinctive is that the degree of credibility and conrmability are relatively high.
The output of the dialogue will be credibility: during the dialogue it is ensured
that the researcher’s (facilitator’s) ndings and impressions are congruent with
those ‘on’ whom the research is conducted. Every time a part of the dialogue is
recapitulated, the facilitator has to conrm with the participants the correctness of
that particular summary. Concerning the conrmability, it is apparent that during
the Socratic Dialogue the facilitator contributes no content and therefore his or her
personal values or theoretical inclinations do not inuence the research ndings. The
transferability of the research requires that researchers produce ‘thick description’.
This includes a thorough context analysis including a rich amount of the culture
of the participants. It should be remembered however, that while outcome of the
dialogue is relative to context, including culture, the outcome is not necessarily
similar to what a culture takes to be reasonable.
In order to support dependability of the research all dialogues should be taped.
As seen in the chart above, the authenticity of Socratic Dialogue as a research
method can be analysed by looking at the following criteria: fairness, ontological
authenticity, educative authenticity, catalytic authenticity and tactical authenticity
(Bryman, 2004).
Whether the research fairly represents different viewpoints among members of the
social setting depends on the group of participants and the number of dialogues
held within a specic social setting. If we look, for instance, at the theme ‘civil-
military relations’, it is important to notice that possible focus groups such as ‘the’
military, ‘the’ NGO-community and ‘the’ local population, do not exist as monolithic
entities. Different humanitarian and military organisations may stress, and often
do, different values and principles. Obviously, the same is also true with regard
to local communities: what a traditional leader values may be very different from
what a mother, of the same community, would value.
The ontological authenticity (the research helps members to arrive at a better
understanding of their social milieu) is one of the main objectives of Socratic
Dialogue. It is a learning process and a cooperative investigation into the participants’
assumptions, ideas and values. The fact that this is done in common partnership
means that the research will also help the participants to appreciate better the
perspectives of other members of the social setting (educative authenticity). In
the case of Afghanistan, this could possibly improve relations and particularly
the dialogue between the military, the humanitarian organisations and the local
population.
Catalytic authenticity requires that the research has acted as an impetus to members
to engage in action to change their circumstances. Tactical authenticity asks whether
the research has also empowered members to take the steps necessary for engaging
in action. Following the dialogue example above, it has proved that, since the
participants argue they have an answer to the question which they considered
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relevant during their mission in Afghanistan, catalytic authenticity is achieved.
Moreover, they have identied their core values and principles. Being aware of
their values will help them to deal more consciously with difcult situations or
dilemmas in which these values are at stake.
Conclusion
The results of the analysis presented in this article support the idea that Socratic
Dialogue explicitly searches for values and principles that, through inquiry, criticism
and reasonableness, are at stake for the people engaged in the dialogue. As such,
Socratic Dialogues could be part of normative case studies which contribute to
normative theories about the ideals we should pursue and the obligations we
should accept.
The examined case shows that Socratic Dialogue truly is a systematic inquiry into
the participants’ assumptions, preconceived opinions, principles and values, and
is a critical investigation which always stays in touch with reality and personal
experiences (the process of elenchus). One of the strengths of Socratic Dialogue is
that the participants become aware of, and can communicate about, ‘underlying’
values (the process of maieutics).
It is interesting to see that while Socratic Dialogue as a research method meets
both criteria of trustworthiness and authenticity, in particular it stimulates the
participants’ learning process. This helps them arrive at a better understanding
of their own values, the values of ‘Others’ and could empower them to engage in
action to change their circumstances.
There are possible disadvantages to this method. First, the facilitator needs to be
competent to use the dialogue as a research method, and this requires considerable
practice. Second, the participants’ commitment to engage in the dialogue is a
necessary precondition for the successfulness of the method. This point is related
to the constraints we have identied: who participates in Socratic Dialogues and
the security of the participants.
Clearly, some of these possible disadvantages are time-related. Buber has reminded
us that modern times are characterised by a progressive increase of I-it relations; in
most research, we do, in fact, take interviewees primarily as objects for our study.
The question is whether researchers should also take time to engage in a genuine
I-You encounter in which interviewees are persons who speak to us and require a
response. If we don’t, Buber argues: ‘that is where the It-world, and its knowledge,
is no longer fertilised by the living currents of the You-world, it becomes stagnant,
like a swamp phantom which overpowers us’ (Buber, 1970, p.102). Taking an I-You
approach to research, which implies a genuine dialogue, will be a time-consuming
process, but the effort can lead to a vibrant research agenda with questions which
are actual and alive between people.
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Eva Wortel is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Military Sciences at the
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em.wortel.01@nlda.nl
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professionalism’.
dem.verweij.01@nlda.nl
Inquiry, Criticism and Reasonableness: Socratic Dialogue as a Research Method?
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... This study is advised by literature that discusses the validity, benefits, and challenges of applying SD in a research context. Most prominent are Wortel and Verweij (2008). Using the research paradigm posited by Lincoln and Guba (1985), they argue that the methodological qualifiers "trustworthiness" and "authenticity" are present in SD when researchers ensure that findings "are congruent with those 'on' whom the research is conducted" and the facilitator adheres to a non-contributing role (Wortel and Verweij 2008, 69). ...
... Genuine interest is necessary for a constructive SD because, as put by Wortel and Verweij, the judgements explored in the dialogue are based on "active intervention by interested inquirers" (Wortel and Verweij 2008, 56). Committed participants are thus a precondition for the successfulness of the dialogue (Wortel and Verweij 2008). ...
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