13 It’s Not About a Gap in the Literature: Distinctive Strengths and Demands of Practice-Oriented Doctoral Education

Marilyn Taylor

Over nearly a decade of teaching in the Doctor of Social Science program at Royal Roads University (RRU), I have observed the enormous strengths of practice research as well as its distinctive demands in achieving quality and integrity.

Practice Research—Why Now?

There are now trends driving social research beyond academe into the wider world in what Smets et al., (2017) call a “practice turn”. Gibbons (2000) and his colleagues attribute this trend to broad societal changes (e.g. uncertainty, complexity, self-organization) that call for “knowledge [to be] produced in the context of application involving a much broader range of perspectives” and “transdisciplinary…and more socially accountable and reflexive” (pp. 159, 160) social inquiry. Related to this, complexity science challenges “universal value of reductionist explanation” (Byrne & Callaghan, 2014, p. 57) as adequate to account for “social emergence and the capacities of human agency” (p. 9). These themes underscore the significance of “context” as a critical element in knowledge creation that generates relevant action (Gibbons, 2000; Flyvbjerg, 2001). Accelerating this, of course, is the urgency to resolve global problems that threaten the planet which are inherently social (Homer-Dixon, 2020).

Strengths of Doctoral Education for Practice Research

Cultivation of Student/Graduate Continuing Research Commitment

Conventional doctoral research (Ph.D.) has been seen primarily as training and demonstration of skills—research, documentation, and communication (Isaac et al., 1992). In conventional programs students are expected to begin by finding a gap in the discipline’s literature and/or to focus on a research project associated with the supervisor’s research agenda. In applied social science doctoral education with practice related admission requirements, mid-career students arrive with a compelling interest in a social research problem that they have experienced the need to address. In nearly a decade of teaching, I have rarely observed a complete change in research theme. Instead, students deepen their understanding of, and commitment to, their research focus. For many, the dissertation research becomes the first step in an ongoing program of research and practice.

Enrichment of the University and its Faculty in Practitioner Knowledge

In carrying their research theme throughout the course work, students educate those of us who teach and supervise dissertation research about their worlds of practice. Assignments typically involve situating course material in relation to students’ research themes which, in reading their work, we must understand. As we, the faculty, expand our understanding of the wider world, the University is linked through its faculty to the world it serves. This ‘virtuous circle’ advances our capabilities, individually and institutionally, to foster the future connections between research and practice.

Demands of Doctoral Education Oriented to Practice Research

Recognition and Respect for Diverse Social Science Research Traditions

When practical benefit becomes a focus, the range of relevant methodological possibilities often transcends any one given research tradition. The practice researcher balances two commitments—first, the specific practical benefit(s) envisioned, and second, the selection and capable application of relevant social science methodology(ies). Knowledge of a methodological range and their respective strengths and limitations becomes critical. Further, an understanding of their different formative intellectual origins expands the practice researcher’s capabilities to make judicious choices and to establish optimally helpful partnerships with other researchers.

Comprehensive Practice Researcher Reflexivity

The importance of epistemic and methodological reflexivity, that is, making explicit one’s views, values and research practices that influence research decisions and, in turn shape the research outcomes that emerge in the second half of the 20th century in social science (Alvesson et al., 2008). In practice research, however, further ‘layers’ of reflexivity and researcher positionality include attention to the political and ethical dimensions generated by the integration of formal research and research partners in a context of practice (Freshwater, 2001).


Alvesson, M., Hardy, C., & Harley, B. (2008). Reflecting on Reflexivity: Reflexive Textual Practices in Organization and Management Theory. The Journal of Management Studies, 45(3), 480.

Byrne, D. S., & Callaghan, G. (2014). Complexity theory and the social sciences : the state of the art [1 online resource (vi, 297 pages)]. Retrieved from http://www.AUT.eblib.com.au/EBLWeb/patron/?target=patron&extendedid=P_1386433_0

Flyvbjerg, B. (2001). Making Social Science Matter: Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again. Cambridge, UK Cambridge University Press.

Freshwater, D., & Rolfe, G. (2001). Critical reflexivity: A politically and ethically engaged research method for nursing. NT Research, 6(1), 526-537. doi:10.1177/136140960100600109

Gibbons, M. (2000). Mode 2 society and the emergence of context-sensitive science. Science and Public Policy, 27(3), 159-163. doi:10.3152/147154300781782011

Homer-Dixon, T. F. (2021). Commanding hope: the power we have to renew a world in peril. Toronto: Vintage Canada.

Isaac, P. D., Quinlan, S. V., & Walker, M. M. (1992). Faculty Perceptions of the Doctoral Dissertation. The Journal of Higher Education, 63(3), 241-268. doi:10.2307/1982014

Smets, M., Aristidou, A., & Whittington, R. (2017). Towards a practice-driven institutionalism. The Sage handbook of organizational institutionalism, 384-411.