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Thinking about the role of epistemological positioning in research

I have recently had the opportunity to make a presentation about my doctoral research at an interinstitutional doctoral seminar. I have talked mainly about the methods I use. I have received some interesting feedback both at and after the event. There was one comment in particular which made me think: one of the audience felt, that main main problem arose from my epistemological position. He thought that the methods I use do not match it and suggested that I chose a different position, more in tune with my research. Thinking about this criticism really helped me to reflect on my opinion about the role of epistemological positioning in research.

While searching for topic for my doctoral thesis, I have spent about half a year intensively reading on epistemology. It was the first time I had to think about this topic and it was a painful experience. I felt that the more I read, the more there was to it and I was getting steadily more confused by the different views and opinions of the various authors. Finally, I came to realise, that there was no “correct” position that I had to find. Epistemological position describes the way I, as a researcher see the world. How I think knowledge is created and shared and how I believe truth is defined. Describing my epistemological position helped me to realise what views I held on these topics and consequently, how I interpreted research. In my opinion, choosing – or better realising – one’s epistemological position helps to explicate views and opinions on things like truth, knowledge, and reality. It is something researchers should do in the beginning of their research work. Choosing a position that fits your research or changing a position according to the methods I wish to use makes little sense to me.

But if the epistemological positioning is such a very personal decision, does it actually make sense to make it known to others? Brown and Dowling (1998, p.136) compare epistemological position to the researchers’ religion, seeing both out of place in a methodological discourse. I think, that while the epistemological position really is just as personal and subjective as one’s religious views, it influences how we do and interpret research. Two researchers might disagree about a piece of research even because they differ in their epistemological understanding. If the position is not made explicit, they might never realise it. Therefore, I think it is important to state your position, in order to lay a clear foundation for academic discourse with other scientists.

I disagree with the commonly held opinion, that when researchers select an epistemological position, they become bound to a set of research methods. I think all methods are open to researchers of all positions. But the epistemological understanding will influence the way how these methods and their results are interpreted. Hence again the necessity to make ones position explicit and state it clearly.

After making out a case for choosing and advertising one’s epistemological position, I have to admit that it can also easily backfire. Firstly, according to my experience, not everyone in the scientific community has given thought to epistemology. This can lead to misunderstandings, ranging from wonder about the need to state your position to open misinterpretation. Secondly, it is easy to become drawn into a philosophical discussion about epistemology in general and one’s positioning in particular. Although this can be intriguing, it can also become anything from boring to ugly. There are still very distinct barriers between the representatives of different positions, sometimes almost bordering on obsession. Thirdly, if you announce your position (e.g. in scientific writing or a presentation), you might also be expected to “do something with it”. It is not just enough to put it down or say it in the beginning, but you ought refer to it at other relevant places and explain how it influenced your research. This is not always an easy task to do. It takes time, space, and a lot of thought.

Let’s sum up and come back to the criticism of my thesis design. First, I should give thanks where thanks are due. The critic put time and effort into reflection my doctoral thesis and gave me a critical, constructive feedback. And this only for one purpose – to help me get on with my doctorate. I really appreciate it! Now, for the criticism itself: I disagree that my methods do not fit my epistemological position. As I wrote, I do not think that my position could exclude research methods. I also do not consider it appropriate to change my position to fit my method. My epistemological position reflects my understanding of basic issues of science and that is not something you just change when it does not fit. But the criticism clearly shows that I have either not given enough thought to how my position influences the interpretation of methods I have selected or that I have not made these reflections explicit. Since a doctoral theses offers enough space to thoroughly discuss such things, I definitely need to work on this issue.

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10 Responses

  1. I like this thoughtful article very much. It’s a very nice reflection about the problems which may occur through the explication of your epistemological view.

    But some ideas, thoughts or questions on it:
    – So maybe the self-description of a researcher on his/her homepage or in a more modern way the profile in the social networking service should contain this informations about her/his fundamental thinking.
    – Did the critic have the same epistemological position as you?
    – Is a reviewer (or supervisor) with a different epistemological position able to evaluate your research?

    • Hi Hendrik, thanks for your comment. Now to your points:

      Yes, maybe a researchers should use their position as means of profiling. After all, it might be an important criterion for potential collaboration.

      I have no idea about the critics position. His comment was not as elaborate as that. But I don’t think that a different position makes it impossible to evaluate a piece of research. That is if the reviewer is aware of the reviewee’s position and understands its implications. I think that clarity on epistemology might be compared to clarity of definitions. It just help to ensure that two researchers are talking about the same thing – or what two different things they are talking about.

  2. thanx for upding our knowledge

  3. Hi Helena I’ve just come across your blog and am enjoying reading your back catalogue of articles!

    Here you have raised some really interesting points about epistemology which, like you say, I don’t think a lot of scientists consider seriously enough.

    Having just completed my psychology degree, and now heading into postgraduate education, I have found myself questioning more and more the direction and approach to research rather than just focusing on the content. You mention that you spent half a year reading on epistemology, may I ask if you have any recommendations? I would like to understand and clarify my own research position but I am not sure where to start.

    Thanks for a great read,

  4. [...] Epistemology focuses on how we know what we know, and how we justify knowledge. A constructivist epistemology, therefore, asserts that through various constructions, which could include the use of language or discourse, we construct our knowledge. Here, inter-subjectivity is significant. [...]

  5. Thanks, Helena, for writing this journal. I just referenced your blog in my online dialogues for coursework towards my PhD in organizational leadership. I appreciated your candor and insights.

  6. Thanks for this wonderful blog I came across by chance. You have enlighytened me a lot. Our lecturer asked us to consider whether research methods imply particular epistemological positions. I am doing MSc Criminology. Give me an insight on how you would go about writing an essay on that.

  7. Wow! what a discussion to a lost PhD Namibian. I’m struggling with positioning my study in ontological and epistemological philosophical assumptions. I do understand the two assumptions but to position them into my study is a big problem.
    Gisela Siririka

  8. Hi I am an undergraduate student and supposed to understand the meaning of epistemology. Your article really helped me to understand the concept. Thank you!

  9. Thank you so much for your explanation. I was struggling to understand the meaning of epistemology. I now know what it means. God bless you!!!
    PHD student Lucy Jera

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