Epistemology and research

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When I studied D843 Discourse Analysis, I experienced my first formal foray into epistemology – a concern with the status of knowledge and the associated claims made by researchers.  I am sure I have only had a little insight into a vast topic but I want to re-visit those materials to inform my upcoming research.

Taylor (2001, 11-15) distinguishes two broad composites of different traditions in the epistemological claims made by researchers.

Positivism and postpositivism – historically associated with the physical sciences.  Here researchers claim to produce knowledge that is universal, objective and value-free.  Knowledge produced is the ‘truth’.  Research is expected to meet criteria of validity, reliability and replicability.  We can also use this knowledge to accurately predict what may happen – and to identify interventions.


Critical theory, postmodernism and poststructuralism – more closely associated with social sciences.  Here researchers offer an interpretation which they accept as inevitably partial.  If you accept that the social world is complex and dynamic, you can not expect to make accurate predictions and ‘control’ change.  Similiarly if you accept that researchers – like all human beings – bring their own understandings to their work, then you can not claim ‘objectivity’ or to be ‘value-free’.  So knowledge is partial, situated and relative.

Summarised from Taylor (2001, 11-12) Locating and conducting discourse analytic research in Wetherell, Taylor and Yates (2001) Discourse as data: a guide for analysis.  OpenUniversity/Sage, Milton Keynes/London

Looking at this distinction it seems obvious to me that the second of these broad traditions is closely aligned to the worldview underpinning systems thinking and practice.  Here situations are framed as dynamic, full of interdependencies and with multiple stakeholders each with a partial perspective.  And managing systemic change is about influencing change in a positive direction – not predicting or controlling it.

Somewhere recently I read that research is about adding to a body of knowledge – I remember thinking “whose body of knowledge?” and “what makes that new knowledge acceptable to them”.

If I take a view of knowledge from the positivist angle – then this is about codified, explicit knowledge – a new ‘truth’ and it is judged as acceptable if the method used to generate it has validity, reliability and replicability.  It is the academic community – through their peer-reviewed journals – that makes this evaluation.

But, I don’t take this view of knowledge – to me knowledge can be tacit as well as codified and is situated.  Research – such as action research – could add to a researcher/participants’ body of knowledge, even if outsiders judge that as ‘not new’.  If researchers/participants find the research useful and helpful to take purposeful action then is that enough?  So then, what is the difference between ‘adding to a body of knowledge’ and what I would call ‘ (social) learning’?  Is ‘research’ simply purposeful inquiry within a set of practices defined by the research community?

It seems each of my blogs at the moment ends with more questions than I start with.  But I guess that is okay.

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