15 November 2014

Epistemology Revealed

To define an epistemological approach is to define general assumptions, as drawn from a particular school of thought, regarding ways of enquiring into the nature of the world. Epistemology describes the relationship between the researcher and what she researches. 

I have reached the conclusion that my theoretical perspective is that of Interpretivist. As with ontology, this is not the place to define in detail each of the alternatives; suffice to say a semester of workshops on the various perspectives only scratches the surface. Instead, I will summarise  an Interpretivist approach. The assumptions of this school of thought influence and impact upon my methodological approach and will in turn be reflected in my methods.

Interpretivism has a subjectivist ontology, so first box ticked: my ontological and epistemological approaches correlate.

It is also important to note that Interpretivism can be considered an umbrella term. There are variations covered by this, from the straightforward sounding “anti-positivism” through to a full three way split into hermeneutics, phenomenology and symbolic interactionism. At the core, it carries the belief that the social sciences are fundamentally different to the natural sciences. As I will - at least initially - be adopting a broad Interpretivist approach, (some of) the assumptions of an Interpretivist epistemology to note are:

·         Reality is socially constructed and there are multiple social realities
·         The focus is on meaning as a way of understanding society
·         Social meaning is derived from culture (signs, symbols, meanings) and history
·         It is idiographic, i.e. concerned with the individual, individual experiences and individual cases – it is about people on an individual level
·         Looking at people’s perception/interpretation of phenomena, meaning that while a phenomenon exists, it is possible for different stakeholders to see it differently
·         Research is empirical; phenomena is verifiable via observation and/or experience
·         It considers the subjectivity of human knowledge
·         Looking at lived experiences; what do some people think and do, what problems do they face and how do they deal with them?
·         Looking at that which is specific, unique and deviant
·         It is only possible to generalise inside cases (it may be shown within this group, and may be similar for others)
·         There are no true statements of facts, so no interest in arguing against them
·         Values are binding
·         Limited replicability
·         Describing rather than explaining phenomena; interpreting and translating data
·         Data gathered can generate theory (options for both deductive and inductive theory)

I have come to the decision that Interpretivism suits my topic of research and personal approach to research as it has been introduced to me in class and in my own reading and not just on the basis that I like the sound of it. It fits the proposal I made for my study – I will of course relate my specific research methods and techniques to my research perspectives in my thesis (and perhaps here too) in due couse. However, briefly, core Interpretivist research methods would be qualitative (although not always), use ethnography, be observational and include techniques such as interviews and case studies. Research is open-ended, unstructured and uncritical. I will re-evaluate the research methods and techniques I will be adopting now I have an awareness of social research philosophies, however – thankfully – an Interpretivist approach appears to correlate with those listed in my research proposal, so hopefully it will be a case for tweaking rather than a wholescale rewrite (!) of methods, now I have an awareness of my methodological perspectives.

Interpretivism also fits my own approach to social research. Regarding an Interpretivist approach, there are a few things to note about the researcher’s role/relationship to the research:

o    It is interactive
o    It is co-operative
o    It is participatory
o    The researcher is visible
§  she is self-reflexive
§  research is reflective, perhaps reflecting on power dynamics or the performance of those being observed and disrupting them if possible
§  research can involve the researcher putting herself in the place of another

Where Am I?
So in summary thus far: I am a subjectivist, whose research will adopt a feminist-interpretist approach. In using the term feminist here, I am referring to the multifarious feminisms, and defining my approach as one that will invoke an awareness of feminist issues, as opposed to just one specific or dominant form of feminism/feminist theory.

I am glad to have this part of my PhD settled. I can see why it is so much easier and enables more consistency to understand and apply this now, rather than tag it on in a couple of years time. I can honestly say that it has been incredibly hard work for my brain. My brain is now going to have a bit of time off from deep philosophical thought to concentrate on drawing together my work so far into something a bit more ‘fun.’ Fun in academic circles being designing a poster for the Heriot-Watt School ofManagement and Languages Poster Competition 2014. No felt-tips allowed!

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