Climbing the epistemic mountain

Epistemology frames our assumptions about 'knowledge'; it spells out what we mean when we say that we 'know' something. For example, constructionist epistemology assumes that meanings are constructed in an ongoing social practice. So when I analyze data, my task is to put my finger onto ever-changing processes. Constructionist epistemology also posits that meaning is contextual and situational. As an analyst, I should therefore continually explore contexts, and I should apply strategies that take into account fluctuating situational meanings.  Epistemology raises a problem (what does it mean to know something), and methods can take these problems into account. But methods do not solve those problems. Does this mean that our methods are useless?

Think of epistemological problems as if they were mountains – and note that these mountains can take all kinds of shapes and sizes. Different epistemologies present us with different mountains, which can be seen and approached from different angles. Now think of research methods as if they were tools and techniques used by a mountaineer. A mountaineer does not use hooks, ropes and footwork to make a mountain go away, or to make gravity disappear. Her tools and techniques allow the mountaineer to engage with the mountain, to work with the problem or challenge. She employs her tools and techniques alongside the face of the mountain.

Methods do not eradicate or neutralize epistemological problems – instead, they allow us to engage with those problems in a controlled, yet creative way. As researchers, we are climbing alongside our epistemological issues; we are merely scratching their surface, hammering crude hooks into the face of a mountain in order to proceed.

magc mountan 4  by Kasper Pincis ( ). Image used with artist's permission. 

magc mountan 4
by Kasper Pincis ( Image used with artist's permission. 

Where are we going? Maybe we traverse upwards – at least we might believe that. We’re often sidestepping, struggling for grip, loosing inches that were painstakingly gained moments ago. At times, an overhang seems impenetrable (that’s when climbing with a trusty team is really helpful); at times we get stuck, so we to turn around (that’s when documentation that lets you back-track comes in handy); at times we are forced to descend before moving towards what we think may be a cloud-covered peak. As we're climbing, we often stop and look at the world around us. We catch a breath and reflect with our fellow mountaineers.

We gain new perspectives through this climbing process. We gain new perspectives because the problems - the mountain - still exist and persist. It is the active engagement with the problems, and not their solution that leads us to new perspectives.

Methods allow us to see the world differently. Methodological thinking is a conscious departure from the way we think in our everyday lives. This is the value and contribution of methods-driven analysis. We gain different perspectives - insights and farsights - because we work with the problem. We go towards it, we lean into it, we work alongside it. We suspend beliefs as much as we can, we explore contexts as much as we can, we remain open as much as we can, we engage in reflexive thinking as much as we can, we question ourselves and all the actions described in this sentence as much as we can.

In research, then, we do not only stand on the shoulders of giants. At the same time, we hang on to the face of a massive, unsolvable problem. 

 A Note on Teaching

Concrete research methods do not provide us with solutions for problems posed by epistemology. I think that conveying the notion that qualitative methods don't solve epistemological problems is a central challenge for methods educators. We want to make sure that we don't lose our learners because they think that qualitative methods are 'useless' or 'not doing their job'.  I think that this is specifically important when learners are suspicious of qualitative approaches. Instead, I think that it is helpful to emphasize the procedural nature of methodological thinking, and to emphasize how analysis is always a compromise. Our methods help us with making these compromises consciously, reflectively, ethically, openly, creatively.

More on constructionism in particular, and on the connection between epistemology & methods in general: Crotty, Michael. (2003). The foundations of social research: meaning and perspective in the research process. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.