Coming to grips with epistemology

Long time no blog. I’ve been mostly working on my PhD manuscript, but decided to take some time away from it today to reflect a bit on one aspect of it that’s been eluding me for most of the time I’ve been doing it, the issue of epistemology, or the stance toward knowledge I take in my thesis. This is mostly me thinking out loud, but getting it down helps to cement the knowledge a bit better in my mind, and if it leads to an interesting conversation, then all the better; there a very few people in Toyama that I can discuss these kinds of things with.

I was reworking my PhD’s Research Methods chapter for most of April, and one of the (many) issues I’ve been struggling with is the stance taken in my thesis toward what is knowledge, or epistemology, which my supervisors have said wasn’t well formed enough in my initial version of the chapter, and which they felt was still too focused on methods rather than methodology in the subsequent writing I tried to do on it.

The advice, as usual, was to do more reading, and I was skeptical that reading even more on the topic would help me to break through the coded language that seems to surround the topic. I was pleasantly surprised to discover I was wrong.

The paper that finally helped me to get a glimpse of what the discussion of epistemology concerns, even if figuring out how to write about it myself remains a challenge I haven’t come to terms with yet, was Agger’s 1991 paper on critical theory, poststructuralism, and postmodernism:

Agger, B. (1991). Critical theory, poststructuralism, postmodernism: Their sociological relevance. Annual Review of Sociology, 17, 105–131.

I think what made the manuscript more approachable was partly that Agger is based in the US, and so the vocabulary he uses is easier for me to wrap my head around; he also appears interested in introducing the schools of thought and some of their historical developments to people who aren’t already familiar with them, rather than some of the other work I’ve read, which assumes familiarity with these different ways of thinking and uses that as a jumping off point for discussion and argumentation.

Specifically, the term ‘method’ and the related terms ‘method’ and ‘methodology’ appear 61 times in the paper (I love Mendeley Desktop‘s ability to annotate and quickly search PDFs). Throughout the manuscript, Agger is constantly saying that one of the assumptions of social science to date is that the ‘problem’ of research and researchers was to identify and implement the best possible ‘methods’ for their research, i.e., the research tools used for the circumstances of their investigations, to answer the research questions asked. He points out that critical theory, poststructuralism, and postmodernism are tools that allow for questioning more than the methods used; they allow researchers to query the assumptions that lie behind their research methodology, or the research questions they are asking, assumptions that are (generally invisibly) guiding their research.

As I was reading, I kept running across the term methods and wondering what Agger was trying to get at by constantly problematizing the methods of research, and a some point in my reading of the manuscript, I finally saw that he was trying to say that setting up a research project to explore some phenomenon inevitably results in making assumptions about how the world is organized, and that not questioning those assumptions results in an implicit agreement with said social organization. Deep into the paper, on page 113, he gives a concrete example of this:

Where the status-attainment researchers of the Blau-Duncan (Blau & Duncan 1978) tradition defined mobility with respect to the occupational status of one’s father, a deconstructive reading would reveal the profound assumptions about the gendered nature of work as well as about male supremacy that underlie this methodological choice. More recent feminist scholars (e.g. Bose 1985) challenge the operationalization of occupational status in terms of father’s occupation because, they argue, this represents a powerfully ideologizing subtext that (a) leads people to think that only men work, or should work, and (b) misrepresents reality where, in fact, women work outside the home for wages.

As an example, this helped me better understand what he was getting at. There are further insights that can be read into the assumptions made in the example above, such as that status is merely a measure of one’s ‘occupational status’, that unpaid work, such as child reading, is left out of the research equation, and that there are merits to measuring the accomplishments of children against the career status of their parents. It isn’t that making any of those assumptions is necessarily the wrong thing to do in research, but to not make what assumptions were made in the research explicit is what Agger (and the theorists in the different schools of thought he reviews) point to as problematic.

Well, OK, some of the theorists would go farther and say the way of thinking in positivist research is fundamentally problematic, but while acknowledging some of the more radical interpretations of the research traditions he discusses, Agger appears more interested in taking a middle road of explaining that opening up research to critique of the assumptions underlying that research (critique of its epistemology)  is a net positive for the research field overall, as it allows for questioning how society is organized, rather than exclusively perpetuating the current social organizational order.

As he puts it on pages 114-115:

Methodology can be read as rhetoric, encoding certain assumptions and values about the social world. Deconstruction refuses to view methodology simply as a set of technical procedures with which to manipulate data. Rather, methodology can be opened up to readers intrigued by its deep assumptions and its empirical findings but otherwise daunted by its densely technical and figural nature. To put this generically, deconstruction can help reveal the values and interests suppressed far beneath the surface of science. This politicizes and democratizes science by opening its text to outsiders, allowing them to engage with science’s surface rhetoric more capably as well as to contest science’s deep assumptions where necessary…

I would agree that, particularly in an investigation of authors writing for academic publication, the topic of my thesis, it is important to try to bring the assumptions underlying the research to light, and to address issues of methodology (epistemology, or the assumptions underlying the research questions asked) in addition to the issues of the methods of the research (the decisions I made with respect to how I conducted my investigation to answer the research questions asked). So well done to my supervisors for telling me to keep reading.

What was it about this particular paper that finally opened my eyes to what the debate is about? I think part of it is that Agger, in 1991, was writing for a US audience that (he seems to assume) isn’t that familiar with the different schools of thinking that he discusses. His paper is fundamentally trying to tip an established order, but it reads like that order is already tipping, and he’s offering researchers tools to upset it further, tools that he’s imported from European schools of thought and which he feels could find fresh purchase in US sociological circles.

He also deals with some of the history of the ideas; who wrote about them, and what the relationship is between some of the main characters. That’s the kind of story I can relate to, rather than a more abstract discussion of the ideas disembodied from the people who came up with them, which is how much of the research I’ve read seems to treat the material. That he explains who is with and against who, and some of how the different schools have fractured and intermixed, helps me to understand the story of how some of the thinking on this matter has evolved, which makes it easier for me to wrap my head around what these schools of thought appear to be seeking to accomplish in terms of questioning dominant paradigms of academic research.

Finally, his language is approachable, at least in my opinion. He uses methods and methodology a lot, but he picks those words and sticks to them, rather than slipping into the jargon of philosophy. He uses epistemology only three times, and ontology not once. That may make what he has to say sound simplistic to those authors I’ve read that strew their texts with these more sophisticated terms, but it also makes it possible for me to parse what he has to say without my eyes glazing over at particularly complex stretches of prose.

Do you have another reading on this topic that you would recommend? Do you think I got some detail wrong here? Let me know; I would be happy to have a conversation that deepened my understanding of this topic even further, as long as it doesn’t take too much time away from my thesis writing.