Alexia Gardner's Site

SIS Olson Scholars

Research Post #2: Philosophical Wagers

We begin with ontology, which, as we saw in the lecturelet Professor Boesenecker posted, asks us what is the world out there [1]. Ontology is the first step in knowledge inquiry—it requires a researcher to examine their perspective on what exists in the world. I admittedly struggled to wrap my head around the concept of ontology. The examples of being objectivist versus constructivist have helped me grasp it further. Objectivism leans towards transcendent knowledge. According to Abbott, transcendent knowledge is “knowledge that should apply to all places and times” [2]. Constructivism, on the other hand, states that knowledge is created by us and is constantly in a state of evolution. To put it in terms of Abbott, constructivism leans more towards believing in situated knowledge, which is the idea that all knowledge exists in context [3]. I tend to lean towards taking a constructivist approach. I don’t think a researcher can remove themselves from the world that they are researching, even in supposedly objective scientific experiments.

Methodology provides us the tools to develop knowledge. Without a methodology with which to go about our knowledge inquiry, we walk blind through swamps of information, struggling to create further knowledge from it. A sound methodology is necessary in any research project that hopes achieve some form of validity. For example, if I produced a piece of research and gave no one any idea how I got to my conclusion, readers would have a difficult time believing in my findings. To put it in ontological terms, methodology is the way in which we produce what we know about the world.

I tend to lean towards an interpretivist approach, which Abbott defines as the idea that “there is no meaning without interaction and hence no measurement in the abstract [4]”. In other words, the social world is not objectively measurable and all knowledge exists in context. As I mentioned earlier, I do not believe that we can be objective observers of the social world. For example, with my research project studying women that are a part of organizations that partake in violence, I cannot remove my identity as a woman or a daughter of a former military member from my research. It inevitably effects how I will conduct my research. However, as with all research projects, my research can also be done with a small-n/neo-positivist approach.

I believe you can make valid knowledge claims about anything that exists in theory. In one of my other classes, we studied Plato’s Theory of Forms, which, to put it very basically, is the idea that we all have a pre-conceived idea of the form of everything that exists in the world, including ideas (like Form of the Good) [5]. These forms represent the most complete reality of these ideas. Connecting this back to creating knowledge claims, Form of the Good, for example, is not something you can see with your eyes, nor is it even an idea that is easy to grasp. However, that does not prevent us from studying it or making claims about it. The very fact that it exists in our minds means it can be studied.

M’s story, as presented in Lisa Wedeen’s article, provides another example of this. Wedeen hears of M’s story, in which M, a member of Asad’s army, replies to a question from his commanding officer about what his dream with “I saw that my mother is a prostitute in your bedroom” (503). Wedeen acknowledges that the story may be fictitious, but the very fact that it exists, even in fiction, can tell us something about Syria, the Asad regime, and why regimes ask for external evidence of loyalty. Thus, even if the story isn’t “true,” it still has value—it’s very existence allows it to be studied.

On that note, I think it’s important to realize that regardless of where I personally fall on the spectrum of neo-positivism/interpretivism, I intend to let my research process guide me towards which one fits my puzzle the best.

 

Notes

[1] “Philosophy of Science” (Kaltura, 2017), accessed August 30th, 2018, https://blackboard.american.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_171974_1&content_id=_4156351_1&mode=reset.

[2] Andrew Abbott. “Basic Debates and Methodological Practices,” in Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences, ed. Jeffrey C. Alexander (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), 53

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 52

[5] Plato, “Republic: Book VI”, MIT Classics, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.7.vi.html.

[6] Wedeen, Lisa. “Acting “As If”: Symbolic Politics and Social Control in Syria.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 40, no.3 (1998), 503

 

Bibliography

Abbott, Andrew. “Basic Debates and Methodological Practices,” in Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences, ed. Jeffrey C. Alexander. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004, 3-79.

“Philosophy of Science.” Kaltura, 2017. Accessed August 30th, 2018.             https://blackboard.american.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=            _171974_1&content_id=_4156351_1&mode=reset.

Plato. “Republic: Book VI,” MIT Classics, (Accessed: September 2018).

Wedeen, Lisa. “Acting “As If”: Symbolic Politics and Social Control in Syria.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 40, no. 3 (1998): 503-23.

3 comments

  • Hi Alexia,
    I really enjoyed the way that you tied in the Plato reading from our other class to the internal discussion we are having now with ourselves as researchers. The fact that you even tied these two concepts exhibits, at least to me, that you are a thinker that navigates in terms of inherent similarities. In other words, Abbott would characterize you as an “S” person. Acknowledging this is an important first step in reflecting on your own intellectual personality as well as which intellectual habits may have implications during your research process. Other implications that you should be cognizant include those that come from your personal moral assumptions. I am glad to see that you addressed your agency as a daughter of an ex-military officer. In what ways do you think this part of your identity may manifest itself in your research process? The more you think about this now, the more prepared you might be to anticipate and recognize these manifestations later on. All in all, I think that you have a good grasp on what the tradeoffs are when choosing one pole of an ontological or methodological debate over the other. Good luck!

    Reply
  • Alexia,
    I loved your comment about the Theory of Forms, and not just because I’m in that class with you. I wholeheartedly agree that it’s important to recognize truth as not being necessarily tied to a physical reality. I feel the same way about Yoga that you do about the Theory of Forms – even if I don’t necessarily subscribe to the spiritual aspect, it can useful as a mental heuristic for addressing problems. One thing I would add to your post is that, as Abbott talks about, if you subscribe to the interpretivist ontological perspective, your identities as a woman and as the daughter of a servicemember can be leveraged into strengths instead of limitations. Interpretivism, as I understand it, frees you from the constraints of trying to attain an impossible “objectivity” and allows you to embrace your own perspective and understanding of symbolic meanings tied to certain identities. Love your post!

    Reply
  • A very good post, Alexia–you have given some thought to these important debates and to where your own commitments fall, and that is exactly what we need to be doing at the moment. You’ve also received some good comments from some of your classmates. As you think about the fact that you lean towards Abbott’s description of interpretivism, what does that mean for the types of knowledge claims that you can make? What constitutes valid knowledge for you?

    Reply

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