I see ontology as what is and epistemology as the philosophy or values behind finding out what is, but also view them as interconnected and fluid categories. Much like it is difficult to separate between the researcher and the research subject, it could be hard to fully separate ontology and epistemology because the process of exploration affects what you find, and what you seek to find affects what way you decide to explore the world. In particular, I found what Schwartz-Shea and Yanow discussed about purposes and how they affect ontology and epistemology to be useful because it demonstrates the biases or underlying differences in how different approaches to research find different answers .
For my research, I don’t believe that I can or want to identify as an objective observer. Part of what inspired my original research question was my own changing perceptions this past year. I had noticed over the past year that the images many womens’ empowerment nonprofits used for campaigns for Muslim womens’ empowerment depicted Muslim women as faceless and hidden by their hijabs, niqabs, or burkas. Despite disagreeing with this approach, after coming out of a meeting with one of these nonprofits, I noticed that my own doodles were all Muslim women without faces or any clear sense of agency. While I had perceived myself to be an objective observer, the images in front of me had seeped into my own perceptions and I had reproduced them without realizing it. In my research, I want to study American perceptions of the world, and in this way, I am one of my own subjects, and I have to consider reflexivity. For example, while Interpretivist research generally avoids an objective observer approach, scholar Parin Dossa points out in her ethnography, Racialized Bodies, Disabling Worlds: Storied Lives of Immigrant Muslim Women, that researchers need go beyond this and actively address how they affect their subjects and how their subjects affect them as well .
I am most interested in invisible structures, norms, and perceptions but part of my current puzzle is understanding how much you can really say exists from an Interpretivist perspective, and how the language you use to describe your findings affect them. Particularly, I’m curious about how theory and methodology might affect my findings. Over the past year, I really enjoyed reading Critical scholars and scholars who wrote in a “storytelling” format, but found both of them limiting. Storytelling has the potential to speak truth to power, but it seems that even well-chosen and well-written stories can be co-opted by dominant narratives when they fail to address the potentially unequal relationship between the research and subject(s) or the power structures that affect the story and its purpose. And while Critical theory outlines the power structures that create oppression, it cannot always address the ways in which ‘oppressed’ groups exist within and work against power structures. Since I would like to research both, I have been searching for a combination of these traditions and have found helpful examples in reading my mentor’s dissertation, “Human Rights in the Post-September 11th Era: Between Hegemony and Emancipation,” which addresses the tools of power structures but also how activists use the same tools to work against those structures.
- Peregrine Schwartz-Shea and Dvora Yanow, Interpretivist Research Design: Concepts and Processes, (New York: Routledge, 2012), 53.
- Parin Dossa. Racialized Bodies, Disabling Worlds: Storied Lives of Immigrant Muslim Women. (Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 25.