RPP 3: Philosophical Wagers

Ontology and methodology are schools of thought that explain different philosophies of science. Ontology covers a larger image of how we view the social world and how we believe it inherently functions. Namely, objectivists believe the social world exists apart from humans, and has stable qualities, in comparison to constructivists, who believe the social world is constructed by humans, and cannot be traced through patterns or predicted. Methodology, on the other hand, explains the reasoning behind choosing specific methods to complete research on something. Methodology and ontology reflect each other, and their philosophies must align. For example, if a person agrees with the constructivist ontology of believing that humans are agents within the social world, they will also use methodologies that reflect that belief. Therefore, the methods they choose with their methodology will search for explanations of specific instances, such as ethnographies or discourse analyses, because the researcher does not believe in stable patterns or prediction.

I don’t believe that humans can ever truly objectively observe our social world. Empirical data has little meaning until it is interpreted, and our interpretations will always be swayed by our experiences and biases.  Reading Lisa Wedeen’s “Acting ‘As If’: Symbolic Politics and Social Control in Syria,” a great example of constructivist research, forced me to think about this impact.[1]Wedeen analyzes symbolic social behavior in an oppressive Syrian regime up close, as an Arabic speaker but still a foreigner.[2]This experience sets her understanding of Syrian symbolic interactions apart from those who do not speak Arabic and have never lived within Syrian culture, but her perception is still limited compared to native Syrians. These factors are important to shaping the depth of understanding, and therefore, there is no universal and objective understanding of the “M’s” story that Wedeen shares.[3]My belief in impossible objectivity causes me to lean towards interpretivist perspectives, and I need to stay aware that I don’t ignore the potential in neo-positivist research methodologies as I look into my topic further.

One can most easily make valid knowledge claims about physical things, feelings, and interactions because these are observations that can be relayed exactly as they are and without interpretation. Valid knowledge claims can be made about more complex things, such as invisible structures and social norms, but these must be supported by simpler knowledge claims and data.

[1]Lisa Wedeen. “Acting ‘As If’: Symbolic Politics and Social Control in Syria,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, no. 3 (July.,1998), 503-523.

[2]Ibid,503.

[3]Ibid,503.

2 thoughts to “RPP 3: Philosophical Wagers”

  1. Hey Claudia, I liked your point about “impossible objectivity”. I also feel very cautious about our capacity to produce “perfect” knowledge and also have questions about the relationship between knowledge and power. You talk about how “constructivists… believe the social world is constructed by humans, and cannot be traced through patterns or predicted”. Seeing as this implicates the researcher, I’m curious about what you think the researcher is to do with their own subjectivity/bias.

    Do you think researchers as actors in the social world should render themselves invisible in their work, or do you find that self-presence is a more important quality? How should the researcher as agent conduct themselves?

    Second, I’m very interested in your last point about what can be validly studied. You say that “[o]ne can most easily make valid knowledge claims about physical things, feelings, and interactions because these are observations that can be relayed exactly as they are and without interpretation.” If empirical knowledge is systemic observation of these “tangible” experiences, how is this similar or different to both neopositivist and interpretivist thinking?

    If one can use material experiences – like the fact that Pearl Harbor or 9/11 physically occurred – how does this build a foundation for knowledge production (especially since interpretivist do not debate the occurrence of the events but the meanings that are attached to them)? If knowledge generation is equally as implicated in its interpretations as it is with its representations, what can we do?

    Sorry for the barrage of questions, I’m trying to answer these questions myself!

  2. Claudia — you have given us a good overview of your understanding of some of the central elements of our “philosophical wagers” as well as a good sense of where you fall (for now at least) in terms of your own knowledge commitments. Mohammad has also provided you with some very good questions to consider, so I would encourage you to think about those questions (and write some responses!) as you continue to reflect on your own philosophical wagers.

    In addition to the excellent questions posed by Mohammad, I would ask you to develop your reasoning with regard to the last paragraph of your post. You write: “One can most easily make valid knowledge claims about physical things, feelings, and interactions because these are observations that can be relayed exactly as they are and without interpretation. Valid knowledge claims can be made about more complex things, such as invisible structures and social norms, but these must be supported by simpler knowledge claims and data.” Why is this a seemingly natural scaffolding of evidence and claims? Can one really make claims physical or visible things without interpretation (think of how often the same people see the same event/incident yet report it differently!)? Doesn’t the idea of building claims about invisible structures around claims about visible/tangible things reflect more of a neopositivist orientation towards knowledge creation and knowledge building?

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