Research Portfolio Post #3: Philosophical Wagers

Ontology concerns the reality of the world. Before considering the means with which we know, or the ends to which we apply our thinking, we must first decide what reality and being are. For instance, our ontological assumptions about the state of the social and natural worlds necessarily influence how we approach them. If as objectivists we are to believe that the social world is similar to the natural world in that it is governed by universal laws that operate regardless of whether or not we have discovered them, then we are likely to believe that the social world can be measured and that the “footprint” of the researcher is minimal as meaning exists external to the human actor. In this sense, our ontological assumptions motivate us – or perhaps even permit us – to seek transcendental positivist knowledge with the intention to predict. If on the other hand, we depart from a constructivist ontology (of which I find myself persuaded), we would consider ourselves to be thoroughly embedded in and inseparable from our research as actors and producers of meaning.[1] Because of our own role in the study of and creation of meaning, the very role of the researcher is not that of an objective observer but that of an active manufacturer and consumer of meaning. Schwartz-Shea and Yanow put this quite succinctly when stating that “In interpretive research, human beings are understood not as objects, but as agents”.[2] This, of course, includes the researcher. Thus, the researcher’s ontological assumptions impose themselves on what she or he would consider valid knowledge. While an objectivist would think social processes and conditions such as poverty or war operate according to particular “laws” and would therefore seek to measure and predict these phenomena on a universal scale, the constructivist scholar would argue that our understandings of things such as poverty and war are contextually-dependent and informed by different discourses. Instead of seeking to predict things such as war, the constructivist would opt for the study of specific grammars/structures of meaning that define what war/poverty is and how it is understood by a group of people in a specific space and time. Though both neo-positivists (largely composed of objectivists) and interpretivists (consisting mostly of constructivists) can study “issues” or “topics” ranging from war, poverty, marriage, women’s rights, etc., their respective assumptions color the methodology or research decisions to be made. The type and purpose of knowledge generated, as well as the methods (where method is a specific tool used – such as ethnography for example – methodology refers to the totality of choices made in one’s research, including a variety of decisions such as selection and operationalization of variables, etc.) are implicated by our ontological assumptions.

As already discussed, at this moment, I consider myself an intepretivist. Perhaps due to bias as a result of my appreciation for “post-colonial” and post-structuralist scholarship, I find myself very sensitive to the lack of a singular, objective truth, especially due to the mentioned role of the scholar as agent and consumer. Looking at things such as the persistence of Orientalist discourses as well as the long-standing imperviousness of race science and the conditionality of humanity in European intellectual history (ie: Hegelian non-history of the non-white “savage”, eugenics, etc.), I recognize that knowledge itself can often be an exercise of power by asserting one’s authority on the subject/object studied.[3] As such, I gravitate towards interpretivism not because it is contextualized (as Neo-positivism can be cognizant of context as well) or because it is necessarily “harmless”, but rather because its goal implicitly recognizes a multiplicity of meanings and also, to a certain degree, because of the researcher’s self-presence. This is a rather awkward way to say that though Neo-positivism is just as rigorous with all its hypothesis testing and its own set of methodological choices, the criteria for knowledge production as per interpretivism includes things such as “cultural competence, contextually, reflexivity, and trustworthiness/credibility” which more directly or more transparently situate the researcher and their relationship to the subjects under scrutiny.[4] In relation to what can be studied, I am (at this point in time) of the opinion that though things can be real (ie: that Pearl Harbor happened) the meaning(s) attached to occurrences or events are more subjective. In this vein, I do not have a fully-fledged list specifying what things I believe can or cannot be studied, though I do think that, departing from a constructivist ontology that perceives meaning as a result of continuous and dynamic social processes, meaning is also therefore situated as these social processes necessarily differ from place to place and across time. This means that for my research, I am interested in understanding localized constructions of meaning through an interpretivist lens. That being said, I am really excited to try methodologies that depart from other ontological assumptions so as to more critically vet my own.

[1] Abbott, Andrew Delano. Methods of Discovery: Heuristics For The Social Sciences. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Pages 43, 46-47.

[2] Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine, and Dvora Yanow. Interpretive Research Design: Concepts And Processes. New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 2012. Page 47.

[3] Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

[4] Class Discussion September 10, 2019.

3 thoughts to “Research Portfolio Post #3: Philosophical Wagers”

  1. I thought your post was very interesting. I also have some of your similar concerns about objective truths and how that has impacted scholarship concerning post-colonial thought and critical race theory. I think it is interesting how that leads you to see yourself as more of an interpretivist. For me I am still grappling with trusting interpretivist methodologies particularly ethnographic methods. I do like how interpretivist methods are open about situating the researcher in the world in which they are studying. However, I think interpretivist methods like ethnography still create a hierarchical relationship between the researcher and the researched. This relationship is not inherently problematic but I do foresee ways in which it could become so. How are you dealing with this when considering your own research? I know for myself this has been a serious question on my mind. Do you think an interpretivist should ever pursue neo-positivist research to avoid these pitfalls? I really would like your input on this.


    1. Hey Thamara,

      Thanks for your comment! By no means am I sold on the idea that interpretivist scholarship is inherently “good” or always democratic in its epistemology. I still share the same concerns you have and I certainly don’t have hard “answers” to them yet. My thinking is that, flowing from these ontological assumptions of the absence of a singular capital-T “Truth”, interpretivism doesn’t offer a substitute methodology more aimed at conclusive and objective truths but rather tries – to the best of its abilities – to achieve some semblance of that. In terms of interpretivism, it’s also not confined to a single “good” or “bad” method/methodology. I agree completely with your points about ethnography. The book I referenced (Said’s Orientalism) studies how for centuries, the discourse regarding the “Orient” was entirely self-referential. Even European scholars who actually went and lived in the so-called “Orient” perpetuated the same stereotypes and knowledge that came before them. In this way, what appears to be interpretivist (well kind of?) context-specific research or knowledge generation is unequivocally violent. This question is one I’m currently learning more about both on my own time as well as in my classes, but something we learned about is that you have first representation of an Other as static, stable, and essential and then also interpretation. Basically, what I’m trying to say that there is no single “Oriental” that can/should be captured. For example, to study Arabs/Muslims as “terrorists” is of course inaccurate, but this argument simultaneously reifies that there is a “correct” Arab/Muslim that can be investigated. Even a native informant, say an Arab/Muslim who, despite possibly having deeper or more intimate knowledge of self, would not be able to capture this singular “correct” Other because that native informant comes from a specific vantage point/positionality. Really what I think – and this sounds like such a non-answer – is that there are inherent gaps to all attempts of both representation and interpretation. That being said, I believe these gaps can at least be minimized if not completely erased. As for how this can be done, I don’t really have an answer yet. Thanks again!

  2. Overall you’ve given us an excellent discussion of how you understand, and connect to, some of the core philosophy of science concepts that we have been discussing. In this discussion you do an excellent job of connecting your observations and questions to the texts, which is also good. The best part of this particular post, though, might well be the excellent exchange that you and Thamara develop! Keep that conversation going (here or offline) as you have both hit on some very important questions as you consider your philosophical wagers. You are both onto something as you interrogate whether or not interpretivist methodologies are “democratic” (to use your framing) and I would be curious to hear more about what you discover in that regard!

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