Ryan J. Dougherty, PhD, MSW

Bioethicist & Social Welfare Scholar

“Epistemology” and Other Philosophical Words Social Scientists Should Know


April 06, 2022

Last night a great question popped up on my Twitter feed:

What a question indeed. 
In my training as a social scientist, I found that ideas like “epistemology” were granted an obligatory nod, but then were delegated to the realm of philosophy. Perhaps big questions like “What is the nature of reality?” and “How do we produce truth?” are not only intimidating to grapple with (especially in the early stages of anyone’s scientific training) but they can feel almost inconsequential to our social science research questions. Afterall, what drives many of us in the social sciences is a passion to not just study but also solve pressing problems of our time; not to peer into the dizzying abyss of the philosophy of science.
The issue is that epistemology isn’t an issue only philosophers should grapple with. In fact, it’s perhaps not even a question of “should." Epistemology is always all around us - from the moment we ask a research question to when we finally wrap up the Conclusions section in our latest manuscripts. Asking that question of “what is epistemology anyway” is a wonderful doorway into both the foundations and political nature of science. Inversely, not taking time to appreciate the ever-present nature of epistemology is dangerous because doing so passively erases the implicit narratives that tell us what types of knowledge we should and shouldn't value in research. Often these narratives devalue the knowledge of certain peoples or types of experiences. To this end, acknowledging epistemology is a matter of justice.
Similarly, often our assumptions about the philosophy of science are so ubiquitous (and shared) that pointing to them creates great confusion. It’s not unlike this analogy provided by David Foster Wallace (2009):
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” 

With that said, some of us swim outside the current of mainstream frameworks and, because of that, tend to be a tad more versed regarding the available positions one may incorporate in our work.  
Defining Core Concepts
Let’s return to the question at hand. Albeit, I am not a philosopher, but as a PhD, I love to help other social scientists think through how it applies to our work. 
Epistemology is about “the nature of knowledge,” which is a fancy way of asking: “how can we best understand what is true about the world around us?” There are lots of different ways people approach epistemology as a topic in and of itself. (For example, there are some incredible philosophers who spend entire careers asking about the difference between a “belief” and “fact,” or whether if there is a difference at all!)

As social scientists, it may be useful to appreciate these analytical debates (in fact, I encourage it!), but for the purposes of our work, we mostly need to think about how can we examine the social world in ways that allow us to make accurate claims of how things work. This is, after all, what the scientific process asks of us: to produce data that will be sufficient to answer the questions we have!
Think about it like this: if I were to argue that the sky is blue, we first need to ask what type of data is necessary to evaluate this. Is my experience of the sky being blue enough? Or do we need more objective data to break that down – for example, do we need a tool to study the frequency of the light reflected from the sky? How you answer that question is an epistemic stance. However, as you may have already noted, this also depends on what you think reality consists of! Does “blue” exist in the world “out there” independent of our observations? Or is blue really just a set of frequencies interpreted by the brain? These types of questions are ontological questions. (Yikes! this is that abyss I was referring to and it’s turtles all the way down!)
Yes, in the philosophy of science, the concept of epistemology sits alongside the other concepts of: ontology (“what is the nature of reality?”) and axiology (“what role do social values play in the research process?”). Together, these three concepts form various interpretive frameworks and provide the basis for selecting a research method for a project (see Creswell and Poth, 2018).
 
Note that these concepts stack onto one another. First, we need to make assumptions about what the world consists of. From here, we can make assumptions about how we obtain knowledge from that world. Next, we can think about whether and how our own values shape the knowledge we create. Finally, with these assumptions serving as our basis, we can select a research methodology!
On Interpretive Frameworks for the Social Sciences
For any research project, a social scientist draws from an interpretive framework. Again, these frameworks make specific ontological, epistemological, and axiological assumptions: “what exists in the social world, how is it knowable, and what values do I bring in the process of studying it?” Almost never are these frameworks explicitly discussed (save for in books and dissertations of some disciplines). These assumptions are often invisible, acting in the background, and justifies how the researcher plans to do their project. Sometimes us scientists aren’t even aware of the assumptions we’re making! 
Why do we need interpretive frameworks as social scientists? Well, take a moment to close your eyes and think about all the ways a social problem can be studied:

Let’s say, as a social scientist, you want to study violence. You might study the attitudes people have toward violence. Or you might study violent behaviors – perhaps observing a warzone or interviewing survivors of violence. You might also think of systems of violence – such as wars or colonialization - or even violent social structures like white supremacy. But wait - do you see the problem? Some of these things are “concrete” and can be observed more directly (like behaviors), but other factors are more hidden, in a sense, such as beliefs that people hold (that they might not even be aware of!) or broad social systems that manifest in real ways but are otherwise abstractions. How are we supposed to make sense of all these factors? And how do we conceptualize these factors in ways that they can become objects of our study? That’s exactly what interpretive frameworks provide us!  
Where Do I Go From Here?
You might be asking yourself now: well, what interpretive framework do I need to do my work?
One way to start thinking about this is looking at the STEM fields, which rely heavily on positivism and postpositivist. These two frameworks argue there is a reality that can be understood “out there” (ontological) and facts about the world are knowable through logical and mathematical proofs (epistemological). The reason why it’s the easiest place to look to is because this is how many of us are taught to think about the scientific process growing up in school. Axiologically, postpositivism revises positivism by positing that human values do influence the scientific process and should be accounted for in our research.
Some social scientists also rely on postpositivism. (Positivism has been largely abandoned for axiological reasons.) These scientists often collect quantitative data on the world through personal questionnaires, socio-demographics, or behavioral assessments and then run that data through a type of algorithm to study trends or differences between populations (think: regressions, ANOVAs, and all those other fun statistical models). For example, a postpositivist researcher might ask: what are the impacts of introducing healthy meal programs in schools on students’ grade performance? Note that this study involves variables that can easily be quantified and placed in an equation. Here, postpositivism is a pretty useful perspective to have!
Another framework, often contrasted with positivism, is constructivism. This interpretive framework argues that the world, and facts about it, are in part or wholly produced through the assumptions, experiences, and interactions among individuals in society. Yes, sounds very complex, but it’s actually quite intuitive when you start to think about it. 
For example, what is “happiness”? Well, everybody brings to the table their own ideas of what constitutes happiness which is in part formed by broader cultural expectations and norms. Through this lens, one might argue that happiness isn’t a “thing” that can be measured “out there” in the world – rather, it may be best understood and studied as a complex experience produced through a web of social actors, institutions, and cultures. Following this, the best way to study happiness would be to talk to people directly about their experiences with happiness. With this data, researchers might try to understand exactly how happiness is constructed in the lives of individuals and even think about its relationship to broader systems, like capitalism or religion. Indeed, many researchers who use constructivism turn to qualitative methods (like ethnography or semi-structured interview) where they are able to explore phenomena or social systems through the lens of people involved in the meaning-making process.
Other Considerations and Beyond
This blog is not meant to be an exhaustive list of the different interpretive frameworks you might use in your research. There are many frameworks out there – I’ve only presented the two most talked about! Below is a reading list to get you all started, which I’ll continue to add to.
Notably, there is a fascinating (and contentious) history regarding how some frameworks have been marginalized in the scientific community. (Some people call this the science wars in academia. I’m serious – it’s that intense.) Also important to note that some interpretive frameworks are argued to be more compatible with (and even indispensable tools for) the goals of social justice and change.

1. A great introductory guide on qualitative research with a whole chapter on different frameworks!
Creswell, J. W., & Poth, C. N. (2018). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches (Fourth). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.

2. For my social workers, some fascinating readings on the "crisis of social work" and philosophy of science. Highly recommend!
Brekke, J. S., & Anastas, J. W. (Eds.). (2019). Shaping a science of social work: Professional knowledge and identity. Oxford University Press, USA.
Houston, S. (2001). Beyond social constructionism: Critical realism and social work. British Journal of Social Work, 31, 845–861.
Longhofer, J., & Floersch, J. (2012). The coming crisis in social work: Some thoughts on social work and science. Research on Social Work Practice, 22(5), 499–519. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049731512445509
3. A book on epistemic injustice - or how politics of "knowing" play out in our day-to-day lives and world
Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford University Press.

I'll be updating with more resources soon!