Epistemological assumptions – Usher and Scott

UERThis threatened to be rather dry reading, but I’m getting some good stuff out of it. Maybe I’m growing up.

The key point Robin Usher makes in Chapters 1 and 2 is that research is a social practice; there is no Archimedian vantage point (or ‘God’s eye view’) from which we can observe reality. Reading between the lines I wonder if he believes in the existence of an objective reality at all (I think I still do).

Usher compares the epistemological assumptions underlying three different research traditions; positivist/empiricist, interpretivist, and critical theory. He then goes on to discuss a postmodern approach to research, which can’t be called a ‘tradition’ for reasons that are pretty obvious.

The ultimate aim of a positivist approach to research is to predict and control. There is a common assumption that the social world has order, reason and patterns, very much like the natural world, and things don’t happen randomly or arbitrarily. Usher questions this assumption of social order, and suggests that attempts to generalise, predict and control it will ultimately fail. I agree with him, although I’d contend that the natural world can be random and arbitrary too (c.f. quantum physics; meiosis; mutation). Hallucinogens are a pretty useful tool for revealing the fiction of orders, patterns and perceptions, including – dare I say it – the false dichotomy of the ‘natural’ and ‘social’ worlds. So is viewing the earth from space, apparently, according to pretty much everyone who’s ever been there.

As I understand it, this is where critical realism has something to offer; first the reassurance that there is an objective reality (although we may not be able to ‘know’ it), and second the critical realist take on structure and agency. The world has structure (observable patterns and regularities), but also agents that act within and on the structure. The structure of the social world is apparent in the reasons we have for our behaviours. David Scott moves on to talk about this in Chapter 3, and I find it by far the most sensible way of describing the world. More on that later.

Back in the first year, we had to write an essay where we identified our own epistemological standpoint. I found this very difficult. Each time I sat down to write I felt differently, often leaning in multiple directions at once, certainly not seeing the different traditions as wholly exclusive or contradictory.

For example, I feel that my thesis proposal follows an interpretivist paradigm, but my ultimate desire (surely) is to change the world for the better, which should nudge me towards Critical Theory. Perhaps I believe that our subjective interpretations of the world are a good deal of the world, or at least that they are easier to change than the objective world, so they constitute a ‘quick win’ when it comes to achieving some kind of liberation. This perspective would make sense, given the years of work I did using REBT to overcome depression (REBT is built on the Socratic principle of emotions arising from beliefs).

Now I’ve written that, I see how this perspective has underpinned my intentions and actions as a teacher. I openly aim to help my students become happier in their jobs despite the performative context in which we currently work. I loved Leslie Gonzales’ paper in BER-J last year – Faculty agency in striving university contexts – a story of academics not letting the bastards grind them down.

Some might call this a cop-out. In quietly finding our own sense of purpose, are we sticking it to the man, or colluding with him? In my case – my job exists to ‘raise standards’ of university teaching, after all – it is a very fine line. Are freedom, justice and democracy objective or subjective truths, or both? If someone is able to change their beliefs so that they feel more free, more empowered… is that good? I think so. It’s not like I’m encouraging my students to think that things are ok. I think we’re all pretty clear that things are objectively bad, and getting worse, but we’re not going to let it get us down or stop us from affirming and trying to live our own values and purpose (is this a Stoic perspective?).

I don’t think the critical theorist Jurgen Habermas would be impressed; he posits that the raising of consciousness is not sufficient; that we need to understand the causes of powerlessness and act to change our conditions (p23). I like to think that what I do serves in some small way to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them, but maybe it is simply enabling them to become more content with their enslavement. Perhaps I am exhibiting the same oppressive tendency that drove my first boss to hand out copies of ‘Who Moved My Cheese’ before firing us… I’m pretty sure I’ve written about this dilemma before with reference to the promotion of educational technologies, and the ‘enhancement of teaching’ generally.

I had some more thoughts on reading these early chapters about conditions for dialogue and reflexivity & textuality, which have particular relevance to my thesis proposal. I’ll return to them later.

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2 Responses to Epistemological assumptions – Usher and Scott

  1. Ian Summerscales says:

    Really interested to read your comment on the ‘false dichotomy’ of the social and natural worlds. Back in the 1920s A N Whitehead in ‘The Concept of Nature’ – made pretty much the same point referring to the ‘bifurcation’ of nature. Recently there’s been quite an upsurge of interest in Whitehead. In terms of social sciences, Michael Halewood has published very interesting work drawing on Whitehead’s ideas. IF you’re interested.

  2. Very interested! I’ve come across Whitehead a few times . Thanks Ian 😀

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