My Philosophy of Inquiry

I had to complete this questionnaire as part of a research methods course, but I thought it would also serve as an appropriate introduction to myself and this blog:

1.) Should we view social reality as objective, external to people’s awareness, or should we view it as social constructs built up from the actions, experiences and perceptions of people? Briefly explain your answer.

Reality (social or otherwise) will always be mediated through the perceptions of people. Even the practice of “hard” science – which strives for objectivity – is inherently social, even though the phenomena it seeks to explain are not. Whereas natural/physical “realities” occur independently of human intelligence (e.g. ice melting, chlorophyll production, gravity etc), the practice of observing, interpreting and empirically understanding these phenomena is bound within a social system and is limited to social ways of knowing – which are often inherently political. As a result, this impacts what gets researched, who does the researching, why some things get funded while others don’t – which, in turn, shapes our understanding of reality.

However, unlike natural/”hard” science, I feel that social reality is not something that can be empirically predicted or perceived the same way a scientific law can. With the exception of certain biochemical/metabolic processes, I believe that the intricate nuances of human behaviour – particularly group behaviour – cannot be reduced to any algorithmic cause-and-effect “rules.” Because of this, I feel that the outcomes of “social” sciences are much more divergent and highly context dependent compared to “hard” sciences. In my opinion, the interactions between human behaviours and social environments are so heavily attached to affect – which is much harder to predict, interpret or measure with any degree of accuracy since people change what they do in accordance to their various environments.  Therefore, it seems to me that social realities (and social sciences in general) are much more subjective compared to the natural/“hard” sciences, which aim to be more objective.

2.) What do you regard as knowledge or evidence of things in the social world; what is your theory of knowledge; what are the principles and rules by which you decide whether and how social phenomena can be known, and how knowledge can be demonstrated? Briefly explain your answer.

Because of my background in the hard sciences, I feel that there is an important distinction between ways of knowing in the “natural” world versus ways of knowing in the “social” world. In the “natural world,” things become known through consistent, repeatable empirical observations, mediated through the senses, which are used to develop overarching theories that have some degree of explanatory coherence. In science, a theory has greater explanatory power if it explains more things – if it excludes more false statements, connects to other explanations, and generates better predictions. These kinds of statements are not possible in the “social” world. Human behaviour cannot be isolated from its environment, tested repeatedly or predicted with the same degree of accuracy as, say, a chemical reaction. Knowledge in the social world is not generalizable; it will always be context dependent, it will never be fixed/static (i.e. it evolves constantly), and it will always be subject to interpretation. As Postman says in Social Science as Theology, “there is nothing universally and irrevocably true or false about interpretations. There are no critical tests to confirm or falsify them. There are no postulates in which they are embedded. They are bound by time, by situation and above all by the cultural prejudices of the researcher.” (Postman, 1984, p.28).

I recognize and appreciate that there are different kinds of understanding other than “explanatory.” Ways of knowing in the social sciences and humanities – even when they are based in theory – also have an affective character. For example, we do not merely explain a work of art or a historical event, we experience it, and the experiencing does not stand apart from an explanation but is an essential part of it. I should also clarify that whether it is in natural sciences, social sciences or humanities, I don’t believe it is possible to establish any kind of “absolute truth”; nothing can be known with absolute certainty. However, it seems to me that while “hard” scientific knowledge aims to converge upon universal laws and theories, “social” knowledge tends to diverge into different ways of knowing – embracing diversity, exceptionalities and case studies.

3.) Consider how your answers to the above questions reflect experiences associated with your social group identities (race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, citizenship), educational level, occupation, etc.

When I was 5, I would play the “Why” game – you know, ask all kinds of “Why” questions about everything… Why is the sky blue? Where does wind come from? What are fingernails made of? At that age, I was oblivious to hegemony, racial differences, power and class structures, and political dynamics. I didn’t ask these questions to serve any particular agenda, but rather out of a genuine sense of curiosity and wonder. I would say this sense of inquiry extended into my years of schooling and later into my chosen undergraduate degree in biological and environmental sciences. I recognize that I possess certain life circumstances that enabled me to attend this type of academic institution – and even that my chosen field is socially situated within a broader social and political context.  However, would it be outlandish to believe that my research and the questions I ask are not fuelled by any social or political motive, but rather by a genuine sense of curiosity and wonder about how the world works?