Chapter 3. A Short Chapter on Epistemology (How Do We Know What We Know?)

What Is Epistemology? A Short Introduction

Epistemology is the name we give to the cluster of questions we have about how we (humans) know things about the world. As beings made up of matter with various sensory organs, our ability to “grasp” the world out there is constrained by those sensory organs and the matter (e.g., brain) we use to process what our senses take in. How do we know that what we see with our eyes is actually out there in the world and not an image that our brain projects or manipulates? How do we know we are not living in someone else’s imagination or having images and thoughts live-streamed into our consciousness? What, after all, is our consciousness? Those are difficult questions, impossible to answer, which is one of the main conclusions of those who ask epistemological questions. It is difficult to know what is real! On a more prosaic level, closer to home, we are asking epistemological questions when we address the shortcomings of our ability to know what someone else is thinking or what some social fact or circumstance actually means to other people.

Qualitative researchers tend to ask these kinds of questions all the time. They are at the heart of why we engage in the kinds of methods we engage in. For example, we are sometimes skeptical of large-scale surveys because we think that people’s answers are not so clearly understood as a yes-or-no response or multiple-choice answer would have us believe. Take a question that asks college students to rate their satisfaction with their university’s response to COVID, on a scale of one to ten. First of all, we don’t know how people are using the scale and what a particular number ranking means to them. Second, we don’t really know what aspects of the university response different people will be responding to. Maybe one person didn’t like the mask policy, so they scored a two, while someone else really enjoyed remote learning, so they scored a ten, and yet another person didn’t have time to complete the survey, so they quickly answered all questions with a five. How do we know that the average response of seven reflects a reality that the response was, overall, more positive than negative? What do we really know from this about the university’s response? To be fair, a skilled survey researcher will be able to write questions that reduce some of these ambiguities, but they will never be able to completely get at the reality of the situation. Nor will a qualitative researcher, although at least they will be able to sit down with a person, ask follow-up questions as needed, and urge the person to explain their answers as thoroughly as possible to get closer to the truth.

The above example also helps explain why we sometimes use quantitative and sometimes qualitative research methods. Surveys are terrible at capturing subtle and personal evaluations because they do not allow for probing questions and follow-up conversations. They are much better at recording simple data, such as “Did your university move to remote learning during COVID?” There is less ambiguity possible there, as the meanings of the various words and the question overall are less subject to multiple interpretations. When we are interested in the meanings of actions, evaluations, and personal understandings, qualitative research methods are more likely to get us closer to the “truth” of the matter we are pursuing.

They will still not get us to the full truth, however, as the full truth is unknowable. This is an epistemological statement with which most qualitative researchers would agree. This is in contrast to how much natural science proceeds. [1] Quantitative research attempts to follow a scientific model, where reality may be difficult to know but remains possible. Qualitative researchers also follow a scientific model but are less prone to positivist thinking. They are sometimes more like historians than biologists in that they acknowledge that, at least for people, there is no one single reality but refractions of reality through multiple perspectives.

Epistemological Approaches

At some point, every qualitative researcher has to grapple with the limits of our knowledge and come to terms with that limitation. Over time, various approaches to this problem, or epistemological perspectives, have been developed. As a beginner, you might find one of these perspectives more attractive than others, but it is probably best to use this section as a reference for later, when you yourself begin to wonder what it is you can really know about the questions you are asking, the people you are listening to, and the context in which you have situated your study. Think of this chapter as a companion and guide for when those questions inevitably come up in your research. Each of the following perspectives provides a grounding for deciding what knowledge is even possible and then how you, the researcher, can best go about acquiring that knowledge as accurately and reliably as possible.

Epistemological Perspective 1: Objectivism

Basic statement of knowledge: Meaning and reality exist independently (outside) of any particular consciousness.

Objectivism holds that there is a reality independent of our minds. Researchers are tasked with finding that independent reality and reporting back to the rest of us about what it is. This perspective is widely adopted by quantitative researchers (see the survey question example above). Those who adopt this perspective believe that it is possible to get at some objective truth if the appropriate tools are used well.

Epistemological Perspective 2: Subjectivism

Basic statement of knowledge: There is no meaning or knowable reality independent of the meaning or reality constructed by particular consciousnesses.

Subjectivism holds the opposite of objectivism: there is no reality we can know independent of our minds. Now, this is not a statement about reality itself. That is an ontological (“being”) question. It is only a statement about what is knowable (this is what makes it an epistemological issue). Take the film The Matrix. Neo, the protagonist, is offered a red pill to “wake him up” to the reality that his entire existence has been an illusion, implanted while he slept attached to tubes, his body providing an energy source for an entirely other reality than the one he has been “dreaming.” What is actual reality is not known reality at all. Those who adopt a constructivist perspective recognize that we don’t have access to red pills that allow us to see “what is really real.” Our knowledge is only of what we think is true, putting aside what might actually be true. When we talk to Neo, it will be a Neo without access to a red pill. We can still learn a lot from Neo about the world he lives in, even if it is more properly only the world he thinks he lives in.

Epistemological Perspective 3: Constructivism

Basic statement of knowledge: People construct meaning from facts, events, and the reality out there.

Like subjectivism, constructivism rejects the idea that we can know reality independently of the people who interact with it. Unlike subjectivism, constructivism places the stress not on the individual consciousness but on the interaction between thought and the world. There is something out there, but I can only partially grasp it and thus partially understand it. What I see (hear, taste, sense) will be influenced by the context I find myself in and the historical forces that help shape my understanding of the world. We are using this perspective when we talk about people seeing different realities, as in the case of a police officer shooting an unarmed Black man, where each perceives a mortal threat. One may be more “accurate” than the other in their perception of reality, but that is a value judgment (axiology issue) separate from the epistemological issue. Researchers try to understand the reality as apprehended by various others. They do not presume to know the actual reality, as that is, epistemologically speaking, impossible to do.

Epistemological Perspective 4: Critical Realism

Basic statement of knowledge: People cannot know “reality.”

This is a genuinely alternative approach to reality and social science, one that argues that the line between epistemology (how we know) and ontology (what we know) cannot be properly defined by us. So all of the various epistemological perspectives are flawed. Derived from the work of Roy Bhaskar, this approach was meant to stand apart from both positivist/objectivism and interpretivist/subjectivism. Critical realists distinguish between an unobservable “real” domain (see fig. 3.1), an “actual” domain, and an “empirical” domain. The empirical domain is the one we can “see.” It comprises the everyday experiences of our lives. It is possible to look beneath the surface and apprehend the power and impact of unobservable social structures and organizations. This is the level at which critical realists operate.


An iceberg shown above and below the waterline. Above the waterline is the Empirical domain (perceived). At the water line is the Actual domain. Below the waterline is the Read domain (hidden).
Fig. 3.1. Critical Realism’s Stratified Reality by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 / A derivative from the original work.

If this makes your head swim, don’t worry! I’ve included critical realism here because you should know this approach exists, not because you need to fully grasp it to conduct good qualitative research. Even critical realists don’t always agree with one another on what this all means. If you want to know more about this approach, I’ve included some relatively accessible articles and books in the “Further Readings” section.

Other Ways of Knowing

In the course of the last fifty years or so, there have been a series of critiques against dominant forms of knowledge that presume to be universal. For example, Mary Field Belenky and her colleagues (1997) developed five models of “women’s ways of knowing” that are distinct from the ways that men know the world. This can be viewed as a particular instance of Standpoint Theory, developed by feminist philosophers in the 1970s and 1980s. Standpoint Theory posits that one’s social location delimits one’s understanding and experience of the world. This “standpoint epistemology” has been applied to various persons on the margins; some phenomenological qualitative research can even be understood as capturing the epistemology of those with little power (e.g., first-generation college students, undocumented immigrants, Indigenous persons, women). Articles and books that reference “ways of knowing” generally lie within this tradition. Theorists associated with this position include Patricia Hill Collins (also a pioneer of Intersectionality Theory), Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, and Dorothy Smith (the originator of institutional ethnography).

According to standpoint epistemologists, a standpoint is a place from which persons view the world. This standpoint influences how the person socially constructs the world. We see here the connection to the third epistemological perspective, constructivism. But for standpoint epistemologists, inequalities in the social world create differences in standpoints, which means that the world as constructed is differentiated. There is no one universal world that has been socially constructed by the combined actions and interactions of its denizens. Instead, there are many social worlds. All standpoints, including the dominant standpoint, are partial.

Quick Philosophical Terminology Recap

  • Epistemology = how we know things
  • Ontology = what exists
  • Axiology = values

Qualitative Research Practices and Assumptions

Regardless of which epistemological perspective one adopts, qualitative researchers engage in certain practices and assumptions that attempt to get at reality, despite the limitations imposed by imperfect knowledge. They do this by being conscious of those knowledge limitations.

The first, and probably the most important of these, is to recognize the importance of viewpoint. Whether or not reality exists or is out there like we think it is out there, we can only get at the social world through people, and people are located differently in society and will consequently have different vantage points from which to apprehend reality. You might consider the parable of the blind men and the elephant (fig 3.2) . This parable originated in the Indian subcontinent and may be older than 500 CE, when it first appeared as part of a Buddhist text. The story goes like this: Several blind men come across an elephant for the first time. Having no reference for such a creature, they attempt to use their remaining senses to describe it. Each takes one part of the elephant—the smooth curved tusk, the round pillar-like legs, the softly swishing tale, the rough wrinkly hide of the torso, the large and surprisingly delicate ears—and tells the others what the elephant is. You might see this parable as highlighting the difference between what is (ontology: there is an elephant) and what is knowable (epistemology: what can be known of the elephant). Because each man has his own context and his own vantage point, what each makes of the elephant is uniquely different. All descriptions are true and accurate, but none of them actually describe “the elephant” itself. The moral of the parable is usually presented as telling people not to take their own truth for the whole truth, to admit the limitations and fallibility of their own perceptions, and not to ignore other people’s limited (but accurate) truths of a situation or an event.


6 blind individuals around an elephant.
Fig.3.2. Blind Men and the Elephant.

Qualitative researchers take the parable to heart and build the lessons of the story into their research design. They might include comparisons of people differentially situated, for example, to gauge the strength or ubiquity of a culture or set of opinions. They will be skeptical of taking one group’s statements of an event as an accurate depiction of that event, especially if that group is located in a privileged position or position of power. For example, asking White people only about the existence of racism today is surely a poor way of getting at the actual reality of racism.

Related to this recognition that reality is multiply apprehended and that vantage point matters is an ethical practice to acknowledge others’ understanding of the world, even if you personally might disagree with that understanding. Going back to the above example, we might want to know why White people recognize and acknowledge the existence of racism less often than people of color. You might think you have the obvious answer already, but good research often pushes past the obvious answers. Acknowledging and respecting the multiplicity of vantage points and hence multiple “realities” opens up a lot of interesting research questions. Sometimes the epistemological questions bleed into axiological questions of value. For example, have you ever wondered, “How in the world could they think that?” or “Are they misbehaving because they don’t know any better (i.e., they have a different understanding of what is right or the impact of their actions) or because of something else (i.e., they like acting badly)?” These are the kinds of questions that can only be answered, albeit imperfectly, through qualitative research. They are not appropriate questions for a survey.

Finally, we ourselves are located in a particular position and have a particular vantage point on the social world we inhabit. We do not live outside it. We can’t ever truly isolate the variables or study whatever it is we are studying as a completely neutral observer. We are blind men too. We can take steps to minimize our influence on the study and the influence of our position on what we apprehend, but we can never completely do either. One way we improve our research is to be constantly reflective on these issues. Writing down our own beliefs, suppositions, expectations, and values before we begin is actually quite helpful. I encourage you to keep a journal for research where you consciously reflect on your motivations and expectations as you work through your research (and the journal can be used for so much more, as will be discussed later). Do not think of this as supplemental to the research or as egocentric navel-gazing. It’s quite important. So important that we are devoting an entirely separate chapter to it (chapter 6).

Further Readings

The following are a few books and articles that explore epistemology in qualitative research in general or that highlight and explain particular epistemological viewpoints (e.g., critical realism). Asterisked works are engaging qualitative studies that can serve as models of good qualitative research. Note that the articles in particular are drawn from a wide range of disciplines; graduate students might want to read those related to their areas of study.

Bhaskar, Roy. 2008. A Realist Theory of Science. London: Routledge. The classic statement of critical realism by its founding theorist. A difficult read.

Bowleg, Lisa. 2017. “Towards a Critical Health Equity Research Stance: Why Epistemology and Methodology Matter More Than Qualitative Methods.” Health, Education & Behavior 44(5):677–684. Includes a discussion of epistemological stance and its influence on all aspects of the research process.

Bryman, Alan. 1984. “The Debate about Quantitative and Qualitative Research: A Question of Method or Epistemology?” British Journal of Sociology 35(1):75–92. Questions whether epistemological paradigms are clearly linked to qualitative versus quantitative research methods.

Collier, Andrew. 1994. Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy. London: Verso. Perhaps a slightly more accessible introduction to critical realism than reading Bhaskar but nevertheless quite difficult going.

Gorski, Philip S. 2013. “‘What Is Critical Realism? And Why Should You Care?’” Contemporary Sociology 42(5):658–670. A special review essay on several books on critical realism (mostly by Bhaskar). Although the material is difficult, this is probably the best introduction to the subject.

Gringeri, Christina, Amanda Barusch, and Christopher Cambron. 2013. “Epistemology in Qualitative Social Work Research: A Review of Published Articles, 2008–2010.” Social Work Research 37(1):55–63. Explores the epistemological foundations of qualitative social work research through a metareview was completed of one hundred articles from social work journals. This covers a lot of ground in an interesting way and may be appropriate for all readers.

Harding, Sandra. 1992. “Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What Is ‘Strong Objectivity’?” Centennial Review 36(3):437–470. An important article in the history and development of Standpoint Theory. More readable than most articles in this vein.

Haverland, Markus, and Dvora Yanow. 2012. “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Public Administration Research Universe: Surviving Conversations on Methodologies and Methods.” Public Administration Review 72(3):401–408. An attempt to clarify some of the misunderstandings that can occur when researchers mix different methodological positions in their research designs due to their lack of awareness of distinctions between different ways of knowing and their associated methods.

Juutilainen, Sandra A., Melanie Jeffrey, and Suzanne Stewart. 2020. “Methodology Matters: Designing a Pilot Study Guided by Indigenous Epistemologies.” Human Biology 91(3):141–151. Demonstrate how Indigenous epistemologies, such as nonhierarchical approaches to relationship, can be incorporated into qualitative research.

Luttrell, Wendy. 1989. “Working-Class Women’s Ways of Knowing: Effects of Gender, Race, and Class.” Sociology of Education 62(1):33–46. Based on participant observation in classrooms and in-depth interviews with female students in an adult education program, Luttrell describes how Black and White working-class women “define and claim knowledge.”*

Martínez, Theresa A. 1996. “Toward a Chicana Feminist Epistemological Standpoint: Theory at the Intersection of Race, Class, and Gender.” Race, Gender & Class 3(3):107–128. An engaging and readable exploration of one application of Standpoint Theory.

Miller, Thaddeus R., Timothy D. Baird, Caitlin M. Littlefield, Gary Kofinas, F. Stuart Chapin, and Charles L. Redman. 2008. “Epistemological Pluralism: Reorganizing Interdisciplinary Research.” Ecology and Society 13(2):45–62. The authors argue for the recognition of multiple ways of knowing when designing collaborative interdisciplinary research, particularly in the area of ecological/social studies.

Sayer, Andrew. 2000. “Introduction.” Pp. 1–28 in Realism and Social Science.  Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. This is a terrific introduction to critical realism.

Sayer, Andrew. 2011. Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. A highly recommended book for anyone who wants to understand how people make ethical judgments and how these are connected with epistemological stances. This is an applied version of critical realism that is compelling and impassioned.

Scheurich, James Joseph, and Michelle D. Young. 1997. “Coloring Epistemologies: Are Our Research Epistemologies Racially Biased?” Educational Researcher 26(4):4–16. Discusses the possibility of “epistemological racism” and what we can do about it.

Smith, Dorothy E. 1989. The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Boston: Northeastern University Press.   A classic work in which Smith develops a method for analyzing how people view contemporary society from specific gendered viewpoints. Long heralded as a breakthrough feminist text articulating a sociology developed “from the standpoint of women.”

Trosow, Samuel E. 2001. “Standpoint Epistemology as an Alternative Methodology for Library and Information Science.” Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 71(3):360–382. Discusses the problem of perceived “neutrality” in library sciences and how Standpoint Theory might prove a more rewarding alternative for studies in this area.

Yilmaz, Kaya. 2012. “Comparison of Quantitative and Qualitative Research Traditions: Epistemological, Theoretical, and Methodological Differences.” European Journal of Education 48(2):311–325. A nice overview of the differences between quantitative and qualitative research that includes a section on epistemological disagreements. Good for beginning students wanting to get a handle on the split between quantitative and qualitative research in the social and behavioral sciences.

  1. Actually, there is more “unknowingness” in the natural sciences now than there has been since Newton and Bacon, as those working in quantum physics will tell you!


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