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An introduction to epistemology

Understanding and explaining the methodology behind your research is an important part of the PhD process and may even be allocated its own chapter in your final thesis. In developing and explaining your methodology you will probably come across the term, “epistemology.” In this brief article, I will provide an introduction to this concept, which should help you to understand its relevance.

Epistemology may be defined as: ‘the study of knowledge and justified belief’ (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Although there is a complex body of philosophy built up around epistemology, you are not expected to engage fully with that debate – unless it is the subject of your research. For the purpose of the PhD, it is about understanding and explaining the particular epistemological approach you take in your research. It requires you to explain what you understand by the nature and limits of knowledge and how such knowledge may be justified. This is important because you will, as part of your doctorate, make a number of claims. These claims all need to be justified, and what constitutes sufficient justification is a matter of epistemology. It asks: how do you know something to be a justified true belief?

In The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in Research (Sage 2003), Michael Crotty identifies three broad epistemological categories: Objectivism, Constructivism; Subjectivism. The basic idea of objectivism is that the nature of a thing is independent of observation by a cognitive being and its meaning is simply discovered rather than created by the observer. Subjectivism takes the opposite approach and holds that the meaning of a thing comes essentially from the observer. Constructivism occupies a middle ground in which meaning is constructed through an interpretation of the thing by the observer. Exploring these three approaches, and their variations, should at least get you started. If you find yourself struggling with epistemology, or any other aspect of your research methodology, then the PhD Consultancy can offer expert advice and support to help you through the PhD process.

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