Epistemology with beers

Two friends Decartex, a logical positivist, and Nietzchix, a post-modernist, both researchers in Development Studies, were walking along a Dutch canal, drinking Heinekens. As both were simply passionate for their work they begun, just for fun, a game on who could better address the following research question: “Why do some people who use drugs do not use local health care facilities in Amsterdam?”

Very excited, Decartex started. He said:

“I’ll depart from objective data collection, and based on that, I’ll find the truth!. You know my friend, for us, positivists, reality exists independent of the researcher and its research instruments” [1]. “To be scientific”, he said, “I must perform accurate observations and treat them with logical reasoning. As you know, logical reasoning and empirical evidence are the only two forms of knowledge that can be refutable [1], and thus, scientific”.

Then, Decartex dedicated himself to think about the research question and found it too vague.

“We should define variables to narrow dawn the question, based on previous research and secondary data”, he said, “then, construct a structured model to show their interaction, and causal relations”[2].

The field research would prove this model right or wrong.

“As time and money are not abundant”, Decartex said, “I’ll do a respondent-driven survey, which will allow me to get closer to a sample that represents this hidden population, with a margin of 5% error”.

A well-done sample would help to claim generalization (inductive method), but to be on the safe side, he would talk about probability [3].

Decartex proposed to survey both clients and non-clients of the chosen facilities, as well as health workers and managers, with a multi-layered survey, to make data more manageable.

“Closed questions will assure comparability, and the researcher has to be neutral while applying the questionnaire, not to influence the results”, he added. “Consequently,” Decartex said satisfied, “I will have a well-defined picture of the situation, a set of clear policy recommendations, and a forecast of what will happen if these recommendations are followed or not”.

Nietzchix, was pleased:

“You positivists, so worried with structure and numbers! What about people, uncertainty and agency? “Different from you, I would be looking for possible forms of interpreting what is happening. We, post-modernists, don’t believe in a real and objective “truth” or “reality”. What you call reality, my friend is a socially constructed phenomenon, and it can be different across time and different contexts”[4].

Nietzchix then criticized the model proposed by Decartex:

“…this question is too complex to be addressed by a closed model. You cannot define beforehand all possible variables involved. Instead of betting on formal logic, you should look for a substantive argumentation[3] opening yourself to the complexity of the context!”

Nietzchix said that he would produce data, considering that the understanding of any context is constructed trough the interaction between “researcher” and “researched”1. For him, it would be important to address how power could be influencing the context, even more in such a sensitive topic such as drug use. He proposed to hear the voices of the population who weren’t using local health care facilities. For that, of course, it would be essential to build a trust relationship with these people first, so to be able to reach their modes of thinking in a more reliable way. Reflexivity from the researcher’s side would assure a critical review of the possible biases in place.

Nietzchix, then, raised a question:

“Maybe, this people have not been well assisted in these health care facilities, and are going to other places where they feel more comfortable. Or perhaps, their ideas of health care differ from the ideas the workers and the health system have or represent. Or maybe there is a totally different reason that no one have thought of yet!”

He proposed then to do an exploratory and qualitative research investigating health meanings and motivations to seek (or not) for help in health care centers. Nietzchix planned to use an open questionnaire, with few topics to guide the in-depth interviews, both with health workers and users.

“It could be a good idea to make observations in some health care centers”, he said, “and I could use ethnography to do that”.

Other possibility, he considered, would be to use critical discourse analysis to address different rationalities about what is considered a better approach to health and the power relation between the groups that define what is or not health care for drug users.

At this point, Decartex was having fun:

“This could be a beautiful narrative, but certainly not a scientific study!” “If you cannot predict, cannot generalize, and cannot show me causal relations (or correlations), how are you, my friend, contributing to science?”

Nietzchix defended his perspective:

“I’ll contribute to knowledge precisely by mapping the possible differences of meanings and motivations, giving tools for health managers and workers to develop more localized responses respecting clients’ beliefs”.

But Decartex was not convinced:

“My study will define more concrete guidelines, and will address the structure of the problem, defining variables that managers can manipulate and measure the effectiveness of changes!!”

Silence; long breath…They realize, for the hundredth time in their relationship, that their ontological values and epistemology were too different to agree in a question like that. After one more gulp of Heineken looking the beautiful extension of the canal, they agreed that at least, within their beliefs, both proposes were rigorous enough (of course, “rigorous” was a more comfortable word that “scientific”). So, they cheered to their friendship, and walking home together they secretly continue to think: “Maybe, next time, I can convince him a little bit more” …

[1] Sumner, and Tribe (2004) “The Nature of Epistemology and Methodology in Development Studies: What Do we mean by ‘Rigour’?”,  Paper presented at the conference ‘‘The nature of Development Studies’, DSA Annual Conference, ‘Bridging research and policy’’, (pp 1-21).

[2] Cameron (2009) “The European Enlightenment as an epistemological turning point” – background reading for sessions 5-11.

[3] Hacking (2001) Probability and Inductive Logic. Chapters 1 (‘Logic’) and 2 (‘Inductive Logic’), pp. 1-22. Cambridge University Press.

[4] Blaikie (1996) ‘Post-modernism and global environmental change’, Global Environmental Change 6(2): 81-85.

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