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Epistemological Perspectives

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Epistemological Underpinnings

As noted in the introduction, the type of knowledge being sought in critical research can be termed ‘critique’, that is the process that seeks to explain or expose what appears as ‘common sense’ understandings and how they have come to be accepted. Knowledge is always ‘partial’ or incomplete because the social world is always changing; it is also ‘partial’ in the sense that it works in the interests of powerful groups and against the interests of others.

A contested area in what counts as ‘good knowledge’ or ‘explanation’ in research, is the role of ethical or political values. The relation of knowledge to values and the relation of knowledge to truth are particularly important issues over which disagreements occur.

There is a continuing debate between those, on the one hand, who are looking for certainty and for generalisable, universal knowledge. Such approaches seek to minimise investigator influence with the researcher taking a neutral stance. On the other hand, are those who consider that such knowledge is, at best, unattainable (except for logical truths) and at worst, as contributing to a technical rationality which is damaging to education.

Morwenna Griffith (1998) argues:

‘Some researchers argue that facts are objective and unbiased if, and only if, they are not contaminated by values. They say that once the facts are established, values are brought into play in order to use the knowledge well: to make progress and to improve things. Against this, others would argue that such facts do not, and could not, exist. A particular facet of this debate is the place of power in the construction of values and knowledge, including in some Foucauldian versions, the ethics underpinning the ‘regimes of truth’ which constitute knowledge in any particular society. One consequence of this position is a radical uncertainty about the very possibility of knowledge and truth’ (Griffith 1998, p. 44-45).

For researchers taking a critical perspective, values are owned and made explicit. The implication of this is explored in the next section ‘perspective, positionality, bias and reflexivity’.