Practice Question – Examine epistemological foundation of qualitative methods of social research. (10 Marks) (UPSC 2017) 

Approach –  Introduction, Explain epistemology, Bring in its relevance in social research, Discuss how it is used in qualitative methods for social research, Criticism, Conclusion.



The term ‘epistemology’ was coined by the Scottish Philosopher James Fredrick Ferrier (1808-64). It comes from the Greek word ‘episteme’ (knowledge) and ‘logos’ (theory or science).

Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge. Epistemologists are interested in how and whether we know anything. In sociology there is a discussion about social facts and social constructs and the difference between positivism and interpretivism. Positivists believe that it is possible to establish social facts through objective and scientific research, while interpretivists believe that we cannot objectively establish facts about human behaviour, they will only ever be social constructs, but what we can do is investigate subjective interpretations of behaviour.

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the study of knowledge, with knowledge traditionally defined as justified true belief. Classical epistemology set up a dualism between the mind and a material reality external to the mind. The problem to solve then became that of explaining how ideas in the mind could be known to mirror objects outside the mind.



Epistemology illustrates all potential domains of knowledge, whether it be religious, political, mathematical, logic, scientific, ethical, or psychological. we see scope of epistemology in the field of logic. Logic is the formal science of the principles governing valid reasoning whereas epistemology is a philosophical science of the nature of knowledge. For example, whether a given process of reasoning is valid or not is a logical question, but the inquiry into the nature of validity is an epistemological question. Bertrand Russell wrote, ‘the two great engines in the progress of human society are the desire to understand the world and to improve it.’ These words of Russell seem very appropriate in today’s world. We find that epistemology studies whether a belief is true or false, reasonable or unreasonable, justified or unjustified. In epistemology cognitive acts of human beings are evaluated and general principles are laid down for epistemic evaluations. A similar language is used in ethics. Ethics inquires into the nature of rightness and appropriateness of human conduct and lays down general principles for good human behaviour. Hence, it evaluates moral or immoral, right or wrong actions, etc. There are various areas in which one can explore similarities and differences between ethics and epistemology. Epistemology and ethics help us to understand and improve the world by giving us guiding principles in understanding the world and improving it. 

Epistemology is also related to sociology. In fact, there is a special field in sociology called the ‘sociology of knowledge,’ in which the social conditions which lead to knowledge claims are studied. However, while sociology deals with these larger conditions of the social origins of knowledge, epistemology is more concerned with the cognitive status (that is, the validity) of the actual claims themselves.



Human beings desire to know the world and our place in it. This search for knowledge is not merely for an academic requirement or a drive for formal correctness. Rather this search is carried out of our existential concern to express ourselves. When we ask, ‘What can I know?’, we simultaneously ask, ‘What is real’? Knowing the reality of the world and ourselves helps to achieve different goals of life and to make life beautiful. In epistemology our primary aim is to find truth which frees us from falsehood. Therefore, it exhorts us to pursue truth thoughtfully by giving us principles by which we may accept something as true or reject it as false. It assists us to sift between truth and falsehood. In a word, the ‘uncovering of being’ takes place. And such true knowledge is necessary for wisdom. Thus, as Vincent G. Potter says, ‘To be wise does not require that we know everything about everything, but that we know the place of things relative to each other and to ourselves. It is to know what life as a whole is about.’ Accordingly, we can say epistemology assists human beings in realizing the Socratic maxim, ‘Know Thyself.’



Social epistemology gets its distinctive character by standing in contrast with what might be dubbed “individual” epistemology. Epistemology in general is concerned with how people should go about the business of trying to determine what is true, or what are the facts of the matter, on selected topics. In the case of individual epistemology, the person or agent in question who seeks the truth is a single individual who undertakes the task all by himself/herself, without consulting others. By contrast social epistemology is, in the first instance, an enterprise concerned with how people can best pursue the truth (whichever truth is in question) with the help of, or in the face of, others. It is also concerned with truth acquisition by groups, or collective agents.



Qualitative research recognises the importance of value and context, setting and the participants’ frames of reference. Further, the way in which the researcher and participant enter and communicate the research field is a vital and influential element of the research process and its outcomes. Research that is conducted using qualitative methods acknowledges the
existence and study of the interplay of multiple views and voice. It also allows for the construction of reality and knowledge to be mapped out. Yet, this knowledge cannot be understood without understanding the meaning that individuals attribute to that knowledge – their thoughts, feelings beliefs and actions. The construction of knowledge in qualitative research is related to the philosophical underpinnings that researchers choose whether the methods of data collection in that research  are used on site or in an online site. In trying to make sense of social reality, no grand method or theory has a universal and general claim to authoritative knowledge.

Researchers engage in the practical activities of generating and interpreting data to answer questions about the meaning of what their participants know and do. They can do this using a wide range of methods including ethnography, life history work and narrative inquiry to study `first hand what people do and say in particular contexts’. To do this, researchers’ practice will be underpinned by epistemological stances that provide a philosophical grounding for deciding what kinds of knowledge are possible, and how researchers can ensure they are both adequate and legitimate.



In simple terms, epistemology is the theory of knowledge and deals with how knowledge is gathered and from which sources. In research terms your view of the world and of knowledge strongly influences your interpretation of data and therefore your philosophical standpoint should be made clear from the beginning.

Knowledge can be seen as empirical or intuitive, for example. Whilst intuitive knowledge stems from beliefs and faith, empirical knowledge is related to anything that can be objectively described and proven. With this simple example, it becomes clear how your interpretation of knowledge will influence your choice of methodology and methods, and will also impact your data analysis. Within epistemology there are several approaches and branches, such as for example positivism and interpretivism. These two are by far not the only branches within epistemology. You may look at the world from a feminist or postmodernist viewpoint, or you may consider critical enquiries as a valid approach. However, looking at these two philosophical approaches that are situated at the most extreme ends of a spectrum will help you see the relationship between the different branches and the impact this may have on your research.

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