The epistemological cycle

The ‘epistemological cycle’ is a reminder that there is a cyclical flow between mainly three moments (spheres) in the formation of our understanding of phenomena, and then in the acting on that understanding.

Invariably, we form our initial epistemological perspective without being aware of even its very existence, taking for granted our perceptions of a given situation.

The epistemological cycle

Figure 1.1 The epistemological cycle

Source: (Papadopoulos, 2010)

The formation of this perspective is determined by a wide range of factors. These include circumstantial variables (e.g. other relevant contemporary incidents and the manner in which they are presented and commented upon within the social groups we belong to), political and ideological variables, societal discourses, personal factors (one’s own personality, history, strengths, and weaknesses, etc.), and many others.1 This initial epistemological perspective is crucial and defining. It is this perspective that generates all our primary conceptualisations of the phenomena we are dealing with, and it is at this stage that all our assumptions and presuppositions are formed and rooted. This first moment determines our fundamental location, which positions us in a particular way, enabling certain assumptions to be made and other assumptions to be excluded.

Therefore, the first moment of the ‘epistemological cycle’ will shape and form the second moment of the ‘epistemological cycle’, i.e. the particular way we will be ‘positioned’ in relation to the situation we intend to address. The term ‘positioning’ refers to the active effect that the initial conceptualisations have in locating individuals and larger groups of people in certain epistemological positions (Davis & Harre, 1990), Harre and Van Langenhove, 1999). The ‘positioning’ moment links the initial conceptualisation with the third moment, i.e. the ‘action’, because, based on the primary perception (the first moment), this second moment locates one at a vantage point from which certain options for further action are possible and others are not. If the first sphere plants the seeds of all subsequent processes, the second sphere represents, so to speak, the main trunk out of which all subsequent branches will be grown.

Thus, the location in which our initial conceptualisation positions us is decisive in dictating the scope of methods and planning that we will follow. Accordingly, our interventions will be the consequent outcome of the previous two moments. Finally, the actual experiences in acting on our perceptions should, in turn, assist us to review and improve our initial conceptualisation. In this way, the process is cyclical, hence the term ‘epistemological cycle’.

This cycle enables us to appreciate the importance of the original epistemological formulation, i.e. the manner in which we are made to view things the way we do, but it also issues us a warning, that these formulations can have decisive effects, well beyond our conscious comprehension. Gregory Bateson expressed it very succinctly when he claimed that ‘evidently, the nature of “meaning,” pattern, . . . information and the like, depends upon where we sit’ (Bateson, 1967, p. 407). Our initial positioning sets not only our primary conceptualisation of phenomena and situations, but also our own role and even our very identity; all the subsequent steps flow out of that primary position.

In practice, the value of this cycle is to remind us that when something does not work out at the level of implementation as we had envisaged it, instead of repeatedly trying to improve what we do at the action level, it is imperative that we go back to re-view and re-formulate our original conceptualisation, refining it and re-adjusting it, endeavouring to make it as appropriate and suitable as possible to grasp the complexity, uniqueness, and totality of the relevant phenomena.

Although the epistemological cycle is applicable to all types of knowledge and processes in all contexts and settings in our everyday lives, it is particularly crucial that we apply it, judicially, in situations where we are overwhelmed by different types of pressures, because it is in those situations that the tendency to form hasty perceptions compromises our epistemological vigilance and agility.

This cycle has similarities with other comparable schemas that were developed to render intelligible analogous phenomena in other contexts (e.g. ‘knowledge process cycle’ (Williams, 2008), ‘innovation adoption process' (Bhattacherjee, 2012), ‘information cycles’ (Odum. 2007), ‘culture cycles’ (Abel, 2014), the ‘Environmental Information Cycle’ (Vannevel, 2014), and ‘information life cycle’ (Runardotter et al., 2006). The advantage of the schema of epistemological cycle is that it was developed exclusively for the purpose of appreciating the intricacies of the conceptualisation processes with regard to phenomena of adversity, and it was formulated intentionally (Papadopoulos, 2010) in its most essential and simplified form, containing only the three most basic epistemological moments (as represented by the three spheres).

Using the framework of the epistemological cycle, we can now apply it to throw light on the humanitarian professional's concern of Zdenka’s message. His characterisation of her message as ‘dangerous’ makes sense once it is located within the context of his primary preoccupation which, evidently, seems to have been twofold: firstly, to use the Holocaust and other episodes of human rights violations for educative purposes as warnings against possible repetition and, secondly, to find appropriate examples for campaigns to support the victims of such gross violations of human rights. This means that his approach to Zdenka's message was already predetermined by the third sphere, by what he expected to gain from her story, in order to maximise the effectiveness of his interventions. Consequently, what he was looking for was a helpless and damaged victim in dire need of assistance, in order to illustrate the catastrophic effects of the Holocaust.

His positioning firmly located in the third sphere, that of utilitarian action, prevented him from having an open epistemological perspective that would enable him to comprehend Zdenka's life story in its complexity, uniqueness, and totality. Instead, his epistemological positioning was fixed by his anticipated ‘use' of her, and accordingly, it is understandable that what he was seeing in Zdenka was just a person who did not fit into the expected formula he had in mind. Hence, her entire non-victim stance perplexed him, leading him to characterise it as ‘dangerous’.

This formulaic conceptualisation consists of at least three constituent independent but interlinked parts. The first is unambiguous and legitimate: unequivocally, the Holocaust was an abominable event that is outrightly condemnable. The second assumption is that everybody who experienced persecution in the context of the Holocaust was destroyed by it and should be amply assisted. This is an assumption that includes many complexities, and it will be discussed further. In short, if this assumption were to be correct in an absolute sense, how could we possibly understand Zdenka’s ability to refuse to acquire the identity of a victim? According to the third assumption, the type of help that the Holocaust survivors require is the help that treats them as damaged persons, unable to survive without our assistance. This assumption is not only dubious but also dangerous.

The cluster of these three interwoven assumptions forms a widely accepted formula which is used by the humanitarian organisations. However, this formula does not withstand the scrutiny of any meticulous epistemological analysis. The fact that it persists and permeates the entire fabric of our approaches to addressing phenomena of public suffering is indicative that it has been found to be useful, in some ways. Under the emotional and other pressures that tend to overwhelm us, in situations of severe adversity, it is most welcome to have the consolation of a seemingly easily graspable understanding, regardless of its ultimate accuracy or veracity. The epistemological rigour of this simplistic formula is sacrificed on the altar of its perceived utilitarian outcomes. However, as we have seen, without such rigour, it is not only our epistemology that is damaged, but also the persons concerned. Ultimately, we can argue that what is dangerous is this very simplistic formula and not Zdenka’s message!

Bateson expresses unequivocally his exasperation at such oversimplified formulations, regardless of their intended benefit:

I have very little sympathy for [the] . . . arguments from the world’s ‘needs’. ... I distrust the applied scientists’ claim that what they do is useful and necessary. I suspect that their impatient enthusiasm for action, their rarin’-to-go, is not just a symptom of impatience, nor is it pure buccaneering ambition. I suspect that it covers deep epistemological panic.

(Bateson & Bateson, 1987, p. 15)

His clear plea is for applied scientists not to use the excuse of the ‘pressing needs’ to act hastily in order to ‘do something’ to ameliorate a critical situation, while bypassing the process of subjecting their assessment of a given situation to appropriate epistemological scrutiny. His claim is that such injudicious actions are, in fact, the desperate results of their ‘epistemological panic’, i.e. their uneasiness at not being able to grasp clearly the complexity of a situation. It is this vexing failure to have a clear understanding of the complexities involved in such painful circumstances that produces what Bateson calls ‘epistemological panic’; and, in turn, it is this type of panic that forces persons to resort to oversimplified conceptualisations. This means that, in effect, such impaired forms of conceptualisations are manifestations of what we could call impulsive conceptualisation that would result in an epistemological acting out, coining two Batesonesque expressions. It makes perfect sense that epistemological panic leads to impulsive conceptualisation and then to epistemological acting out. Both are triggered whenever there is no space to reflect and consider the complexity, uniqueness, and totality of a painful situation, compelling one to resort to any forms of conceptualisations that appear to have some reasonable coherence and are considered to have some beneficial effect.

What needs to be emphasised is that, in these situations, we (as workers in the field but also as general public) do not sense that our epistemological astuteness is blunted. On the contrary, we tend to be convinced that we have a clear understanding of the situation and, moreover, that it is a correct (if not the only correct) understanding, basing our certainty on the anticipated and hoped-for utilitarian function of the third sphere (of the epistemological cycle), i.e. the successful addressing of all the ill effects of adversity. Unless we are particularly epistemologically vigilant, these emotionally charged situations are likely to deceive us in subtle ways by skewing our initial conceptualisation of the phenomena, leading us to distorted sequences of the epistemological cycle, as the Zdenka example illustrates.

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