The development of personal epistemologies

The questions raised at the beginning of this chapter were of the type that also concerned Kitchener and King in the 1970s. They wanted to find out how people deal with ill-structured (called also wicked) problems that do not have one obvious solution. For the most part, Kitchener’s and King’s research was based on the pioneering work of Perry (1970), on what he called the intellectual and ethical development of Harvard students (see Chapter 3).

The key question of Kitchener’s and King’s dissertations was whether thinking concerning knowledge would actually develop further than what Perry described in hrs model at stages 1-6 (see Chapter 3). Together they developed a method for studying personal epistemologies. Kitchener’s special research question was to find out whether personal epistemologies differ from verbal reasoning and fluency, while King focused on difference from logical reasoning. According to their results, the evolution of personal epistemologies could not be reduced to either logical reasoning or verbal reasoning or fluency, even though some connections between them were found.

Perry’s (1970) interview method, starting from questions that were topical to the interviewees, had produced a good description of the personal epistemologies up to a certain point, as the questions related to knowledge were topical to the students at the beginning and intermediate stages of their studies. However, at the end of their studies, questions related to personal life choices were more pressing than issues related to knowing, and Perry’s last position reflected this. Kitchener and King specifically asked whether there was epistemic development after the knowing-related positions Perry had described. They ended up presenting their interviewees with dilemmas that were constructed of contradictory claims. They sought their interviewees’ standpoints to the dilemmas and how they justified their views. In this way, the researchers were able to concentrate on knowing-related issues. Their final series included dilemmas covering questions in four different areas of life (construction of the Egyptian pyramids, the objectivity of news reporting, the effect of food additives on health, and the origin of the human species). In the dilemmas, both of the contrasting standpoints were presented as having previously been supported, for example, in the discussion of food additives like this:

There have been frequent reports about the relationship between chemicals that are added to foods and the safety of these foods. Some studies indicate that such chemicals can cause cancer, making these foods unsafe to eat. Other studies, however, show that chemical additives are not harmful, and actually make the foods containing them more safe to eat.

(King & Kitchener, 1994, p. 260)

After the presentation of each dilemma, the interviewees were asked for their standpoints, followed by a number of more detailed and deepening questions, such as how they ended up adopting this position and could they ever think differently. If an interviewee said that s/he was unable to take a stand, s/he was asked why this was not possible and whether s/he could ever take a stand on the matter and if so, under what conditions. Further clarifications were requested if an interviewee used words like “theory” or “proof’ without further characterisation. The interviewees in King’s and Kitchener’s PhD dissertations were junior high school students and graduate and postgraduate students in liberal arts.

Kitchener and King presented a seven-stage developmental model of assumptions of knowledge and justifications of knowledge claims (see Table 4.1).

Understandings of knowledge evolve from absolutistic, concrete understanding towards conceiving knowledge as hypothetical constructions. Critical milestones in this development are the gradually deepening understanding of uncertainty and contextuality, as well as the realisation of the possibility to compare different knowledge claims on the basis of negotiable and justified criteria.

Kitchener’s and King’s work belongs to the group of cognitive-developmental models and theories. Its roots can be found in the theories of Piaget (see Chapters 2, 3), Kohlberg (see Chapters 5, 6) and Perry (see Chapter 3). More specifically, it belongs to the subgroup of complex stage models as defined by Rest (1979). In these models the conceptions and justifications are reorganised during each new stage relative to the previous one. The changes are qualitative transformations in the assumptions and justifications of knowledge, not just linear increases or decreases in some assumptions. Furthermore, it is assumed and also well documented that people’s thinking and arguing can have features not only from one stage, but also from several successive stages at the same time.2 Typically, the developmental models of personal epistemologies have presented a similar line of development as Kitchener’s and King’s model, though there is variation in the number of stages or levels across models (see, e.g., Hofer, 2016).

A number of Finnish studies that have used Kitchener’s and King’s method (e.g., Kajanne, 2003; Pirttila-Backman, 1993; Pirttila-Backman & Kajanne, 2001) have convincingly demonstrated the connection between educational levels and also educational fields and such factors as diversity of living environments, work experience and role-playing opportunities - and the developmental stages of personal


Assumptions of knowledge



Absolute equivalence exists between what is seen and what is: what I see is true.

Because knowing is just seeing, justifications are not needed.


There is right and wrong knowledge -and somebody always knows the truth. Uncertainty' does not exist.

Facts can be known by' one’s own observation. If they cannot be directly known, one can appeal to the authorities.


Not even authorities always know the truth, but uncertain claims are temporary' -the absolute truth can be found.

In uncertain matters beliefs can be justified by what feels right or what one wants to believe.


Knowledge per sc is uncertain and idiosyncratic. So, uncertainty' is a permanent and acceptable condition.

The reasons for uncertainty' are concrete. Beliefs and feelings can be used as justifications.


Knowledge is always contextual, and beliefs can be justified only in a particular context, as things arc interpreted differently in different frameworks.

The justifications ofbeliefs can be evaluated only within one context. However, the arguments can still be evaluated by looking at the relative merit of their various components.


Despite the contextuality of knowledge, some beliefs can be regarded as being better than others. This is based on the ability to make comparisons between reference frames. Research is a process that results in changes in knowledge.

Different beliefs can be compared with each other justifiably.


Knowledge is a result of critical combination and evaluation of standpoints and evidence. Some estimates, interpretations, and solutions can therefore be more justified than others. However, the current knowledge will be re-evaluated later. This means that with time, current knowledge will most probably change into newer versions.

Evaluation and comparison are continuing processes in which new viewpoints can come up. Also, new criteria can be brought into consideration.

epistemologies. Pirttila-Backman (1993) has also demonstrated that the model is not bound to any single theory of truth. Thoughts reflecting critical realism, pragmatism, and relativism can be categorised into the highest stage as long as they are sufficiently well-founded. (For further critical analysis of assumptions in the adult developmental theories, see Chapter 13.)

In the aforementioned Finnish studies (e.g., Pirttila-Backman, 1993), the interviewees argued in ways that reflected mostly the same stages regardless of the subject matter of the dilemma. This means that the assumptions about knowledge were similar regardless of the substance of the question. Furthermore, the interviewees’ own field (i.e., engineering, medicine, or social sciences) did not have a differentiating effect on the argumentation across dilemmas. Also, King’s and Kitchener’s (2004) respondents argued rather similarly about various dilemmas, although consistency in the US studies has been weaker than in the aforementioned systematically heterogeneous Finnish sample (which consisted of interviewees representing several fields, and both students and those already in working life).

More recently however, researchers have increasingly started to consider that people’s conceptions of knowledge could differ depending on the domain, context, academic discipline, school subject, or different areas of life (Greene, Sandoval, & Briten, 2016; Hofer, 2006; Muis, Bendixen, & Haerle, 2006; Pintrich, 2002). Indeed, the current models are increasingly taking such domain-specific and contextual aspects of knowledge-related thinking into account (Greene et al., 2016).

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