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EPISTEMOLOGY: WAYS OF KNOWING

The problem with trying to write a book about research methods (besides the fact that there are so many of them) is that the word ‘‘method’’ has at least three meanings. At the most general level, it means epistemology, or the study of how we know things. At a still- pretty-general level, it’s about strategic choices, like whether to do participant observation fieldwork, dig up information from libraries and archives, do a survey, or run an experiment. These are strategic methods, which means that they comprise lots of methods at once. (For a review of epistemological issues in anthropology, see Schweizer 1998.)

At the specific level, method is about choice of technique—whether to stratify a sample or not, whether to do face-to-face interviews or use the telephone or the Internet, whether to use a Solomon four-group design or a static-group comparison design in running an experiment, and so on. (We’ll get to all these things as we go along—experimental designs in chapter 4, sampling in chapters 5, 6, and 7, personal and telephone interview formats in chapters 8 and 9).

When it comes to epistemology, there are several key questions. One is whether you subscribe to the philosophical principles of rationalism or empiricism. Another is whether you buy the assumptions of the scientific method, often called positivism in the social sciences, or favor the competing method, often called humanism or interpretivism. These are tough questions, with no easy answers. I discuss them in turn.

 
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