Module 1: Epistemology

How do you know things?

No really, how do you know what you know? How did you learn, for example, that the earth revolves around the sun? How did you learn that if you put your hand in a pot of boiling water it would burn like the Dickens? How did you learn that boys wear blue and girls wear pink? How did you learn that this symbol:

means men’s restroom and

is for women’s room? (we’ll come back to that in a bit)…

As your textbook will point out, “We learn some things by experience, others by agreement.” We learn from our elders, our teachers, and other ‘authority’ figures. We also learn from a process of trial and error, like when learning to swim or ride a bike.

Let’s play a little game…

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While this game is cute and funny, it illustrates one type of knowing. We know from our experiences that there are certain gendered norms of behavior when it comes to men and bathrooms. Even women, who (we hope) don’t have direct experience with using urinals in the men’s room, will know the proper etiquette because their knowledge of men in other circumstances allows them to predict behavior in other circumstances. This illustrates the generalizable and probabilistic nature of ordinary human inquiry.

Yet, this mode of learning sometimes teach us things that are not necessarily accurate…. let’s recall, at one point authority said that the world was flat. One’s own eye, tends to support this idea… if authority and our senses tell us something is so, it must be so. W. I. Thomas states it a bit more eloquently: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. ” What Thomas is telling us is that what is real doesn’t matter. What is more important to the the social scientist is what is perceived to be real. People act based on their perception of reality, not reality itself.

Very seldom, do we question the physical or the social reality around us.  Yet, this is what social scientist do on a daily basis. While ordinary human inquiry in the form of personal experiences, tradition, and authority are our everyday guides for how to live, it is not enough to the social scientist. We find that this form of knowing often leads to inaccurate observations, overgeneralization, selective observations, subjectivity and lack of logic. For this reason, the social sciences are very deliberate in developing a philosophy of knowledge (aka epistemology), and formal processes by which facts may be gathered and tested in order to understand reality (methodology).

Let’s watch this short video introduction to the philosophy of knowledge…

What good is social research?

By employing sound research methods, many social scientists are involved in attempts to solve a number of social problems in the world. For example, as a sociologist working in Greensboro, I have been engaged in helping immigrant and refugee groups who face structural and social impediments that limit their acceptance in the social, political and legal realms. Though here as refugees, asylum seekers, visiting students, or guest workers, we find that many immigrants are denied their legal rights, relegating them to the status of “second class” simply for having been born in another country.
In particular, I have been working on issues of housing discrimination. This discrimination comes in the form of a lack of access to credit, steering away from certain neighborhoods, denial of access to properties, and lack of adequate transportation choices. These are structural impediment that lead to fewer educational opportunities for immigrant children, greater exposure to damaging environmental conditions resulting in chronic health problems, the formation of isolated ethnic enclaves, and has limited opportunities for cultural diversity in many neighborhoods throughout Greensboro.

As a part of UNCG’s Social Research Group and together with colleagues at A&T I helped conduct a study of the state of human relations in Greensboro between January and June of 2008. The purpose of the study was to provide data and recommendations to the Human Relations Department of the City of Greensboro for their Five Year Strategic Plan. The study examined discrimination, access to opportunities, and inter-group relations in the areas of employment/economics, housing, education, and law enforcement. The project used a mixed-method research design for data collection and included a review of previous research; focus groups throughout the city; in-depth interviews; as well as 1168 written, face-to-face, and web-based surveys.

A recurrent theme that emerged from interviews with key informants on the issue of housing was the perception that immigrants and African Americans were “closed out” of housing opportunities. In fact, we found that 16% of African American and 28% of Latino surveyed reported that they had been prevented from buying or renting a property because of their ethnicity. Moreover 41% of Latinos felt that they had difficulty with neighbors because of their ethnicity and 34% had moved because of these difficulties.

These findings, obtained by basic social science research methods like interviews and surveys, were instrumental in helping the City of Greensboro shape new policies and develop programs to reduce the level of housing discrimination.

In this module…

Ok, now it is time to delve into your textbook. In this first module, you will need to read Chapter 1. Human Inquiry and Science and then Chapter 2. Paradigms, Theory, and Research. After reading these chapters, complete the chapter quizzes, discussion 1and exercises 1-3.

Check your Course Schedule for due dates. 

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