Epistemology in qualitative social work research: a review of published articles, 2008-2010.

Author:Gringeri, Christina


This study explores the epistemological foundations of qualitative social work research. A template-based review was completed on 100 articles from social work journals. Reviewers examined five things: (1) the purpose or aims of the research, (2) the rationale or justification for the work, (3) the populations studied, (4) the presence of four epistemological markers (addressing theory, paradigm, reflexivity, and power dynamics), and (5) the implications presented. Results underscore the exploratory nature of qualitative social work research; authors were most likely to use the word "explore" and least likely to use the term "understand" to describe their aims. The most common rationale given for the research was a gap in the literature (77%), followed by the severity or extent of the problem (50%). Authors emphasized the perspectives of respondents, who were most likely to be social work practitioners (39%) or clients (28%). Among the epistemological markers examined, authors were most likely to mention use of theory (55%) and a research paradigm (51%) and least likely to apply reflexivity (16%) or acknowledge power dynamics inherent in research (7%). Finally, authors were most likely to identify practice implications in their work (90%), followed by research (60%), theory (38%), and policy (29%).

KEY WORDS: epistemology; qualitative methods; research methods; social work research; theory

Social inquiry is shaped by the epistemology of the researcher, his or her underlying assumptions about the process of knowing (Denzin, 2002). Epistemology may be seen as theories of knowledge that justify the knowledge-building process that is actively or consciously adopted by the researcher (Carter & Little, 2007; Pascale, 2010). These assumptions guide our decisions about topics, research questions, theories, methods, analyses, and conclusions and help us evaluate the knowledge contributions of published work (Carter & Little, 2007; Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2011; Pascale, 2010). Koch and Hamngton (1998) recognized that "researchers bring to the research product, data generated, a range of literature, a positioning of this literature, a positioning of oneself, and moral socio-political contexts" (p. 882). Examining the ways our social locations shape our process of knowing "can help us understand why certain questions get asked and answered, examine how values shape observation" (Pascale, 2010; Takacs, 2003, p. 37). Anastas (2004) noted that the researcher's epistemology affects the kind of scholarly work done, how one values scholarship and understands its political import, and how one situates oneself in relation to the work.

Marshall and Rossman (2006) noted the importance of "epistemological integrity," in which authors account for the "logical and compelling connections between genre, overall strategy, the research questions, the design, and the methods" (p. 55). Researchers demonstrate their epistemological engagement with the work through explicit discussion of their research paradigm or inquiry tradition, which is fundamental for rigorous qualitative research (Anastas, 2004; Marshall & Rossman, 2006). Qualitative research "should reveal a consistency and integrity of approach that is easily recognized by the reader and the reviewer" (Padgett, 2009, p. 102). Given the importance of epistemology to the research endeavor, social work researchers must make explicit the decisions made in the process of inquiry if they are serious about contributing to the knowledge base of the profession. As Padgett pointed out, "the burden of proof is on the researcher" (p. 102) to be accountable to readers regarding the underlying assumptions and logic of our work.

We focus our discussion on epistemology as research praxis that contributes to the development of knowledge in our field. Our aim in this section of the article is to discuss the practice of epistemology to support social work researchers using qualitative methods to think and write more explicitly about the epistemological foundations of our work. Practical epistemology encourages us to reflect on the connections between how we do research and the credibility of any research products; underlying this reflection must be an examination of our own knowledge formation processes (Becker, 1996; Takacs, 2003).

Interpretation is at the core of all research, and it is critical that we acknowledge the role of our "values, histories and interests" in the production of knowledge (Koch & Harrington, 1998). Guba and Lincoln (2005) suggested that researchers start by asking, "[H]ow do I know the world?" (p. 183). Do I know through my engagement with the world? How do I account for myself (history, social positions) in the process of social inquiry? What questions, assumptions, and beliefs do I bring to this process? Researchers can also reflect on how the research question has been "defined and limited" by what can be learned and how the topic might be examined differently (Dowling, 2006, p. 11). Pascale (2010)) suggested researchers reflect on why the phenomenon is important to study and examine the ways the study might proceed. She noted that "it might seem that standards of good research would require scholars to be accountable for the many processes of interpretation involved in knowledge production" (p. 72).

These questions lead us to the practice of reflexivity, focusing on the relationship between researchers and their work and with participants, which is central to epistemology. Reflexivity requires researchers to develop an ongoing and critical awareness of the social inputs shaping the production of knowledge in their work (Koch & Harrington, 1998). All research findings are shaped by the histories that both the researcher and the participants bring to the project. Critical awareness helps researchers shine a light on the diversity and complexity of social locations and relationships we bring to knowledge production and the ways in which our own biographies shape the process and outcomes of research and the interactions with participants. Hesse-Biber and Leavy (201i) suggested a number of thoughtful questions aimed at helping researchers make explicit the connections between our social locations and our knowledge-building activities. It is important that researchers practice reflexivity as an ongoing process of self-observation throughout the research project rather than as a set of answers to cut and paste into reports and articles.

Reflexivity' can strengthen the validity or knowledge claims in all research:

Through recognizing and analyzing the cultures in which we are positioned, and that therefore cannot help but mold our worldviews, we take steps to become more aware and even more objective. We come to know the world more fully by knowing how we know the world" (Takacs, 2003, p. 29). This is not a philosophical exercise in epistemology but a practice in which the researcher attempts to "identify, acknowledge and do something about the limitations of the research. (Dowling, 2006, p. 12)

Watt (2007) described her process of reflexivity by sharing journal reflections from her first experience using qualitative methods in a pilot study carried out for a graduate level research course. She acknowledged that to be accountable to participants and readers about the decisions that comprise the process of knowledge construction audiences should have the opportunity to see how the researcher goes about the process of knowledge construction during a particular study. By engaging in ongoing dialogue with themselves through journal writing, researchers may be able to better determine what they know and how they think they came to know it. An introspective record of a researcher's work potentially helps them to take stock of biases, feelings, and thoughts, so they can understand how these may be influencing the research. Making such information available to readers provides them with a means to better evaluate the findings. Proponents of the openness in qualitative inquiry assert a need to publicly disclose research decisions.


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