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BOOK REVIEW: Ways of Knowing

BOOK REVIEW: Ways of Knowing

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


August 21, 2020

Thanks to Taiwo Olanrewaju-Lasisi, a 2020 HMU Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

The book Ways of Knowing: Competing Methodologies in Social and Political Research by Moses and Knutsen (2019), exposes how epistemological knowledge are not really about methods but more about underlying philosophies and purposes of one’s research. It gives more clarity on the way the choice of a researcher’s “hows” affects the choice of his “whats” in research.

In dissecting the knowledgeable gains from their book, the first aspect that drew a great attention is the issue of clearly differentiating between Methodology and Research Methods. Moses and Knutsen considered Methodology as “well equipped tool boxes” while research methods as the “tools” you put into the boxes ( p.4). It is so rewarding to know that “research methods” is no fancy word for “methodology”, but that they actually mean different things, methodology being more comprehensive, foundational and ontological in nature, and research methods being more of problem-specific techniques. Methodology in this sense has to do with humanities and an ontological dimension of dissecting books, articles and other forms of research.

The next point is on the discussion of methodologies and the roles they play in the ways we obtain knowledge. These methodologies considered by the authors were classified into three; naturalism, constructivism and scientific realism. The tie between the Naturalist and Constructivist methodologies of how knowledge is obtained is one I found most interesting, especially as regards to their converging and diverging values on how the world is perceived. According to the book, naturalists have the opinion that we gain knowledge through sensory perceptions which help us identify patterns and regularities. They are also of the notion that these patterns can be identified objectively with separation of individual biases.

However, the constructivists do not think so about the way knowledge is obtained. They are of the opinion that individuals’ acquisition of knowledge is subjective to how they view the world, which is usually spurred by their experiences, backgrounds, nationalities, race and other social constructs. They argued against the naturalists’ affirmation of the existence of a “real world” are influenced by social experiences, ontological underpinnings and other values they hold in high esteem regarding their explanations of what constitutes the way knowledge is attained and reproduced. The belief that histories and generalizations are made of “multiple stories” (p.221) was one the constructivist intellectuals found liberating according to the book, because it paved a way to bring in the center unheard stories and perceptions of individuals about the world.

The explanation the authors gave on the experimental method was also insightful and useful, particularly as regards the issues of internal and external validity, as well as the trade-offs involved. From the book, experimental method was proved to provide external validity. The Francis Bacon classical experiment of the effect of heat was a very good illustration in helping me understand external validity. It offers illustrations on how to experiment with new teaching techniques among students. The authors stress that it is important to ensure validity through the experimental process. I appreciated that the issue of “context” from which the information is derived was mentioned to be the reservation constructivists have with the experimental method. I would say this for me points to why we see that quasi-experimental and not experimental methods are mostly used in the social science field, because of the humane and contextual nature of the field.

Finally, the authors discussed the historical link of what we consider knowledge today, ranging from the natural sciences to social sciences. For example, how the research methods and concepts we have today, such as qualitative methods were developed. It is interesting how the authors mentioned that the naturalists’ and constructivists’ different world views also inform their rationale for adopting this type of data collection. A major takeaway from Moses’ and Knutsen’s work will be that, though the naturalist methodology and the constructivist methodology are different, they need not be incompatible. I agree with the “scientific realism methodology” discussed in the book, which is addressed as the middle ground perspective that combines the strengths of the two prior methodologies.

However, one major criticism about the book is this automatic fusion it poses for qualitative and quantitative research to make a great methodology. This is not necessarily the best way for knowledge development especially depending on the field and nature of inquiry. For example, humanities, linguistics and sociology fields might find an excellent basis with which to answer questions in a purely ontological, constructivist, and/or qualitative approach. Nonetheless, mixed methods can be appropriate in answering questions that require both methodologies, with a goal of producing greater value in the most effective and prudent way when both methods are employed. Ways of Knowing is a great book indeed worthy of wide readership!

Moses, J. W., & Knutsen, T. L. (2019). Ways of Knowing: Competing Methodologies in Social and Political Research, 3rd edition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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