Sunday, June 18, 2017

WHY AM I IRRITABLE?

Today I felt irritable.  Suddenly and unaccountably irritable.  I realised that it's Father's Day.  And I lost my father eight months ago.

The funny thing is, consciously I am not recognising that the loss of my father, and the nature of the day, are influencing me to feel irritable.  As far as my conscious mind is concerned, I am just irritable, and that is that.

In evolutionary terms, I can understand this.  It would put a pretty heavy load on the conscious mind, if I was required to consciously register every unconscious influence on my system.  It makes better sense for my body to deal with the distress by finding a channel for aggression, than it does for me to build a perfect conscious model for all of my circumstances.  Put in straight English, unconscious reaction requires less intelligence than conscious appreciation.

Unfortunately, the consequences of this evolutionary economy can be considerable.  If I take my inner conflict out on the world, a consequence is that the world feels distressed, and then decides to fight back.  There begins a loop which can only end in an escalating battle with the world until one of us loses.  And, the world being bigger than me, it's going to be me who is the loser.  Hence, we have a systematic explanation for how many people deal with distress:

1. An inner conflict arises, a bit like the 'inner mess' of a well-used house if it is not cleaned.  It arises because I haven't got the intelligence to keep tidying up after life, and making sure my brain is clear and clean.
2. This creates tension, which has two possible directions, inward or outward.
3. If I take it inwardly (for instance by being hard on myself), then I can cause myself to be totally 'messed up', or depressed.  It is a bit like throwing the mess around in an already messy house - it's not going to help.
4. If I push it outwards (for instance by being hard on others), then I cause conflict with the world.  I will find myself in arguments which just add to the burden of living.
5. Under both scenarios, I lose, and end up overwhelmed.

OK, so how to avoid the overwhelm?

MEDITATION AND PLAY
Well, our bodies and minds do have a couple of tools up their sleeves.  One is natural, and the other is less natural.

The natural tool is play.  Play rebalances us in much the same way as food cravings rebalance us nutritionally.  Play is letting your system demand what comes next - giving free rein to your inner urges, but harmlessly.  It can be play-fighting or play-talking, but the understanding is that no one takes it personally.  It's only play.

The less natural tool is meditation.  Meditation is a more disciplined approach to internal hygiene.  You sit with your self, and you watch what comes.  You retain your focus, allowing what comes to fall away and retreat.  You keep your focus on an object, or on your breath, and repeatedly let the distractions come, and then fall away.  It is similar to play, in that you let things arise.  The difference is that you do not act externally.  The other difference is that, instead of staying engaged with what arises, as in play, you dis-engage, or detach, from all the things that your mind wants to attach to, or engage with.  It is as if you have grown a layer of grease on you, and nothing sticks.  You are left with just your self and your awareness.

TWO ACTIONS
So next time you find yourself irritable, try one of two tactics.

1. Play - listen to your inner workings, see what they have an appetite for, and find a harmless outlet for that appetite.  Play a ball game, play-fight, joke around, seek some adventure, go for a swim... whatever, for you, seems to be the play that your body wants in order to unwind.  You will know if it works, because you will feel rested and relieved.  It may even be that you need to cry, which is a form of play, viewed this way.

2. Meditate - listen to your inner workings, but stay focused and aware, and let them play themselves out until they calm down of their own accord, and trouble you no longer.  Again, you will know if it works, because you will feel rested and relieved, and extremely calm.

Whatever you choose, do take some time to take care of yourself.  Viewed this way, both play and meditation are important tools of self-care.  It also helps you to take care of others, because how can you help others if you lack the calmness to make good decisions in their interests?



Today, I cleared myself some time for this.  I took my irritability as a sign that I needed to tend to my own inner workings.  That way, nobody gets hurt, and everybody, in the long run, gets helped.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

IS PSYCHOLOGY A SCIENCE?


A commonly-stated accusation is that psychology is not a 'real science'.  Is there any truth to this?

Well, it depends what you mean by science.

ART OR SCIENCE?
University degrees in the UK can be called BSc or BA, depending on whether they are classified as a science or an art.  For instance, my degree in English was classified as a BA, because it is considered an art.  My degree in psychology was classified as a BSc, because the makers of that course considered it a scientific course.

However, psychology is a bit of a hybrid subject.  It is possible to find BAs in psychology in the UK, and even courses which give you the choice to graduate with a BA or a BSc.  This betrays an unsureness in the field as to how psychology classifies itself.

Roughly speaking, you might consider psychology an art if you consider that it relies so much on philosophically-derived definitions, that it cannot be said to be a science.  For example, if you are a Freudian psychologist, you may not be too concerned as to whether or not you can find objective proof of a concept - it is enough that it seems, to you, to speak truth.  In this sense, you are treating truth in a similar fashion to a student of literature, sharing ideas rather subjectively, and taking points of view without resorting to detailed testing.

If, however, you are a psychologist interested in neuroscience, you may be less interested in philosophical nuance, and more interested in using a series of experiments and machines to establish a clear picture of what is going on in a physical thing you call the brain.  This is plainly not an art, in the sense that it is not really subjective, but depends on finding objective proof.  You don't select a brain scanner because you like its colour, or the humming noise it makes - you select it because it helps you to find an objective truth you think is there in the data.

So there you are - two views of psychology, of the study of the mind.  One which sees it as an inevitably subjective interplay and history of ideas (an art); and one which sees it as a quest to map and explain the objective truth of the brain and behaviour (a science).

CAN PSYCHOLOGY BE A SCIENCE?
In a way, the history of psychology is the history of a group of people who desperately want to be taken seriously in the scientific world.  Now, if you are equipped with a brain scanner, and are in the business of proving which neurons fire when we perform certain tasks... that has a good chance of being amenable to the 'scientific method' (i.e. proving by testing).  But if you are equipped with some pieces of fine literature and a nuanced, philosophical mind... well, you will find it hard to argue your way into being considered scientific, because you are not using official scientific methods.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF SUBJECTIVE EXPERIMENTATION AND LINGUISTIC PSYCHOMETRICS
If you are a psychologist who does not like the idea of using machines, but wants nevertheless to be considered scientific, then you are in luck.  Two forms of quasi-scientific pursuit have helped boost the 'philosophicals' into the community of 'scientific method'.

Firstly, what might be called 'subjective experimentation'.  For example, you can ask 100 people what they think of something.  You then have data about what people think, and can manipulate it much like other test data.  A problem with this is that you are assuming that ideas behave in the same way as processes, that concepts can be measured using the same techniques as blood flow.

Secondly, what might be called 'linguistic psychometrics'.  You can invent a concept, and then develop a questionnaire which enables you to score people in relation to that concept.  For example, you might give new employees a verbal questionnaire designed to categorise them into types of person.  You can then score them as high or low in particular attributes, and make judgements about what you are going to do with them.  Again, a problem with this is that you are assuming that concepts can be measured in this way; moreover, you are assuming that these types of person exist, and have not been made up by psychologists just to have something to talk about.

All this is good news to the psychologists who do not scan brains.  By collecting opinions and ways of thinking, and treating the data as one would a scientific dataset, they can make announcements about what people think, and what they are like, and be believed as though they were scientists.

THE PROBLEM OF CULTURAL PLATFORM
A huge problem with such methods is that they treat the conceptual mind as though it were a 'thing for ever', something unchanging.  But the fact is, our concepts drift on the waters of culture.  Arguably, proving concepts in humans is much like trying to build houses on moving sands.  You can only test a person, in context, at a point in time.  Contexts change, times change, concepts even change, and so we can be healthily sceptical of anyone who claims to have categorised humans into types using verbal questionnaires, or claims to have worked out what people think by interviewing them.
 
SO, IS PSYCHOLOGY A REAL SCIENCE?
I guess one could say that there are certain psychological disciplines, such as neuroscience, whose methods are akin to the 'scientific method'. 
But there are other psychological perspectives, involving surveying, gathering or assessing attitudes, which inhabit a less clear region.  These areas of psychology are perhaps a science if you consider the ethnographer (the describer of cultural difference) a scientist.

But, according to some, the surveying, gathering, or assessment of atttitude is as much an art as a science.  For instance, companies employed to conduct opinion polls will know how much the wording of their questions will influence the results of their research.  Politics gets involved, and it can often seem that researchers work hard to get answers they want about concepts they invent.  This is science if you allow science to be political.  But otherwise, it is perhaps art, a battle of philosophies, an attempt to build houses on sand.

In summary, perhaps psychology, more than any other discipline, finds itself embattled as to what it is, and what its methods are.  It often tries to use the methods of science (prolific referencing, statistical technique) to bolster the appearance of science.  But it is perhaps over-prone to use such methods where they may not fit: in the territory of ideology and deep concept, where its management and manipulation can start to look much more like an art.


FOOTNOTE
The above article uses a somewhat clumsy, but prevalent, definition of a science, as something which follows traditional scientific method.  But one could argue that, culturally, we have created a false duality between sciences and arts, and that what we have is a continuum of understanding ranging from the statistical/informative at one end, to the expressive/conformative at the other.  I've been deliberately lazy about this, in an attempt to make the discussion practical.  Sorry.

Monday, February 8, 2016

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PSYCHODYNAMIC AND PSYCHOANALYTIC?

Many wonder what the difference is between the word psychodynamic and the word psychoanalytic.  They seem so close to each other, and are sometimes used interchangeably in conversation (though, admittedly, only between people interested in therapy).  This article is an attempt to gather some thoughts on the similarities and differences between the two words, as used by academics and practitioners.

PSYCHODYNAMIC
Psychodynamic, in general, refers to mental forces - hence the two parts of the word, psycho and dynamic, mind and forces.  The idea is that human behaviour can, at least in part, be explained in terms of psychological forces, or patterns of energy in the mind.  It is often held by those thinking psychodynamically that these forces have their root in childhood experiences.

USE OF THE TERM PSYCHODYNAMIC BY FREUD
In Freud's time, thermodynamics was all the rage in physics.  Freud, used the term psychodynamics partly to parallel this, reflecting the idea that perhaps human behaviour, too, could be explained in terms of energy flow.  Freud's supervisor Brucke applied principles of the conservation of energy to the human mind, an idea which Freud extended.  In simple terms, if energy cannot escape a system, it must transform into something else.  Although these principles are not so strictly applied these days, they have influenced much psychodynamic thinking.  Hence all the terms, such as repression and projection, which suggest physical movement or blockages.

PSYCHOANALYTIC
Analysis is the detailed examination of something.  Freud wanted to practice in a way akin to the medical profession, where a doctor examines the patient, and treats accordingly.  Therefore, the term analysis might be best understood as a mirroring of the way a doctor analyses an illness to discover a diagnosis and speculate on treatment.

PSYCHOANALYTIC PRACTICE
In order to analyse the patient, Freud and others developed a very intense way of practicing therapy, meeting the patient several times a week.  This method was called psychoanalysis, although it often fed upon the general psychodynamic idea above that behaviour can be explained in terms of energy flows.  So you could say that psychoanalytic therapists often think psychodynamically.

PSYCHODYNAMIC PRACTICE
In contrast, a less intense method called psychodynamic therapy involves meeting only once or twice a week, unlike the more frequent psychoanalytic method.

SYNONYMOUS THINKING, DIVERGENT PRACTICES
So in terms of ways of thinking, there is a lot in common between forms of psychoanalytic thinking and psychodynamic thinking.  They could almost be used synonymously in many situations.

But in terms of ways of practicing, psychoanalytic therapists generally meet the patient several times a week, whereas a psychodynamic therapist may only meet the client once a week or so.

A NOTE ON MORE RECENT THINKING
Since Freud's time, psychodynamic thinking has gone beyond this idea of energy being trapped in a system like thermodynamics.  In particular, partly influenced by computers, we tend to see things very much in terms of information and patterns.  So you will also hear psychodynamic thinkers talk about mental models developed in childhood, not only about mental energy flows.

IN CONVERSATION
Typical usages, then, might be:

1. Fred is a psychoanalyst.  He sees his patients several times a week.
2. Jane is a psychodynamic therapist.  She sees her clients once a week.
3. Fred is very influenced by psychodynamic thinking, especially Freud.
4. Jane is not a psychoanalytic practitioner, but in her psychodynamic work she shares many principles used in psychoanalysis.
5. John has gone into psychoanalysis.  He sees his therapist every day.
6. Elaine has opted for psychodynamic therapy.  She sees her therapist once a week.
7. Freda is an integrative therapist who draws on psychodynamic thinking in her work.

I hope this helps to clarify some of the ways in which the two words psychoanalytic and psychodynamic are used.  Every practitioner will be somewhat precious about what THEY mean, but I have tried to give a flavour, rather than cover all avenues.  If I have offended anyone, then it's in the cause of simplifying!

Monday, January 11, 2016

HOW TO CONDUCT A RESEARCH INTERVIEW

When you first get into interviewing for research purposes, it's nice to have a few things to hang on to as guidelines.  It's easy to feel intimidated by the enormity of it all, but at the end of the day you are simply sitting with another person, asking them some questions in a friendly manner, and recording and transcribing the result for later analysis.

Interview techniques in psychology are a matter of judgement, but perhaps there are some common sense rules which emerge from good practice.  I outline some of them below, but please take them as suggestions rather than hard-and-fast rules.


When planning your approach, it helps to divide your thinking into two aspects:

1. etiquette, and
2. information-gathering.

ETIQUETTE
Etiquette is all about the social niceties: how can you make the client feel at home; how can you begin the interview appropriately; how can you politely lead to the meat of the issue; how can you bring things to an end politely; and how can you leave the participant feeling all right about you and the world?

I suggest you plan your interview in the following 8 stages:

1. Pre-interview communication and arranging: make sure you make a clear arrangement to meet at a location that is comfortable and undisturbed.  Greet the participant at the arranged time, and lead them to the appointed place, making sure they are comfortable.

2. Basic information: remind the participant why you are meeting, how long the interview will be, and what will happen.

3. Consent: ask the participant to sign any necessary consents, if they haven't already done so.

4. Demographic information: gather any background information you need for the research early on, so that the participant is not disturbed at the end, when they may want to get away.

5. Explain that the interview is about to start: it is good courtesy to be clear as to exactly when you are starting recording, and to confirm with the participant that they are comfortable.

6. Early interview: it is good etiquette to begin with a few easygoing questions, to allow the participant to acclimatise themselves to the situation.

7. Mid-interview: it is good to remain sensitive to the participant comfort by checking from time to time that they are happy with the way things are going.

8. End-interview: it is good to introduce the participant to the fact that you are coming to a close, and check whether there is anything else they would like to say.  It helps them to feel in control and at ease.

9. Debriefing: it is good to offer the participant a final check of their comfort, and give them a summary of what the whole interview has been about; also to let them know whom to contact in the event of any issues arising.

10. Goodbye: a friendly goodbye leaves the participant with a good feeling.


INFORMATION-GATHERING

The above dealt with how to structure your interview.  But during the interview, there are some definite techniques to bear in mind in terms of how you gather the information.  These points are more to do with how you handle the conversation.  The following are five key points I suggest you consider at all times.  I have listed them as tensions, because all the time you will be asking yourself about the situation, and how you should be in the moment:

1. 'Leaning forward' versus 'sitting back': with a confident participant, you may be able to sit back and let them flow, only offering occasional encouragement.  But with a less confident participant, you may want to consider helping them through more actively.  Examples include nodding more vigorously, smiling more often, and saying 'that's interesting', or 'mm' more frequently.

2. 'Leading to' versus 'being led': if the participant seems to be straying from the subject, ask yourself if you can see a relevance to what they are saying.  If you feel you are being led badly off-piste, then you can choose to lead the participant back to the subject of interest.  You could say 'that's really interesting' in order to reduce any sense of rudeness, immediately followed by 'I wonder if I could ask you...' to get the interview back on track.  If you are not sure where the interviewee is going, then it is good to ask for clarification, perhaps with a question like: 'do you think there's a connection between what you're saying and [insert the topic here]'.  It may be that you have missed an important connection or relevance, and it's important to pick it up.  There is no easy answer on this one, as you need to let the interviewee roam fairly free, but at the same time you have limited time to gather your information.

3. Divergent thinking versus convergent thinking: be clear in your mind whether you are asking the participant to free-associate, or come to a view.  The former is divergent, the latter convergent.  For example, one pattern might be to ask a convergent question: 'what do you think people should...?', followed by a more divergent question such as 'can you tell me more about that?'  This 'C-D' pattern is useful for exploring the reasons and context for opinions, for instance.  Another pattern might be to go 'D-C', in other words to ask a much more open question, and then focus in later.  You could ask: 'could you talk to me about X in whatever way you like'; and then later, depending on what emerges, converge by asking: 'I notice you used the phrase Y; that sounds interesting; can you tell me more?'  This 'D-C' pattern is useful for getting an idea of the overall territory, and then focusing in on interest points.

4. Body language versus words: You have an advantage over the reader of text: you are present with the interviewee.  Pay attention to their tone, their body language, your sense of how they are responding.  It will give you clues as to avenues of interest.  You may choose to ask a question that draws attention to an incongruence; for example 'when you were talking about X, I noticed you made a face when you mentioned Y... I wondered what was going on for you?'  That way, you can elicit information not available through words alone.

5. Your views versus the interviewee's views: This is a tension not often talked about, as we like to think we're impartial.  But you have a view, and you need to remain reflectively aware how that might influence your behaviour in the interview.  Are you only smiling when the participant says certain things?  Are you only saying 'that's interesting' when the participant says what you would want them to say?  Your aim is to gather information that may be unexpected, and it does not help to influence that process with expectation.  However, on occasion you may want to be open about your surprise, if you feel it is congruent, such as saying 'Wow! I didn't see that coming - can you tell me more about what you mean?'  As long as you remain curious, interested and friendly, and do not inhibit the participant's flow, a natural display of humanity can help them to feel that this is a relationship in which free information flow is comfortable and encouraged.

SUMMARY
In summary, have a good structure within which you and the participant can work; and then, depending on the situation, manage your interventions with sensitivity, keeping in mind (a) what information you are interested in gathering, and (b) the client's behaviours and responses.

I hope this is helpful to some - it's really a digest of the main things I have found helpful when planning and conducting my own research interviews.


A FINAL ETHICAL NOTE
One final thing - all of the above is subject to the overriding concern of the wellbeing of all participants.  If at any time the participant seems unduly uncomfortable, then it is in order, and desirable, to check how they are, and take any necessary action, before resuming.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

WHAT IS GROUNDED THEORY?

WHAT IS GROUNDED THEORY?
Grounded theory is one of those qualitative psychological methods which can easily fall out of your head and seem incomprehensible.  Here is a quick introduction and summary.

GIVE ME AN EASY DEFINITION
Grounded theory is a way of getting ideas from something (say a piece of text), without deciding on your theory in advance.  Instead of applying existing theory, you allow patterns to emerge naturally from your data.

The following stages are often used:

Stage 1 – open coding (also called substantive coding)
The first step is to go through the text putting labels in the margin.  These labels should feel as though they arise easily and naturally from the text.  There can be a lot of them, and you don’t, at this point, need to be able to relate them together.  You don’t need to make overall sense of anything.  It’s quite an intuitive thing.  Slowly, by going over and over the data, you may find yourself editing your codes.  Some patterns may begin to emerge, some codes may start to seem less relevant, and some more relevant.

Stage 2 – axial coding
Once you have a good feel for your data, you can now try to relate your substantive codes together in an interesting way.  One question to ask is: are there overall patterns which seem to connect my basic codes?  You can remain playful, and try out a few permutations.

Stage 3 – selective coding
Next, reviewing stages 1 and 2, you may try to find an overall concept that seems to hold your data together, sometimes known as a ‘tentative core’.  You may selectively recode your data using categories particularly relevant to that core concept.

Stage 4 – theoretical coding
Finally, if you can feel an overall theory emerging, you can try to connect everything together in a pattern where your concepts join in some sort of explanatory theory.

Constant activity – memos
Throughout the above process, the researcher keeps a collection of ‘memos’ – loose, freeform ideas which help to inform the creative process.  An analogy to this is the kind of scrapbook or notebook an author might keep while writing a novel, to collect helpful ideas around the work they are creating.

DIFFERENCES IN APPROACH
Some (e.g. Barney Glaser) emphasise the loose, emergent nature of grounded theory, i.e. inductive thinking.  The researcher is more relaxed and unsystematic, and allows influences from a wide range of ideas in the formation of patterns of thought.

Others (e.g. Anselm Strauss) emphasise a systematic approach to grounded theory which is not just emergent, but a combination of inductive and deductive thinking.  By inductive thinking you let patterns emerge; and then by deductive thinking you apply any resulting categories and theories back down to the data.  You can then repeat this two-way process in a systematic cycle.

IN SUMMARY, PLAY WITH THE DATA!
The main thing is to play with your data creatively, without trying to impose much existing theory on it.  Think of yourself as respecting the wisdom of the text, rather than 'owning' it with pre-baked psychological theory.  That way, something new and interesting can emerge.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

IS ANGER GOOD FOR YOU? I DOUBT IT.


Today I was reading a recent, and interesting, article by Emma Young in the New Scientist (Feb 2013) entitled ‘Do get mad’.  It suggested that, in the right context, anger can be beneficial.  She argues that, although much modern thought sees anger as destructive, some strategic anger can help with both happiness and achievement. 

She offers three main arguments, apparently supported by studies:


  1. Anger somehow causes optimism.  Evidence: those with greater anger (e.g. after 9/11) turn out also to be more optimistic about the future. 
  2. Anger is good for your health.  Evidence: anger causes a lower stress response than fear
  3. Anger somehow causes well-being in confrontations.  Evidence: people who use anger in confrontations seem to report greater well-being than people who are simply happy during confrontations. 
  4. Anger helps drive improvement.  Evidence: anger can energize collective action under threat (e.g. the passive resistance of Gandhi). 
  5. Anger gets you status.  Evidence: male political leaders who get angry rather than sad are given higher status.
  6. Anger improves relationships.  Evidence: anger-suppressors die earlier than anger-expressers.


 But let’s look at these arguments in more detail.
  1. OK, so angry people may express greater optimism.  But to say the anger somehow causes the optimism is bizarre.  In fact, the common factor may be a ‘bullish’ nature which jumps to both anger and optimism too readily.
  2. OK, so fear might be even less healthy than anger.  But how does that make anger healthy?  It’s just marginally less unhealthy.  We don’t face a straight choice – there are other responses than fear and anger.
  3. People who rise to anger in confrontations may well be more ‘bullish’ about their own well-being.  But, as in 1, this proves nothing about causes.  And what about the recipient of the anger?  How do they feel afterwards?
  4. The social change argument seems a stronger one.  But do we need to be angry to change things?  It is possible to see injustice, and be motivated to change it, without anger.  Indeed, Gandhi himself said ‘It is not that I do not get angry. I don't give vent to my anger. I cultivate the quality of patience as angerlessness, and generally speaking, I succeed. But I only control my anger when it comes. How I find it possible to control it would be a useless question, for it is a habit that everyone must cultivate and must succeed in forming by constant practice.’  So Gandhi cultivated patience, and saw it as angerlessness.  Arguably it was his patience, not his anger, that made him so effective a social agent.
  5. Is Emma Young really arguing that it is constructive to get angry, just because it can confer status?  Since when was status a virtue in itself?
  6. The relationship argument uses anger-suppression and anger-expression as the only two possible responses.  What about not having the anger in the first place?  Although it takes practice, this seems an infinitely better option, and yet it’s not even mentioned.

In summary, I’d suggest it’s perfectly possible that the most happy, healthy and effective people are those who are free from anger.  As the Dalai Lama commented last year: ‘The first drawback of anger is that it destroys your inner peace; the second is that it distorts your view of reality. If you think about this and come to understand that anger is really unhelpful, that it is only destructive, you can begin to distance yourself from anger.’  I agree.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

WHAT ARE ONTOLOGY AND EPISTEMOLOGY?


In philosophy, some things stick in your head, and some don't. Many people have trouble understanding, and then remembering, what ontology and epistemology are. They don't seem to fall naturally into the head as memorable or useful concepts. Here is an attempt to make things a bit clearer, in the context of social psychology.

ONTOLOGY

This word comes from the greek: ontos = being, and logos = study - i.e. it is the study of being.

Your 'ontology' is your answer to the question: 'What is reality?' (i.e. what can be said to really exist, or be?)

It is important, because whatever assumption you make affects how you approach science.

For example, if your ontological view is: 'Reality is a load of facts out there waiting to be discovered' then you are a Realist, and you might be comfortable with an experimental approach.

Alternatively, if your ontological view is: 'Reality is, ooh, very fluid and elusive, and only exists through people's claims' then you are a Postmodernist, and you might be comfortable with a discursive approach, where reality is regarded as a constructed account.


EPISTEMOLOGY

This word comes from the greek: episteme = knowledge, and logos = study - i.e. it is the study of knowledge.

Your 'epistemology' is your answer to the question: 'How can I know reality?' (i.e. even if something really exists, how can I know that?)

It is important, because whatever assumption you make about what can be known, affects what you bother to try to find out scientifically.

For example, if your epistemological view is: 'My senses help me know the objective world: to see is to know' then you are an Empiricist, and, as above, you might be comfortable doing experiments with lots of sense data to gather knowledge.

Alternatively, if your epistemological view is: ''Ooh, wouldn't trust the senses: knowledge is constructed subjectively by people and groups' then you are a Constructivist, and, as above, you might be comfortable doing discursive analysis, working with the interactive construction of knowledge.


In short, roughly speaking, you might divide social science into:

1. Experimental, with a more realist ontology (i.e. reality is out there), with an empiricist epistemology (i.e. and I'll gather sense data to find it);

2. Postmodernist constructivism, with a less realist ontology (i.e. reality is just a load of competing claims), and a constructivist epistemology (i.e. and I'll analyse those competing accounts to explore it)


Applied, then , to social psychology, it is important to understand the tension, throughout its history, between:

1. A more traditional experimental (quantitative) approach, which sees social reality as a set of facts to be known for all time by measuring people in the laboratory;

2. A more critical, discursive (qualitative) approach, which sees social reality as mutually constructed between people in the real world.


I've simplified things horribly to make the distinctions as clear as possible, but I hope this helps anyone who is struggling to get a handle on these terms, and apply them to social psychology.


You could use the invented word 'OBEK' to remember it: basically, Ontology = Being; Epistemology = Knowledge.

And if you want to know where the word 'OBEK' comes from…

I just socially constructed it!