Is there such a thing as mixed epistemology research?

Is there such a thing as mixed epistemology research?  ~Gareth Treharne (gtreharne@psy.otago.ac.nz)

Mixed methods research is a well-established feature of many fields of social science research, including health psychology (shameless plug: see Treharne & Riggs, 2014). That’s not to say that all social science researchers (or readers) value mixed methods research – indeed, the notion of mixing methods might be hotly debated by some critical health psychologists and lead them to ask questions such as:

By mixed methods, do you only mean a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods? Surely we should be more interested in innovative mixtures of qualitative methods?

I can imagine some critical health psychologists responding to such questions with cries of “Methodolatry!” (idolisation of one method often at the expense of finding a better way to explore one’s research aims; see Chamberlain, 2000; Curt, 1994; Hale, Treharne, & Kitas, 2007), particularly at the reliance on the grossly oversimplified binary of qualitative versus quantitative and the host of associated self-sustaining binaries (attempted depth versus supposed generalisation, seeking meaning versus feigning reliability etc.).

And in response to mixed methods research, many critical health psychologists may ask “So what’s your driving epistemology [singular]?” with the implication being you better pick one epistemology and then make sure your method matches that epistemology.

  • My question is this: Can health psychology researchers mix epistemologies in our research? Is it possible within one study, one project (e.g., a PhD), or one programme of research?
  • Are epistemologies more than a distinction between social constructionism and post-positivism?
  • Does it help to fixate on one epistemology to lead our research even when mixing methods in the qualitative and quantitative way?
  • Can a researcher merge elements of the two epistemologies or alternate between them, and what might that mixing entail?
  • What are the potential dangers of mixing epistemologies when researching an area as diverse and meaning-laden as health and illness?
  • Do we run the risk of forgetting our research aims if we pick one epistemology?
  • And even if we try to mix epistemologies, does one epistemology top the other(s) in the final analysis?
  • Do we attempt to adhere to social constructionism in our research because we have a deeply held belief in it or because we know our critical colleagues may ridicule the merest whiff of a hypothesis or counting?
  • Do we call forth pragmastism in finding the method or the epistemology that might best fit our research aims?
  • Do we use the language of positivism for the apparent neatness of finding a truth to hold onto until otherwise proven or because we know that policy-makers have become so used to seeing ‘hard’ data that we take that angle in the hope of having some impact through our research?

I’m not sure I’ve reached a satisfactory conclusion here, but that raises a good question to end on: Can a piece of research ever aim to have a satisfactory conclusion under any epistemology? Of course not, but let’s keep researching.

References

  • Chamberlain, K. (2000). Methodolatry and qualitative health research. Journal of Health Psychology, 5(3), 285-296.
  • Chamberlain, K. (2014). Epistemology and qualitative research. In P. Rohleder & A. C. Lyons (Eds.), Qualitative research in clinical and health psychology (pp. 9-28). Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Curt, B. C. (1994). Textuality and tectonics: Troubling social and psychological science. Buckingham: Open University Press.
  • Hale, E. D., Treharne, G. J., & Kitas, G. D. (2007). Qualitative methodologies I: Asking research questions with reflexive insight. Musculoskeletal Care, 5, 139-147.
  • Treharne, G. J., & Riggs, D. W. (2014). Ensuring quality in qualitative research. In P. Rohleder & A. C. Lyons (Eds.), Qualitative research in clinical and health psychology (pp. 57-73). Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

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