Glossary of Fancy-Pants Terms

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Constructivism: a term that is used to refer to a general understanding of how people create knowledge and meaning. Basically, as used here, it refers to an understanding that we “know” something through our interaction with that thing, not based on the thing’s essence. In other words, when we say we know what something is, we are referring to knowledge that we have gained by interacting with the idea of that thing. For instance, the only meaningful knowledge of a “community” is not found in an “accurate” or “exact” essence that I have come to understand, but through my experiences with a “community” through which I “construct” my knowledge of “community”. And, since I rarely experience these things alone, I usually co-construct that knowledge with other people and groups.

Epistemology: a term that refers to the study of knowledge. It is generally used here to refer to a larger collection of “ways of knowing” that one may have. For instance, if I say “what is your primary epistemological understanding?”, I may be asking what kinds of “knowledge” you usually draw on or consider to be legitimate. Different kinds of knowledge may include intuition, reason, faith, reliance on authority, experiential, and so on.

Generalizability: is the ability to draw broader, universal understanding from smaller, more particular conclusions. For instance, we may ask a scientist whether her findings that a sample group of five children she has studied are “generalizable” to the larger population. What we mean to find out is whether what she has found to be “true” about the small group of children (sample) can be said to be “true” about all children (population). If so, her findings are generalizable. This is a central concern of many (but certainly not all) scientific questions.

Hegemony: is a concept that refers to the way knowledge is created and maintained, particularly shared knowledge, first described by Antonio Gramsci. When I use hegemony (or hegemonic) it refers to the dominant understanding that has been created about a thing. For instance, the hegemonic understanding of taxes in the US is that they are bad, an evil we tolerate. Even those who want to increase taxes or see them as generally good must deal with this dominant “common sense”. Hegemonic ideas are maintained by those who benefit from them with the help of those who do not because the idea is portrayed as obvious, self-evident, and impossible to overcome. Those who disagree with the hegemonic idea will often not challenge it because they too have come to see it as inevitable, an understanding that reinforces the hegemonic idea’s dominance.

Interpretivism: is related in many ways to the concept of constructivism above. Used here, it refers to the understanding that since “knowledge” and “meaning” are not simply found, but constructed by and among people, that a process of “interpretation” (hermeneutics) is required to understand the knowledge and meaning that has been constructed. For instance, if you tell me that you “feel safe in community”, I must interpret how you understand what it means to “feel”, what it means to you to be “safe”, and what it means to you to be “in community”. Inevitably, I must use my own history of constructing knowledge and meaning in order to make sense of what you might mean. Since total knowledge of my own history (not to mention yours) is impossible, and because we are constantly making new knowledge (now together through your comment), our interpretations need not be measured as “accurate” or “exact”, but rather whether we find our shared knowledge in some way good enough.

Neoliberalism: a big, complex idea, but one that I use to refer to a combination of beliefs, policies, and practices that rest on faith in the free market without concern for distribution, social consequences, or environmental impact. It refers to laizzez-faire economic practices that favor privatization, austerity, deregulation, and reliance on the wisdom of the market.

Norm: by this I mean a pattern of behaviors, expectations, viewpoints, and so on, that has come to be seen as “normal” by a given group. It may be conscious or unconscious. Usually these are most easily discernable when broken. For instance, the norm in my house may be to take your shoes off at the door. I may not realize how regular this has become until you walk in and leave your shoes on.

Normative: I usually use this here as an adjective that acknowledges that a certain way of knowing, being, or doing is not assumed to be universally true, but particular to a group. The context in which a normative thing is understood is important and changes the nature of the thing. For instance, a group may have normative practices such as gift giving that they value. This normative practice may result in additional norms such as reciprocity, the giving of thank you notes, and so on.

Positivism: is used here to refer to the understanding of knowledge based on that which can be derived from logic, mathematics, and empirical observation (see August Comte). To positivists, this is the basis for all authoritative knowledge. Basically, the idea is that if applied to all things, we will find that laws govern everything from gravity and chemical interactions to social patterns and human relationships. There are very few pure positivists left.

Post-Positivism: this movement was a response to the critiques that argued that Positivism overstated the determined nature of social interactions. However, they felt that constructivists (see above) went too far in saying that knowledge is co-created. They generally see the social world as every bit as knowable and predictable as the so-called natural world with the caveat that it is massively complex and perhaps unlikely that we will ever fully know it. Nonetheless, in this view, science takes us closer to knowledge of the actual thing (sometimes referred to as essence). You will see me refer to post-positivism/-ists as positivism/-ists as I see little meaningful difference beyond their level of conviction.

Praxis: refers to the marriage of action and reflection (see Paulo Freire). The idea is that in the process of social transformation, we start with our experience, build theory that we put into action, learn from that new experience, reflect and contemplate, and then integrate the new knowledge as theory to animate our next action. It is a process or cycle.

Quantitative/ Qualitative/Interpretive: these words refer here to the types of questions and assumptions a researcher makes when studying something. Social scientists have often only contrasted Quantitative and Qualitative when describing different approaches to asking scientific questions. But, this division ignores the fact that Qualitative questions can be asked using two very different sets of assumptions (positivist or interpretivist).

So, I use Peregrine Shwartz-Shea and Dvora Yanow’s three-way division of Quantitative-Positivist, Qualitative-Positivist, and Qualitative-Interpretivist. I’ll give a basic description below.

Quantitative refers to questions that are aimed at measuring something through “quantifiable” means (e.g. numbers). Quantitative is almost always done with (post)Positivist assumptions about how we know things. So, Quantitative-Positivism aims to measure a thing in order to create generalizable knowledge in order to predict future outcomes.

Qualitative refers to questions that are aimed at understanding something in terms that may not be measurable (like personal accounts of an event). Qualitative can be done from a (post)Positivist view point or an interpretive viewpoint. For instance, Qualitative-Positivism aims to account for a thing in order to create generalizable knowledge in order to predict future outcomes (just like Quantitative-Positivism). In such a case, I may use a person’s account of an event to learn about how all people (or similar people) would experience that event.

Alternatively, Qualitative-Interpretive aims to account for a thing by trying to make sense of that thing in context without expectations that the knowledge can be used for generalizable conclusions or to predict future outcomes.

Universal: I use this to refer to something that is always and everywhere true, unchanged by time, place, or other contextual factors.

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