Trustworthiness and Objectivity in Varying Epistemological Assumptions

Trustworthiness in research tends to be discussed in extremes by the proponents of different research approaches, philosophies, and epistemological assumptions. In the below graphic, I attempt to show what I term the micro and macro levels at which trustworthiness can be achieved. For this post, I decided to take a deeper look at aspects of trustworthiness on the macro level, epistemological assumptions in particular, while only hinting at issues at the micro level. As micro-level trustworthiness I define the trustworthiness of the actual research article including but not limited to the content. Examples would be the researcher’s own ethos, adherence to established notions of organization, arrangement, form, format, layout conventions, and mechanics as well as perceived honesty, disclosure of limitations, treatment of human participants, etc., all are important elements contributing or detracting from trustworthiness. At the macro level, the focus is on epistemological assumptions, adherence to or deviance from traditionally recognized research approaches, the research institution the researcher is associated with, in general, the larger context the research is situated in.

trustworthiness

Figure 1: Trustworthiness of research on the micro and macro levels.

What makes us trust a particular source and not another? As readers of research articles in Technical Communication and any other field, we evaluate the trustworthiness of a source continuously. Does it match our expectations in terms of adherence to the conventions of the specific discourse or genre, is the journal reputable, do we know the author, are we familiar with the topic, etc. Of course, the actual content is of extreme importance, however, many times, we have already formed a general opinion on certain aspects of the research’s trustworthiness, prior to reading a single paragraph.

From a content perspective, we look for clarity of style, coherent narrative, logical argument, well documented sources, careful documentation of methodology and results. We expect honesty from the researcher. In other words, we want to know where complications or shortcomings might have impacted or limited the research results. We expect careful documentation of the fair treatment of human participants. We expect objectivity. Our class discussion of the Spinuzzi and Blomberg articles clearly showed that trustworthiness is impacted by all of these factors. We found Spinuzzi’s article more trustworthy in general and were less convinced of the Blomberg article based in part on our knowledge of the discourse of technical communication and in part of the actual presentation of the study. With respect of other class readings, our discussions clearly identified Baake’s approach of honesty and sincerity as highly trustworthy. We did however struggle to define what the right amount of disclosure is. Some class members were suspicious of too much disclosure and believed that that could be a sign of covering up poor results.

At the basis of any discussion of trustworthiness for me, personally, are the underlying epistemological assumptions of the researcher and I would like to launch into this in more depth. How does the researcher establish him or herself as a credible maker of knowledge? What are the assumptions about truths? Are there truths that simply wait to be discovered or are the truths we perceive as such socially constructed? Research, as an epistemological process, not unlike everything else we do, must be understood in context, i.e., it cannot be conducted, discussed, or evaluated in isolation as if there were no perceived reality or system of order influencing it. While Nietzsche accounts for truths in general as allusions that we have simply forgotten to be allusions, and Aristotle based truth finding on syllogistic logic, Whatley, a religious apologist, uses science and logic for religious arguments to give them weight because he realized that that was the way to persuade the scientist. Achieving trustworthiness is central to any research project

In the preface of ‘The Order of Things, An Archeology of the Human Sciences’ (1966), Foucault examines the organizing paradigms of human perception and knowledge and how they have changed between the Renaissance and the end of the 19th century. George Steiner’s (1971) critique of Foucault’s ‘The Order of Things’ (1966) eloquently summarizes the central argument of Foucault’s theory. “We only perceive that which the conventions of significance lead us to see.” In other words, epistemology is shaped by the currently available landscape of understanding and relations that simultaneously are both, the universe and the straight jacket of our ability to ‘know’. In the context of our class discussions about trustworthiness in terms of objectivity, it is crucial to understand this when starting a research project. Objectivity is the perceived neutrality of judgment. However, such neutrality of judgment is impossible because the influence of the episteme is omnipresent and cannot be suspended.

To achieve trustworthiness, a clear understanding of epistemological assumptions is of utmost importance for any researcher, especially in the field of technical communication, because, so often, we find ourselves pressed to define and justify this field and its epistemology. Here, I can only scratch the surface of the main arguments brought forth in the apparent conflict between, for example, subjectivist and empiricist routes to the creation of knowledge and its perceived trustworthiness. The significance of this topic is clearly reflected in the numerous articles written on the topic and the prominence given to it in such foundational works as Johnson-Eilola and Selber’s Central Works in Technical Communication. Nancy Roundy Blyler’s Taking a Political Turn: The Critical Perspective and Research in Professional Communication and Davida Charney’s Empiricism is Not a Four-Letter Word exemplify the spectrum of stances with respect to research approaches in the field of technical communication.

Trustworthiness and objectivity from the perspective of feminist and critical theory

Feminist theory, according to Lay (1991), offers compelling and useful directions and approaches for researchers in technical communication by allowing for the uncovering of the masculine bias of science and technology. Lay attempts to achieve trustworthiness, by advocating the use of ethnographic studies in technical communication, specifically in collaborative writing research. In order to structure her argument, Lay lists the basic characteristics that define feminist theory; celebration of difference, social activism, acknowledged influence of the researcher’s backgrounds and values, inclusion of women’s experiences, study of gaps and silences in traditional scholarship, and new sources of knowledge. Opposing the scientific, objectivist approach to research just as Blyler does, Lay is looking at ethnography as an important way to acknowledge the subjective viewpoint of the researcher and links ethnographic research to social activism in that it, as does feminist theory, deliberately seeks sources of knowledge not prescribed by the power elite in the same way that Blyler rejects the notion of innocent knowledge. It is interesting to observe, however, that Lay in her own research on collaborative writing seems to resort to generalization when reporting on masculine and feminine characteristics regarding the forming of interpersonal relationships. Lay’s argument, as well as that of other feminist theorists, might suggest that the Foucauldian notion of the episteme must be challenged to include our ability to transcend it from within and uncover excluded sources of knowledge. Clearly, however, such an attempt might also be limited by the researcher’s precarious position within the episteme’s carefully spun cocoon.
Shope (2006) approaches the philosophical question of trustworthiness or authority in epistemology from a very concrete and personal perspective. Highly critically, she examines her own shifting assumptions of methodology and epistemology as experienced during her research of rural Black women in post-apartheid South Africa. She compares her research assumptions as a Western researcher prior to and during field work of a research project in South Africa while focusing on the question of who the benefactor of research, and by extrapolation, the resulting knowledge, is. She examines the often unacknowledged influences of language, culture, society, values, grand narrative, gender, history, power relationships, and location on the framing of research by the researcher based on her own experience. Shope acknowledges this epistemological dilemma, “A long history of empirical colonialism, of ‘studying down’ (Harding, 1998), has left its mark on the intellectual landscape. I did not want my research to be another colonizing project, and yet I could not escape the political implications of my social location.” (Shope, 2006, p. 173) Shope comes to the very sobering conclusion that her belief in feminist theory as the solution to problems inherent in research did not hold true in its entirety. The power relations of both, her ‘Northern, academic’ education and those of her discipline would forever prevent her from representing truths from her subjects’ point of view, true in their episteme. Minh-ha (1989), as cited by Shope (2006) dismisses the ability to do research on behalf of the other, rather labels it, “‘manipulation’ of the other on our behalf.” (Shope, p. 175) Along similar lines, Charmaz (2004) frames the health care ethnographic interview in terms of immersion into the phenomenon by the researcher to understand meaning, to realize when silence has meaning, and what meaning certain actions have. She clearly advocates for research practices that seek awareness of interfering factors, such as the researcher’s view of the world, language, cultural background, etc.

Objectivity, absolute truth, and the scientific method

Objective, in its most positivist interpretation, from any kind of social or power relations, the scientific method is based on the assumption that absolute truths exist in nature and can be uncovered by the researcher with observation and experiment. Harding (1998) calls this very positivistic approach an internalist epistemology that came into existence with the emergence of modern sciences about five centuries ago. With respect to this extreme and clearly positivistic notion of the scientific method, Harding says,

“While increasing numbers of scholars no longer believe that the historical evidence lends plausibility to the idea that scientific descriptions and explanation could actually achieve such mirror-like perfection, many of them still think that trying to produce them is the best goal for the sciences. […] It is worthwhile to act as if it were the case as science progresses, its representations get closer and closer to such a singular and perfectly accurate reflection of nature’s unique order, according to this view. […] Therefore, when sciences function at their very best, their institutions, cultures, and practices, including scientific methods, will contribute nothing culturally distinctive to the representations of nature that appear in the results of research, this line of reasoning goes.” (Harding, 1998, p. 3)

Technical Communication scholar Davida Charney is by no means radically opposed to Blyler, Lay, and other proponents of radical theory. However, Charney (1996) advocates a nuanced, critical view of finding truth and takes issue, specifically, with the blanket condemnation of scientific methods and the overreliance on qualitative methods in technical communication by many scholars in this field as well as in other social sciences. She argues that no single method of research, empirical or qualitative, can promise complete trustworthiness. Trustworthiness of results must be negotiated by methodological pluralism. Charney (1996) challenges mischaracterizations of scientific methods and, by extension, mischaracterizations of the researchers who employ them, and aims to dispel commonly held beliefs by researchers in social fields of study. She acknowledges the significance of research methods regarding the authority of technical communication as a field and the perceived value of work in this field. Leaning on Popper’s theory of falsifiability, Charney’s main argument centers on the verifiable authority trustworthiness of the researcher‘s results by others via methodological pluralism, i.e., objectivity achieved collectively rather than individually. Charney also questions the assumption that ethnographic and qualitative research methods are automatically subjective and, simultaneously, asserts that subjective insights have historically had a place in the scientific method. In a later article, Charney (1998) traces the shifting attitudes, and with it assumptions of objectivity and trustworthiness of technical communication researchers toward empirical research from the 1960 to the end of the 20th Century. From the embrace of the scientific method, across various stages of rejection of empiricism to what she calls its demonization, Charney carefully describes the swinging of the research pendulum over time and concludes that there is danger in adopting a stance that rejects any form of logocentrism in favor of radical ethnocentrism that meaningful research is hampered. In summary, she advocates a moderate, multi-method approach to research that acknowledges the ethical shortcomings of each method in isolation, yet does not devalue any method in its entirety.

Ending this somewhat long foray into research approaches and epistemological assumptions, I conclude that both, trustworthiness and objectivity are moving targets. They are dependent on the accepted epistemology du jour. However, trustworthiness and objectivity in research are heavily influenced by the researcher’s knowledge of the discourse jargon and conventions of the field he or she does research in, by carefully constructing an argument, by selecting methods that best suit the chose research, by being cognizant of power relations and one’s own bias.

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