Ideology, Epistemology, and Modes of Inquiry: Aboriginal Issues, Trajectories of Truth, and the Criteria of Evaluation Research

T.S.Palys, Ph.D. / School of Criminology / Simon Fraser University

[This paper was presented at a symposium of the West Coast Law & Society group, held in Vancouver, BC, from 30 March to 1 April 1989.]


Perhaps I should begin my talk by telling you that I changed my mind about the topic for which I'm listed in the programme, namely Methodological Models in Pornography Research. It seemed like a good idea at the time - a few months ago, when the actual doing of the paper seemed remote, and Neil Boyd asked me to identify a topic on which I could expatiate. As penance, I'll tell you something about why that transition occurred, since doing so will convey my intentions and help introduce my real topic.

It all revolved around the purpose of this meeting, really, which I construed as a sort of academic "show and tell", where, in an effort to foster academic exchange between persons of roughly common interest at our three universities, we could tell, and listen to, expressions of our unique interests. The pornography paper would have told you some of the things that I've been up to, but my preference was to tell you things on which I expect to focus in the future. As such, it will be necessarily sketchy in what might emerge, but I will try to base it in some matters that I have considered before.

My man title - Ideology, Epistemology and Modes of Inquiry - gives you a good indication of the issues that are of primary concern to me, which focus generally on the linkages that exist between the ideologies and epistemologies adopted by researchers, and on the way these perspectives become manifest in the day-to-day mundanities of designing, executing, and interpreting any given piece of research. And although the subtitle I've chosen - Aboriginal Issues, Criteria of Evaluation Research, and Trajectories of Truth - gives you a good indication of the context in which I hope to explore these concerns, my working subtitle - Donald T. Campbell meets Michel Foucault and Rodney Dangerfield - was probably more descriptive in terms of the route I would like to take in getting there. So let me begin by giving you a brief tour of the ideas of relevance that emerge from these four persons, in order to explicate their place in my past, as well as in my probable future.

Donald T. Campbell and Evolutionary Epistemology

Let me start, then, with Donald T. Campbell, who has been a very imposing presence in 20th century social science not only for me, but for at least three generations of social science researchers. Campbell began his career as an orthodox positivist in the 1940s. Those of you familiar with research methods concepts will be familiar with jargon like "internal validity" and "external validity", which Campbell and his colleagues developed and helped promulgate from the 1950s onwards (e.g., Campbell, 1957; Campbell & Stanley, 1963). You will also know of his efforts in developing the notion of quasi-experimentation in the 1960s and 1970s (e.g., see Campbell, 1967; Cook & Campbell, 1979), where he argued that the logic underlying experimental inquiry had broader applicability that its original laboratory version suggested. More recently, you may know of efforts by him and his intellectual descendants in the 1970s and 1980s to push the underlying logic of experimental inquiry into the realm of case study research (e.g., see Campbell, 1975; Kidder, 1981; Palys, 1988; Rosenblatt, 1981), and to forge some degree of rapprochement between qualitative and quantitative empirical perspectives (e.g., see Campbell, 1975, 1978, 1979b; Cook & Reichardt, 1979; Palys, 1990).

Campbell is a relative rarity among members of the social sciences in so far as he is intellectually fluent in numerous academic disciplines, and is not only a practitioner who has the knowledge of what it is like to do research with real people in real contexts, but has also considered and contributed to literature in philosophy of science. It is his meta-theoretical pursuits, in particular, that I wish to consider here.

Just to give a common frame of reference, I will note that one dichotomy that appears in recent social science literature, although this is by no means its first incarnation, involves a differentiation between realist and constructionist perspectives. The realist perspective, which was given its most adamant expression in positivism, asserted that there is a concrete immutable reality our there - one that you and I can discover if we're just smart enough to figure it out. Out of this, we get a belief in objectivism, operationism, and Nobel Prizes in Economics. At the opposite pole is constructionism which, in its extreme, suggests that this is an inherently phenomenological universe we live in, that the world itself has no "inherent" attributes that lie in wait of our discovery of them, and that "the truth" is little more than a product that particular interests, and each of us, help pound, knead, and shape. Although 20th century social science is replete with examples of advocates for both perspectives, one could argue reasonably safely that the central tendency of recent social science has moved from more realist, objectivist, behaviourist approaches, which reached their zenith in the mid-20th century, to one that at least acknowledges that an understanding of phenomenology is integral to an understanding of "how things are".

I had the great pleasure of spending a portion of my sabbatical last year with Donald Campbell, and I found a spiritual partner in someone whose life embodied a willingness to always scrutinize even his most deeply held beliefs. Although Campbell began his academic life as an intellectual positivist, his developing philosophy of science over succeeding decades emphasized, with progressively greater intensity, the human components of science, and the inevitable fallibility and arguability of our conceptions of truth. In the most recent explications of the causal assumptions underlying his work, Campbell (see Cook and Campbell, 1979, 1986) advocates what he calls a "critical realist" perspective that attempts to adopt what he believes to be an appropriate intermediary choice. Given prominence also in Bhaskar's (1986) more recent work, the critical realist perspective allows both the fragility and the potency of scientific observation and belief, but reminds us that there is some reality out there that we invariably bump up against when we try and mix theory and data, which, at the very least, imposes constraints on the range of interpretation that is reasonable. We may negotiate truth, but we cannot extort it.

But is this a reasonable resolution? One might argue that the critical realist perspective has not yet shed a sufficient amount of its positivist heritage, in so far as its critical aspects extend only to the fallibility of scientific theories and beliefs, but not to a scrutiny of its realist roots. This is most evident in Campbell's meta-theory (I'm not sure what else to call it) of evolutionary epistemology, on which he embellished most fully in a Festschrift to Karl Popper (see Campbell, 1974). Stated very briefly, evolutionary epistemology takes Campbell's notions of science as a community of disputatious, questioning truth-seekers (e.g., Campbell, 1979a, 1986), mixes this with the notion that the process of "valid inference" involves the elimination of, or selection of, rival plausible explanations (e.g., see Cook & Campbell, 1979; Palys, 1990), and then attempts to place that mixture is some historical, evolutionary perspective.

The basic argument is that we humans have been around for a while now, and have come a long way, and that we've done that by coming to an understanding of the world around us that is not completely out to lunch. The fact that you and I are standing here today deliberating these matters, albeit (but significantly) as one small component of some larger academic enterprise, is itself proof of the reasonableness of that assertion. Some millennia ago, we managed to learn that if you go walking where the tigers are, you don't usually come back. Perhaps more contentious was the question of whether it was a particular plant or a change in the water supply that caused the sudden rise in disease and death among the group. In any event, Campbell, makes note that it is only the survivors of such events who remained around to debate "theories" about what it is that "really" happened, and suggests that over millennia since then, we have made "progress" in the explanatory capability of our theories, in the sophistication of the questions we ask, and in our abilities to rule out alternate, competing explanations in our quest for valid inference, i.e., truth. Similarly, theories themselves go through a process of selection, mutation and revision, so that, over the long haul, only the most productive survive. There may be fallibility to our observations and beliefs that heighten their negotiability among those of us who comprise this particular generation's scholarly cohort but, over the long haul, the gap between belief and reality will ultimately plod its way to veridicality (e.g., see also Campbell, 1969a, 1974). I remember sitting in Campbell's office on the last day of my sabbatical visit, and drawing a figure on his blackboard that looked something like this:

Figure 1:

Michel Foucault and Power-Knowledge

Here's where Donald T. Campbell meets Michel Foucault and, for Foucault, there is an even bigger picture yet. Although he, too, is difficult to summarize adequately in a nutshell, there are several themes in his work that deserve mention here. In commenting on evolutionary epistemology, I suspect Foucault (if he were alive, and interested) would first question its assumption that the continuing history of science represents "progress", other than in the incredibly trivial sense that we are on a time line and, as a species, are not immobile or stagnant (e.g., see Foucault, 1970, 1972). "Progress" implies greater proximity to some ultimate destination, but how can one make a judgment to that effect until you have reached the destination, or at least know for sure where it is? And therein lies the rub, because "where it is" is a contemporary assumption that every successive generation of scholars assumes they have finally identified. We know what's important! We're not confused! We know where we're going! And to demonstrate the point, we teleologically look back at our academic history, note all the blithering idiots who made all those cute "mistakes", identify a new set of heroes whom we revere as "before their time", and who "anticipated later developments", or who made "revolutionary contributions" that helped get us out of some morass of misguided ignorance to the sophisticated and enlightened position we have today. Did medieval scholars sit around at symposia and say "Geez, we're ignorant"? Foucault suggests not, and I tend to believe him.

Instead, Foucault reminds us that at every single point in time that we might look at, not only does there exist an array of beliefs about the nature and location of truth, but each moment in time also freezes into a myriad of choices concerning which of numerous possible future trajectories of truth we will subscribe to and pursue. Thus, Foucault's drawing of evolutionary epistemology would probably look more like this:

Figure 2.

Add variation in the number of "now" points you include (i.e., truth according to what epistemology?), and consider each of their teleological family trees, and each of their range of possible futures, and you set the stage not only for quibbles concerning interpretations of truth, but also for quibbles concerning what the objectives of truth are, and hence of whether current efforts represent "progress" or not. One epistemology's "revolutionary step forward" is another's "great step backwards" into a morass of irrelevance and misguided truth.

Realism may be justified to the extent that there is an external world with which we must negotiate, but the "truth" of social reality is itself an ephemeral entity that is affected by the nature of our efforts to grasp it. The image in my head is when you're in the bath tub, and there's a barely noticeable piece of lint in the water that you try and catch - first it's a game, and then it becomes a challenge, but every movement creates new currents that push it away from its original location even though you come closer to grasping it at the same time, so you move your hand more slowly in an attempt to disturb it less, but it always zips out the side just when you thought you had it.

Foucault may be rolling in his grave at the thought of me using such an image, but it serves as a reasonable introduction to his concept of power-knowledge, which is hyphenated to accentuate the intricate link that exists between the two [e.g., see Foucault, 1972), or commentaries by Cousins & Hussain (1984) and Gordon (1980)]. Our analytical task, according to Foucault, is to understand the nature of their interaction, i.e., we seek truths, but we must understand also the variable trajectories of the knowledge-generation process over time, and of the particular power relations that influence choices among those trajectories, as part of the ephemeral truth that unites us in this particular enterprise.

Put in more absurd terms, would science look the same if it were created by whales? Would the places we look be the same if we were 30 feet tall instead of 6, or if our eyes were sensitive to different wavelengths of light than they are now? Orthodox realists would argue that even though a science created by whales or people 30 feet tall might look different, in the sense of focussing on different phenomena than we do as humans who are approximately 6 feet tall, the elements of truth ultimately decided upon would remain constant, since their essence is embodied wherever we choose to look. A science generated by whales would lead us to the same unyielding truths as a science generated by people; a science generated by aborigines would come to the same conclusions as a science generated by any other cultural group. In contrast, Foucault's position is that the truth is created as much as debated, i.e., Foucault is realist to the extent that there is an "it" out there, although he construes "it" as a construction whose particular location reflects and reaffirms particular power relations that exist at any given point in time.

The behaviour we engage in at a symposium like this one, or in a profession like this one, is obviously human social behaviour, so we should be able to apply Foucault's notions to our own efforts at understanding truth. We operate on the assumption that reality imposes certain mutable but nonetheless potentially reified and anthropomorphized structures, and we should scrutinize the ways in which our own activities help to re-create and reaffirm, or challenge, the existing social structures of the day.

Rodney Dangerfield and What This Talk is About

Having expressed some of the methodological issues that occupy me, my hope now is to justify my presence here today by telling you about a particular socio-legal issue that may provide a unique nexus for investigating the concerns noted above. More specifically, I wished to express an interest in pursuing research involving aboriginal issues and related contemporary debates concerning aboriginal autonomy and environmental issues, since I believe that the interactions between our indigenous peoples and the dominant European culture represent as much a history of a clash of epistemologies as of anything else. What is an indigenous epistemology? In what sense do contemporary social dynamics involving aboriginal and other social groups represent negotiations over the trajectories of knowledge and truth?

Rodney Dangerfield comes into the picture because he strikes me as the prototype of the clued-out vaudevillian who goes into cognitive oblivion when asked, "So... how long has it been since you stopped abusing your children?" We are disposed to answer a question, and think it's nice that someone finally asked, but are perturbed because of the implicit assumption it requires, i.e., that we had been abusing our children in the past. Instead of answering the question (i.e., yes or no), we are forced to take a step back and realize it is a leading one, and it is the question itself that is the problem, because it presupposes we are a certain way.

Analogously, many believe that Aboriginal peoples should be ecstatic that contemporary political correctness requires that we ask them their opinion instead of ignoring their concerns as we have for scores of years. So it is nice that we ask; the problem is that we ask all the "wrong" questions. Perhaps the enduring hostilities that mark interaction between these social groupings is best construed as an epistemologically rooted hostility over the nature of the questions we ask, and what they take for granted about the desirability of development, for example, and the criteria to consider when deciding whether to proceed.

If Foucault's conception of the power-knowledge relation or dialectic is a reasonable one, then it should be evident and articulated in the dialogue that exists between, for example, aboriginal groups and federal and provincial governments, or between aboriginal groups and corporate interests, particularly on issues where the pairs have overlapping interests, but different epistemological premises. More specifically, one should expect such an epistemological clash to be evident in such domains as environmental and development issues, and in the bases upon which evaluation research and impact assessments are conducted. This may come down to a question as trivial as whether Stephen Hawking and the Pope can sit down and agree about the nature of the universe, but I hope it does more than that. More optimistically, I would hope it would provide a route for not only highlighting epistemological premises associated with each mode of thought, but also for identifying a more egalitarian ground for rapproachement that is respectful of both frames of thought.

Unfortunately, in the process of addressing questions about the evolution of scientific thought and the role the social and natural sciences play in reaffirming and otherwise influencing developing realities and trajectories of truth, it is here where inadequacies in my own sophistication about such matters leads me to grind to a halt. Progress, if I may indulge in use of such a term, requires extended exposure to more literature than I currently have at my disposal: the anthropological literature concerning aboriginal poeples and their epistemological base; the legal literature concerning the evolving legal context that has defined the terms of interaction between indigenous and other groups; and the Sociology of Law and Political Economies that went into producing those contexts. Of course, it also brings into question the evaluation criteria and assessment indicators that are now manifest in "impact assessments" and "cost-benefit analyses", of which I know little right now, but have the expertise to understand.

If any of these interests happen to overlap with your own, then I hope we can talk as the symposium continues, or beyond.


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