My “friends” mock me for ALL OF THE EPISTEMIC TALK. It might be justified… In this post (which is taken from a draft paper in submission at a conference) I outline some current work in epistemic behaviour, and some issues with that work.  In my  next post I’ll talk about some possible alternatives. # 1.     The Epistemic Concern with Cognitivist Models

Epistemic Cognition The study of epistemic behaviour traditionally

cognitivist focussing on beliefs. Across three broad models of epistemic cognition (developmental; multidimensional; resources), there is agreement on two main areas – what knowledge is, and how one comes to know: Table 1 – Epistemic dimensions

Epistemic areaEpistemic dimensionDescription


Certainty of knowledgeThe degree to which knowledge is conceived as stable or changing, ranging from absolute to tentative and evolving knowledge
Simplicity of knowledgeThe degree to which knowledge is conceived as compartementalised or interrelated, ranging from knowledge as made up of discrete and simple facts to knowledge as complex and comprising interrelated concepts


Source of knowledgeThe relationship between knower and known, ranging from the belief that knowledge resides outside the self and is transmitted, to the belief that it is constructed by the self
Justification for knowingWhat makes a sufficient knowledge claim, ranging from the belief in observation or authority as sources, to the belief in the use of rules of inquiry and evaluation of expertise

Table adapted from (Mason, Boldrin, & Ariasi, 2009, p. 69) Each of these models might be amenable to probing through a variety of methodological approaches.  However, developmental models have tended towards interviews and laboratory tasks, while multidimensional models have emphasised paper and pencil self-report measures (DeBacker, Crowson, Beesley, Thoma, & Hestevold, 2008). In the educational context, the measurement of epistemic cognition in-situ in the messy environment of the classroom would permit the exploration of localised, and co-constructed, belief-in-action.  If we think that the way students treat information, and knowledge (their epistemologies in action) matter – which there is good empirical and non-empirical reason to suppose – then we should seek to cultivate these as dynamic and context sensitive traits through our use of formative assessment.  However, traditional approaches – including the oft used questionnaire – are likely to be inadequate for this purpose, therefore some researchers (Hofer, 2004; Maggioni & Fox, 2009; Mason, Ariasi, & Boldrin, 2011; Mason, Boldrin, & Ariasi, 2010; Mason & Boldrin, 2008) have further contextualised the study of epistemic cognition by moving beyond self-report inventories and using online think-aloud methodology (Ericsson & Simon, 1980). (Ferguson, Bråten, & Strømsø, 2012, p. 106). This is a continuing trend, with (Barzilai & Zohar, 2012) also utilising a thinking aloud.  Yet even this method does not account for the nature of epistemic-action, which – insofar as it relates to “knowledge” – is by its very nature, social, collaborative, and normative (Craig, 1999). Yet, while Schraw (2013) offers a comprehensive review of the literature on epistemic and ontological beliefs in educational research which discusses a range of philosophical contributions to the area, there is little discussion of the pragmatist, social, or virtue based epistemologies nor of the methodological implications of the philosophical stances from which epistemic cognition research may draw.  Given the characterisation of epistemic cognition as “a lens for a learner’s views on what it is to be learnt” (Bromme, Pieschl, & Stahl, 2009, p. 8) there are grounds for concern here – epistemic cognition research makes explicit the role of “action”, and perspectives or beliefs in their context as facets of “doing”, yet it does not draw from enough of the philosophical literature in this area, nor from methodological approaches which seek to explore the actions in context – actions as ways of doing, and ways of being. # 2.     An alternative model for epistemic behaviour Contextualist conceptualisations for epistemic behaviour An approach based on a rather different epistemological, theoretical background, and as such appropriate for reference to in the analysis of language as a tool ‘to do’ rather than ‘to represent’ is that of Mercer.  Mercer’s work has focussed on the ways in which language is used “as a social mode of thinking – a tool for teaching-and-learning, constructing knowledge, creating joint understanding and tackling problems collaboratively” (Mercer, 2004, p. 137).  A related perspective, which arose from some common work (including Edwards and Mercer’s ‘Common Knowledge’ (1987)) is Discursive Psychology – which has a particular interest in “the kinds of naturally occurring interactional talk through which people live their lives and conduct their daily business” (Edwards, 2005, p. 258).   This approach is explicitly non-cognitivist in nature, with less interest in the ways people reproduce cognitive constructs via questionnaires, interviews, experiments and so on.  Discursive Psychology thus describes cognitive psychology as treating treat discourse as “an abstract logical and referential system – language – rather than a locally managed, action oriented, co-constructed resource” (Potter & Edwards, 2003, p. 95).  It is thus explicitly motivated by a post-Wittgensteinian neo-pragmatism view, that language is a tool to represent the world, where talk may be seen as “a window (a dirty window, perhaps) on the mind” (Edwards, 1993, p. 208). Discursive psychology is of particular interest because, while sociocultural discourse analysis is interested in language as a cultural tool for learning, Discursive Psychology has focussed more on the respecification of commonly held psychological constructs in terms of their linguistic, situated, co-creation.  That is, it is interested in the emergence and fluidity of psychological constructs “in action” as co-constructed in, and mediated by, language, as opposed to their status as neural or cognitive entities.  Thus, for a specific analysis of a construct – epistemic beliefs – this approach may be highly appropriate. In the context of epistemic beliefs, Discursive Psychology posits that we should not see beliefs and communication as “two separate ‘objects’ that can affect each other, but as more integrated aspects of cognition and/or behaviour” (Österholm, 2010, p. 242).  This perspective describes “the activity, the discourse, as the site where epistemological beliefs come to existence, through explicit or implicit references to prior  experiences (epistemological resources)” (Österholm, 2009, p. 262). Österholm’s argument is that this perspective can be combined with Hammer and Elby’s ‘resources’ model, in which epistemic beliefs are viewed not as fixed, or developing cognitive models ranging over one or more domains, but are rather seen as dependent upon the resources available to the cognizer at any time – in our case, discourse being key to this.  The emphasis of this perspective as “theory-in-action” – in which context, domain, culture, and task conditions interact – makes an important point, that: A sophisticated epistemology entails context-sensitive judgements.  Thus they point out that it is not very sophisticated to view the idea that the earth is round rather than flat as ‘tentative’ whereas theories of dinosaur extinction do require a more tentative stance (Barzilai & Zohar, 2012, p. 42). Importantly, Discursive Psychology is also not interested in the socio-political or phenomenological elements of language.  Instead, its focus is on the use of language as a tool – language, in use.  This set of approaches recognise that consideration of the usefulness of knowledge and language ‘in action’ at work in the world, is preferable to trying to get at the ‘real world’.  As such, their focus is not on verification of correspondences between linguistic labels and ‘things in the world’, but on the ways in which knowledge and language acts on and in the world.  The implication of such approaches is that information needs should be considered as they relate to communities of justification, and the purposes for which knowledge is deployed (e.g. practical v. academic nursing knowledge).  Thus, the interest is not “what does it [language] represent? But, what is going on?” (Edwards, 1993, p. 218).

Epistemic Cognition, Epistemic Behaviour While discursive psychology

offers one alternative means to explore epistemic cognition, its focus on the spoken discourse as the primary source of information may artificially narrow the natural object of enquiry.  A complementary strategy would be to explore behavioural markers implying particular epistemic virtues – this alternative strategy, exploring epistemic behaviour, respects the nature of virtue as an act based theory, interested in both abilities, and dispositions to act. Epistemic Action and Epistemic Games One approach which has explored this action-oriented perspective from an epistemic (although not ‘epistemic beliefs/cognition’) framework is that of Shaffer and his work on Epistemic Games as models of 21st Century assessments (Shaffer, 2008).  (To my knowledge, only one conference paper (Johnson, Reimann, Bull, & Fujita, 2011) has made this link between the two related areas of research previously.) Shaffer (2006) argues that epistemic frames – as ways of viewing what should be known, as normatively defined and achievable – and the games built around these frames, are important new ways of assessing a student’s understanding of what it is to be engaged in some particular (job related) knowledge activity.  Thus, in epistemic games, students are asked to engage in some computer based activity, through which various sorts of pre-operationalised decisions are captured and mapped such that a map of their activity on various epistemic-facets can be created which offers a picture of the distance between their own activity, and that of an expert in the particular field they are working on. This is a fantastic method for exploring specific epistemic communities of practice.  But for the broader perspective of epistemic beliefs (which is a different target of enquiry) we’d need to make some adaptations (see my next blog for some suggestions).  In particular, while this is more akin to the action-oriented suggestion above, Shaffer’s focus on episteme as a relationship between discursive practices and knowledge structures places less focus on the action, and more on the context in which that action occurs.  While this is no doubt important, it still glosses the choices that epistemic agents make in varied contexts – which may or may not be related to the occupation in which they are engaged or employed.  The focus on episteme as a social-context which defines the appropriate knowledge structures is important, but does not address the discursive properties that individuals and normative practices bring to bear on issues of knowledge.  In particular, while there may well be particular epistemic practices in particular occupations, the role of epistemic-action in everyday life goes beyond these particular occupational practices, which may well be instantiations of more general traits (and indeed, may well be good ways to learn to apply such general traits).  Furthermore, the approach is also – at least arguably – agnostic as to the particular types of epistemic practices we would wish our students to adopt.  That is, while it does hold – and assess – a set of normative practices, adopted from ‘experts’ in the community, to be important it does not assess these practices except in the context of the communities of practice from which they  are drawn.  This adoption of occupational norms may be problematic methodologically – because of inter, and intra-group variability – and theoretically insofar as it raises obvious is/ought concerns, and issues regarding the nature of normative values as true standards for action. I’m inclined towards Lynch’s (2010) suggestion regarding a [Rawlsian game for selecting epistemically privileged principles]1 (indeed, in some ways this is the philosophical underpinning of classroom-based communication rules such as Mercer’s “Ground Rules for Talk”).   Fundamentally, one significant point of this game is that the reasons given for any particular method will be practical not theoretic in nature, as an appeal to self-interest in which practical concerns and a respect for each other as epistemic agents is important.  “If we are to treat each other as autonomous judgers worthy of equal respect, we must engage in the process of giving and asking for reasons, even when the question at hand concerns the reliability of our most basic methods for reaching the truth.” (Lynch, 2010, p. 277). What Shaffer does offer, is a method through which one can imagine a set of normative (dynamic) principles being created which, through some appropriate assessment task, allow students to explore their own discursive practices and knowledge map in a supportive environment which could offer them formative advice for developing their epistemic virtues. Epistemic Action and Epistemic Assessment Thus, while various models offer various contributions to the field, the current approaches suffer from a number of issues.  Furthermore, where they have delved more deeply into (philosophical) epistemological concerns, many have missed useful insights from value approaches and other new developments in epistemology (particularly social, and pragmatist approaches), and those approaches which do discuss these developments have yet to map these insights to particular methodological approaches. The approach given here suggests that we need not posit (contra Johnson, Reimann, Bull and Fujita’s  (2011) discussion of epistemic-games and beliefs) that epistemic acts invoke epistemic beliefs nor indeed that these acts are explicitly epistemic.  Instead, our focus is on epistemic behaviour – acts with epistemic implication, which imply some thing or other to be the case.  In this context, virtue can be thought of as the ability to act ‘x’, and the disposition to do so – the virtuous agent acts in such a manner because they are both able, and disposed to do so.


  1. “Choosing epistemic methods – a Rawlsian game”