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Department of Economic History

Uppsala University

Final Assignment
Does the Truth Matter in Science?
An epistemological approach of online political participation

Strati Maria

Supervisor: Magdalena Kania-Lundholm
Uppsala, October 2014

INTRODUCTION:
The emergence of new media platforms together with the ongoing development of the web
have influenced many aspects of the social life, such as culture, economy and politics. New
media platforms might encourage ordinary citizens to participate and influence the political
discourse. Generally speaking, new media play an important role in shaping the political
discourse and the decision-making process both online and offline. Online communities
function as a gathering space where individuals from different parts of the world exchange
views on political issues that directly concern them (Van Dijk 2012, 102). In addition,
within the online communities people seek to find other individuals with whom they share
common beliefs and values (Miller 2011, 190). It could be argued that the new media
platforms might give a voice to marginalized social groups, such as women and ethnic
minorities. In other words, individuals who belong to marginalized social groups might use
the new media platforms to voice their concerns and raise awareness on topics that directly
concern them. Nonetheless, the construction of different kinds of power relations within
the web might discourage ordinary citizens to participate in online political debates
(Castells 2013, 236).
The purpose of this essay is to analyze epistemologically the topic of online
political participation and discuss whether the truth matters in science. The main research
question will be focused whether the fundamental goal of science should be to reach the
truth. However, the goal of this study is not to provide a clear definition of truth. It should
be acknowledged that truth is fluid and subject to investigation. In addition, the truth is
something relevant which depends on the social and institutional background we are
operating. As a consequence, the attempt of this study is to analyze if science should be
oriented to determine what should be accepted as scientific knowledge. Our understanding
of what is considered as scientific knowledge is associated with the existing social
infrastructures, institutions, and culture.
The main discussion will be based mainly on the epistemological approaches of
Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Robert K. Merton, Alfred Schuetz, Sandra Harding and Judith
Butler. In specific, this essay is structured as follows. Firstly, it will be discussed what is
scientific knowledge and what is not according to the opposing approaches of Popper and
Kuhn. Secondly, it will be discussed if there are neutrality and objectivity in the social
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sciences within the framework of the sociology of knowledge. Thirdly, it will be analyzed
how phenomenology could be applied in social sciences research. The last part of our
discussion will highlight the role of feminist epistemology in science. Finally, the general
conclusion will be presented.

MAIN DISCUSSION:

I.

The Production of Scientific Knowledge
The point of departure of our analysis will be the conflicting approaches of Popper and
Kuhn, two of the influential figures of the philosophy of science (Lipton 2005). Popper has
a dogmatic view concerning what is scientific knowledge and what is not. Firstly, Popper
rejects inductivism and production of knowledge based on empiricism (Popper 1963).
Popper determines that a theory that is constructed based on empirical observation should
not be considered as scientific knowledge (1963). The main criterion that distinguishes
science from pseudoscience or non-science is the “testability” or the “falsification” of a
theory (Lakatos and Musgrave 1970; Popper 1963). Secondly, Popper states that scientists
should look for evidence that will falsify their theory instead of proofs that will verify them
(Lakatos and Musgrave 1970; Popper 1963). If scientists are looking for confirmations,
then it is easy to verify their theory (Popper 1963). In general, falsification will lead to the
increase of truth-content of existing theories (Popper 1963).
Kuhn is less dogmatic than Popper regarding the production of scientific knowledge.
On the one hand, Popper claims that social sciences should not belong in the sphere of
Sciences. On the other hand, Kuhn challenges Popper’s dogmatic idea by asserting that
Social Science is a science on its own and follows a set of particular principles (Kuhn
1962). Kuhn regards science as a communicative activity. Consequently, the scientific
community should come to a consensus regarding what should be considered as scientific
knowledge (Kuhn 1962). One of the main contributions of Kuhn is the introduction of the
following three concepts: paradigm, normal science and scientific revolution. In particular,
paradigms refers to all the dominant theories of a certain period of time and normal science
follows the principles of existing paradigms (Kuhn 1962). Nonetheless, there is a period of
time in which the existing paradigms fail to provide an adequate explanation. The result of
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this failure is a scientific revolution which leads to the replacement of existing paradigm
with new ones (Kuhn 1962). Popper and Kuhn disagree on their epistemological
approaches regarding science. However, both of them are in favor of deductive reasoning
and maintain that truth should not be the ultimate goal of science (Lipton 2005).
The topic of online political participation could be studied by incorporating both
Popperian and Kuhnian models. On the one hand, the Popperian model portrays what is
science and what is not. On the other hand, the Kuhnian model takes into consideration the
role of different scientific institutions in the process of the production of knowledge (Kuhn
1962). The virtue of falsification will contribute to challenging some ideas regarding the
role of new media platforms in endorsing the civic participation. In particular, after the
introduction of internet platforms in everyday life many scholars asserted that new media
will empower citizens to debate on topics that concern them and therefore influence politics
(Van Dijk 2012, 98). This hypothesis has been challenged by the emergence of power
structures within the web (Van Dijk 2012, 100).
The dogmatic approach of Popper is a bit problematic. On the one point of view,
negative evidence suggests that the initial hypothesis is wrong. On the other point of view,
positive evidences do not give any further information (Lipton 2005). The Kuhnian
approach might contribute to identify certain patterns of online civic participation and,
therefore, develop new paradigms. Then, the scientific community should come to an
agreement of what should be acknowledged as paradigm and what not. Nevertheless,
sometimes it is difficult to reach a consensus.

II.

Neutrality in Social Sciences and the Development of the Web
Generally speaking, the production of scientific knowledge should be based on the
principles of neutrality, objectivity, independence, rationality, and transparency.
Nonetheless, in Social Sciences is impossible to have neutrality during the study of
particular social phenomena, data collection and interpretation of research outcomes. First
of all, researchers cannot be fully detached from the social phenomena they are studying.
Second of all, human behavior is unpredictable. Furthermore, it should be taken into
account that researchers’ cultural background has an impact on the interpretation of final
results. Additionally, researchers should be aware of their limitations when they formulate
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the research question and methodology (Merton 1968, 559). Merton (1968, 510)
approaches the relation between society and knowledge from the spectrum of the sociology
of knowledge. Precisely, the sociology of knowledge takes into consideration the
connection between the society and culture. The cultural background shapes the values,
attitudes and modes of thought of different groups of people (Merton 1968, 511). The
sociology of knowledge is not focused mainly on reaching the existential bases of truth but
to understand better the evolution of the social landscape (Merton 1968, 524). In addition,
Merton maintains that even truths which are considered socially accountable should be
related to the historical background in which they had been developed (1968, 514).
The sociology of knowledge illustrates that there are different kinds of knowledge,
including “every type of idea and every mode of thought ranging from folk belief to
positive science” (Merton 1968, 521). That is to say that even superstitions might count as
a legitimate source of knowledge (Merton 1968, 524). It could be emphasized that
superstitions might increase researchers’ understanding regarding the cultural, social and
historical background of a specific social context (Merton 1968, 524). The truth is
something that is strongly related to the existence of different kinds of knowledge and the
development of the society (Merton 1968, 550).
A research project that will be focused on studying the role of new media platforms
in civic participation should take into account the ongoing evolution of the internet culture
and transformation of existing social infrastructures. The evolution of the web introduces
new communication and cultural norms both online and offline (Van Dijk 2012, 210).
Moreover, it should be studied the impact of the network structure on information
dissemination and content production (Castells 2013, 53; Van Dijk 2012, 22). Nowadays,
each individual represents a node within a network. The central nodes are more influential
than the ones in the periphery (Castells 2013, 54).
The establishment of a network structure could be a good point of departure to
investigate the incentives of people who participate actively in online political debates. For
instance, some individuals aim to increase their visibility and get recognition. During the
data collection, it should be taken into consideration that new media technologies are more
spread in the Western societies than in other parts of the world. As a result, the user-

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generated content and the discussion topics will reflect mainly the concerns of people with
the western cultural background.

III.

Phenomenology and the Position of the Researcher
Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962, vi) defines phenomenology as the study of essences. In
other words, phenomenology intents to explain different kinds of essences, such as the
essence of perception and consciousness (Merleau-Ponty 1962, viii). The truth is associated
with the social norms of the reality we are living in, for example, what is determined as
right and wrong (Schuetz 1945, 533). It could be deduced that truth is relevant, and it is
adapted to the transformation of the social reality. The main goal of phenomenology is to
portray and interpret the reality through the reflections and experiences of the researchers
in the research field. In specific, the researchers attempt to describe the world based on a
collection of previous experiences from their family and education backgrounds (Schuetz
1945, 534).
A phenomenological study is not focused on explaining the different social
phenomena. On the contrary, phenomenology intends to describe and classify the different
kinds of social phenomena based on empiricism (Schuetz 1945, 535). As a result, it could
be argued that phenomenological approach might assist researchers to illustrate better
people’s incentives within the social landscape they are performing. Researchers who study
social phenomena from the phenomenological point of view tend to be fond of qualitative
methods, i.e. interviews and participants’ observation. On the one hand, the in- depth
interviews creates a dialog between the researchers and individuals who live in the social
landscape they are studying. The dialectical exchange of views on several topics will boost
researchers’ understanding regarding the social landscape they are working. Nonetheless,
guiding questions and biased selection of informants might lead to non-accurate results
(Gubrium and Holstein 1995, 76). On the other hand, field notes acquired by participants’
observation reflect researchers’ impressions and experiences directly from the research
field. However, the researchers should keep the necessary distance from the subjects of
their study, i.e. social phenomena and individuals (Schuetz 1945).
One of the major challenges of phenomenology is the existence of multiple realities
(Schuetz 1945). Multiple realities incorporate beliefs, values, social norms and culture. As
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a result, the existence of multiple realities and meanings have an impact on data collection
and interpretation of final results. In addition, researchers’ intervention during the research
process might increase the risk of data manipulation (Schuetz 1945, 557). Intersubjectivity
targets to settle a common ground between the researchers, subjects under study and
interpretation of final results.
Phenomenology could be an adequate research approach to investigate how the new
media platforms might encourage or discourage the active civic participation of ordinary
citizens. Firstly, phenomenology could provide a direct description of the online and offline
reality by acknowledging that online and offline co-exist (Deuze 2013, x-xi). Secondly,
phenomenology will assist researchers to identify the incentives of people who join online
political debates and scrutinize emerging power relations. Furthermore, the researchers
should consider that private, and public stakeholders try to influence the development of
the web according to their own interests (Van Dijk 2012, 60). The process of data collection
could be enriched by observing how individuals interact within the virtual space (Miller
and Horst 2012, 3). It could be assumed that the ambition to reach the truth could function
as a mean to comprehend the interaction between individuals in the online environment
and the interrelation between online and offline realities.

IV.

The Production of Knowledge from a Feminist Point of View
Simone de Beauvoir, an important figure in feminism and gender studies, defines gender
as a social and cultural construction (1949). Feminist epistemology intents to approach the
theory of knowledge from a feminist perspective. Social scientists and biologists tried to
include the gender perspective to the existing branches of knowledge in their fields
(Harding 1991, 105-107). The absence of women from research increases the sexist and
androcentric dominance that has an effect on the production of bias-free knowledge.
Feminist empiricism outlines sexist and androcentric perspectives as “bad science”
because they are a result of social biases and prejudices (Harding 1991, 111). In particular,
the human understanding of how nature and society function has been constructed mainly
on how male researchers perceive the world (Harding 1991, 111).
Butler, an American philosopher and feminist, challenges the notion of
“universalities”, a term that embeds social and ethnocentric prejudices (2003, 393). Butler
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articulates (2003, 393) that “Within the political context of contemporary postcolonial
more generally, it is perhaps especially urgent to underscore the very category of the
‘universal’ as a site of insistent contest and resignification”. “Universality” enforces a
culturally hegemonic view on the research field, whereas, relativism demonstrates that
there is not an absolute truth (Butler 2003, 393).
Gender as a social construction might exclude women from different activities of
the social life, such as participating in politics and decision-making procedures. An
illuminating example is that for the time period 2014-2019 only the 33% of the EU
Commissioners are women (EUROPA.EU 2014). That is to say, women are
underrepresented in one of the most important EU decision-making bodies. New media
platforms may function as a space where women can express their concerns on equality
topics. Moreover, the discussions within the virtual space might empower women to
advocate for their rights and network with likeminded individuals. It would be interesting
to examine how female individuals express their gender identity in the online environment.

CONCLUSION:
New media platforms have an impact on politics and decision-making. As it has been
articulated ordinary citizens can join online political discussions and debate on topics that
directly concern them. In addition, new media platforms might stimulate the political
participation of marginalized groups of people to participate in politics and advocate for
their rights online and offline. Nevertheless, the power structures within the web might
dissuade people to take part in online political discussions. The ongoing evolution of the
web, combined with the emerging internet culture, might influence the political discourse
both online and offline.
The topic of online political participation could be studied epistemologically.
However, some epistemological approaches are more adequate than some others. The
dogmatic approach of Popper maintains that falsification distinguishes science from nonscience and pseudoscience. Negative evidence show that the initial hypothesis is wrong.
Nevertheless, positive evidences do not provide any further information. Kuhn defines
science as a communicative activity. The scientific community should jointly determine

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what should be considered as scientific paradigm. However, it might be difficult to reach
a consensus due to the existence of several scientific and theoretical approaches.
Neutrality and objectivity in social sciences are not possible. Researchers are not
fully disconnected from the social landscape they are operating. The approach of the
sociology of knowledge explains the relation between society and knowledge. Merton
(1968, 514) affirms that cultural and historical backgrounds influence the society.
Moreover, he declares that all kinds of ideas should be considered as a source of
knowledge, including superstitions and religious beliefs. Based on the approach of the
sociology of knowledge, it could be deduced that truth is something relevant which
transforms in consonance with social transformations. Phenomenology aims to portray the
world we live in according to the experiences and impressions of the researchers. The
phenomenological approach asserts that truth is strongly related to social norms.
Consequently, it conforms to different social and cultural contexts. Furthermore, the
approach of feminist epistemology contributes to incorporate the gender perspective in the
production of scientific knowledge.
One of the main concluding remarks of this essays is that the impact of new media
platforms on political participation could be better studied through the phenomenological
approach. Firstly, phenomenology will give a better image of the interrelation between
online and offline realities. Secondly, phenomenology will contribute to understanding
better the development of the new communication norms within the virtual environment.
The general conclusion is that truth should not be the absolute goal of science. On the
contrary, science should function as an instrument that distinguishes the scientific
knowledge from the non-scientific knowledge (Spivak 1999, 552). As it has already been
mentioned, truth transforms according to the changes in the society. Science should rather
focused on the applicability of the research outcomes than finding the ultimate truth. In
particular, in the field of social science, the researchers should concentrate on
understanding and describing better the social reality they are performing.

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