The Theoretical Perspectives of Epistemological Development

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The focus of this paper is on the theoretical perspectives of epistemological development and determining how domain-specific judgements vary with age across the levels of epistemological understanding. In particular, the next section will focus on putting this research into practice, by relating epistemological research in the field with research on disagreements, in order to further shed light on this issue, by addressing how children’s epistemological understanding in different domains is likely to inform the shifting ways in which children approach interpersonal disagreements.

Henceforth, interpersonal disagreements were defined based on the notion that there was a conflict present between two people who are in some kind of a relationships (i.e., parent-child conflict, child-peer conflict, etc.; Barki & Hartwick, 2004). In particular, 5-year-old children acquired more social skills and were better able to express refusal of authority and negotiation, when compared to the younger children (Kuczynski & Kochanska, 1990). Specifically, as children got older, as a form of noncompliance which built their autonomy, the children were expanding on their explanations during conversations with their mothers, they were also negotiating more with their mothers, as well as being reprimanded more by their mother’s for not obeying their wishes (Kucynski, Kochanska, Radke-Yarrow, & Girnius-Brown, 1987). Thus, as children transitioned into adolescence, they were more likely to disagree/negotiate with their parents regarding conflict, especially when it was based on personal decisions (i.e., personal taste and aesthetics; Smetana, 1989; Wainryb & Recchia, 2013). Similarly, older children’s increasing understanding about other people’s beliefs, allowed them to be better able to handle more complicated interactions, where they had to understand the other person’s point of view (i.e., having a more multiplist epistemological understanding), which younger children often lacked (i.e., due to their more absolutist epistemological understanding; Wainryb & Brehl, 2006). In addition, Kuhn (1991) found that there were three specific argument skills that came about, which included “generation of genuine evidence, generation of alternative theories and generation of any form of counterargument” (as cited in Hofer & Pintrich, 1997, p. 105). Thus, adolescents and adults, who were evaluativists, were more likely to use counterarguments than absolutists and multiplists (Kuhn & Udell, 2003). Henceforth, in order to properly develop argumentation skills, Kuhn’s (1991) research demonstrated that individuals must have developed an evaluativist epistemology, due to the fact that they were able to recognize differing claims, as well as analyze alternative claims (as cited in Hofer & Pintrich, 1997; Kuhn & Udell, 2003). Therefore, as a result of children growing up and shifts in their epistemological understanding, disagreements occurred.

Particularly, Wainryb, Shaw, Langely, Cottam and Lewis (2004) were interested in determining how children thought about diversity in their beliefs about 4 domains, which included “morality [(i.e., value judgements)], taste [(i.e., personal choice value judgements)], facts [(i.e., truth judgements)], and ambiguous facts [(i.e., judgements about social-conventions)]” (p. 687). Specifically, the researchers studied 96 children aged 5, 7 and 9 years old using interviews, in order to determine their judgements about “relativism, tolerance and disagreeing persons” (Wainryb et al., 2004, p. 687). The researchers hypothesized that there would be age-related differences in the realms of disagreement, which were related to epistemological domains. Thus, Wainryb and colleagues found that at all ages, the participants based their judgements depending on the domain of diversity (i.e., morality, taste, facts and ambiguous facts) and rated the beliefs as relative, tolerant and diverse or not, depending on the context of the situation. In addition, with regards to age-related shifts in development and its effect on disagreements, it was found that 5 year old children were less likely than 7 and 9 year old children to make relative judgements and tolerant judgements across domains, due to the fact that they still had an absolutist epistemological understanding. Whereas, the older children had already began to transition to a multiplist understanding of reality, allowing for more tolerance and less disagreements across domains. This is related to Hatch’s (1983) work regarding the notion that relativists are tolerant of others perspectives, however they are not simply endorsing other people’s beliefs. More specifically, this established that older children recognize that other people have judgements that are domain specific, but they then become evaluativist and choose which judgement were more suitable, based on critical thinking as opposed to simply passively acquiring knowledge, which occurs in the realist and absolutist epistemological level of understanding.

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Furthermore, with regards to age-related shifts in interpersonal disagreements, due to children’s epistemological understanding, young children (i.e., 5- or 6-year-olds) were less likely to be tolerant of diversity in judgements across domains, ultimately leading to increased disagreements with others who had differing points of view (Wainryb et al., 2004; Wang et al., 2016). Specifically, this occurred due to the fact that young children still had an absolutist level of epistemological understanding, which caused them to want to have one concrete right or wrong answer, so there was no room for diversity in judgements as they were seeking certainty in their understanding (Kuhn et al., 2000; Kunh & Park, 2005). Whereas, as children got older (i.e., mid to late adolescence) they were now more tolerant of diversity in judgements across domains, as they had transitioned into the multiplist and early evaluativist levels of epistemological understanding, which allowed them to be more accepting of differences in judgements (Kuhn et al., 2000; Wainryb et al., 2004). Specifically, adolescents were also better able to negotiate and make counter arguments, due to their increased critical thinking skills, which allowed them to engage in more sophisticated disagreements, while still respecting the diversity of judgements present in reality (Kuhn & Udell, 2003). In particular, adolescents were have to able improve their argumentative skills, by engaging in argumentative discourses with their peers or parents, since they were learning how to use appropriate counterarguments within the various domains of knowledge. (Kuhn & Udell, 2003).

In addition, Wainryb and colleagues (2001) were also interested in the types of interpersonal disagreements children and adults had with other people. In particular, the researchers distinguished between four realms of disagreement which included: 1) “Moral belief” disagreements, which were based on welfare and justice, due to the fact that the focus was on how someone ought to act (i.e., value judgements about how it was wrong to harm someone); 2) “Conventional belief” disagreements, which were based on following social norms and customs (i.e., ambiguous fact judgements related to having the etiquette to wait your turn in line); 3) “Psychological belief” disagreements, which were based on the mental states of the self and others (i.e., personal taste judgements about how your peer is feeling or how are you feeling); and 4) “Metaphyscial belief” disagreements, which were based on supernatural beliefs (i.e., personal taste judgements about one’s beliefs in God; Wainryb et al., 2001). Based on these categories, the researchers hypothesized that at all ages in the moral, conventional and psychological realm there would be consist in beliefs, however, in the metaphysical realm, there would be differences in beliefs. Thus, the researchers studied 96 participants aged 8, 13 and 21 years old. Specifically, the participants had to judge how acceptable certain actions and behaviours were on issues in which they disagreed. Participants also had to further explain why they disagreed with the individual in the situation, as well as the importance of cultural differences or similarities present in their beliefs.

Specifically, Wainryb and colleagues (2001) found that children, adolescents and young adults judged disagreements based on the realm of the disagreement and the form of the disagreement. Thus, in the psychological and metaphysical realm, the participants judged diversity as tolerable and desirable, due to the fact that disagreements in judgements in both these realms were based on personal interpretations, ultimately related to the multiplist epistemological level of understanding, where individuals understand and respect differences in opinion (Kuhn et al., 2000; Wainryb et al., 2001). On the other hand, in the conventional realm, the participants judged diversity as tolerable and undesirable. This occurred, as a result of the participants being stuck in the transitional period between from an absolutist to multiplist epistemological level of understanding when judging ambiguous facts, since there was a desire for seeking the truth and finding the correct answer, while also being aware that there are differences present in opinions between two people, which caused disagreement (Kuhn et al., 2000; Wainryb et al., 2001). Finally, in the moral realm, the participants judged diversity as intolerable and undesirable (Wainryb et al., 2001, p. 383), since value judgements were considered to be neither subjective or objective in nature, this ultimately denotes that disagreements were context-specific and varied across ages (Mansfield & Clinchy, 2002; Wainryb et al., 2001).

Overall, another noteworthy finding was that Wainryb and colleagues (2001) did not find increased tolerance with age, due to the fact that their results demonstrated that tolerance of disagreements was more likely to be influenced by the realms of disagreements, as opposed to strictly differences in age. This was a very interesting finding, as it demonstrated that there were differences in the realms of disagreement and not necessarily differences in age. Thus, this denotes that both the realm of disagreement (i.e., as found in Wainryb et al., 2001) and the age of the individual (i.e., as found in many other studies) could have an impact on the tolerance of diversity in judgements, which could lead to disagreements.

Therefore, this research could be linked to understanding how children’s epistemological development in different domains was likely to inform the shifting ways in which children approach interpersonal disagreements. In particular, research has shed light how the types of disagreements that occurred were dependent on the varying levels of epistemological understanding, with regards to the differences in tolerance of diversity in judgements and abilities to engage in counterarguments (Wainryb et al., 2004; Wainryb et al., 2001; Kuhn & Udell, 2003). Specifically, disagreements revolved around the domain-specific judgements associated with epistemological understanding and were also related to age-related shifts. There were also differences in tolerance between younger and older children, as well as differences in argumentative skills (Wainryb et al., 2004; Kuhn & Udell, 2003). Therefore, young children engaged in disagreements, because they were absolutists, which caused them to seek an absolute truth and did not tolerate differences in judgements (Wang et al., 2016). Also, older adolescents engaged in disagreements, because they were evaluativists, which allowed them to be more critical when making judgements across domains, by bringing about counterarguments and negotiation during their conflictual interactions (Kuhn & Udell, 2003).

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