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Personal epistemologies and social representations: and how they meet in people’s conceptions of the origin of human species


Whose claims about climate change should one believe? What is the most effective way to defend against economic crises? Which is healthier, butter or margarine? Newspapers and magazines write about these kinds of topics on a regular basis, they are disputed in current affairs and argued in peer groups, homes, workplaces, and more widely on the internet. How do individuals, groups, and societies react and get along amidst contradictory and changing information? Does new research provide adequate grounds for understanding these issues? Or is the information flow a threat under which people feel powerless, become indifferent and withdraw themselves?

What conceptions of knowledge do people have and how do they justify their knowledge claims and how do these change? In this chapter we present one of the better-known developmental models of these issues, namely that of Karen Kitchener (1978) and Patricia King (1977), constructed in the 1970s in their doctoral dissertations. Initially they used the title Reflective Judgment Model. They adopted the concept from the century-old texts of John Dewey, in which he deliberated on juridical decision making: the decisions were important, they had important practical consequences for those concerned, and they should not be made arbitrarily. King (1977) and Kitchener (1978) remarked that Dewey did not clarify how the decisions should be made; however, he talked about the selection of the circumstances that should be taken into account and the need to evaluate the validity and applicability of evidence in the situation at hand — about a reflective judgment. In Kitchener’s and King’s terminology, reflective judgment refers to the most developed way to deal with problems, to which there is no single and unequivocally correct solution. Their developmental model describes a move towards this highest stage.

Since then, the term “personal epistemologies” has been introduced as a distinction to the epistemologies presented by professional philosophies (see, Hofer & Pintrich, 1997; Pintrich, 2002). The term also suits the model of Kitchener and King well, because it describes and explains the development of assumptions of what knowledge is and the ways in which knowledge claims are justified. In this chapter, we first discuss personal epistemologies and their manifestations among adults, as well as their practical significance. After that, we shift the perspective onto groups and communities and their formation of shared everyday knowledge, i.e. social representations. Finally, we make an excursion to people’s understanding of the origins of human beings and analyse these conceptions from the perspectives of personal epistemologies and social representations. This example comes from Finnish interviews, from a North European country with highly educated population.

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