Methodological Debates in Environmental Research

Graduate Program (& Advanced Certificate) Status

Course Level: 
Course Open to: 
Students on-site
Remote students
Academic Year: 
US Credits: 
ECTS Credits: 
Course Code: 
Course Description: 
Methodological Debates in Environmental Research is a core course in the doctoral curriculum designed to help PhD students clarify and justify their own research assumptions. This course engages with several concepts that are fundamental to carrying out research; these include ontology and epistemology, as well as conceptual debates between objectivity and subjectivity, interpretivism and positivism, and quantitative and qualitative research approaches.  The course engages some fundamental questions about what and how you can know anything about the world. A key aspect of becoming a doctorate (and an academic in general) is to be clear about the assumptions held with respect to what constitutes sound knowledge with the highest degree of certainty based ontological, epistemological and methodological positions.

We aim, first, to explore some of the fundamental conceptual areas and debates in environmental research (and research in general) and, second, to broaden our horizons by familiarizing ourselves with a range of assumptions and approaches across select researchers in the department.  In this process, we will engage questions such as: 

  • Is there a universal and absolute truth out there that is attainable through research? In other words, does an objective reality exist “out there” that can tell us how things “really are ”?  
  • Is reality made up of multiple “truths” that rely on human and social perceptions/perspectives (or scientific consensus) that are contextual and temporal?
  • Can a researcher be objective? If so, what does it mean to be objective?
  • How are ontological and epistemological assumptions manifested in different research designs? 
  • Are there fundamental principles that should guide all scientific research?  If so, what are they? 
  • How do quantitative and qualitative research approaches differ?  Is one better than the other ?
Learning Outcomes: 

Purpose of this Course and Anticipated Learning Outcomes

In order to design a solid research proposal as well as assess other research efforts, it is important to be able to understand the assumptions and arguments that underpin a given methodological approach. In academic and intellectual development, it is crucial to discern the value of a given research effort, finding, or conclusion. This is done by building a critical base in order to support and/or challenge a given research methodology. This course provides students with an overview of some of the key concepts and debates that characterize scientific research and allows students to explore and develop (and, ultimately, argue convincingly for) their own research, while also being able to assess others’ research assumptions. 

After successfully completing the course you will be able to:

  • comprehend a selection of relevant epistemological and methodological concepts and debates in environmental research;
  • assess the strengths and limitations inherent in different research assumptions; and
  • articulate and justify your own research assumptions


Learning in this class will be assessed through the following components:

  1. Participation in class discussions (15%)
  2. Online reflection blog and forum (25%) 
  3. Facilitation of guest faculty lecture and posting of questions (25%)
  4. Summary of your proposed dissertation research from the standpoint of your epistemological assumptions (35%)