As these young people begin to understand that knowing necessarily involves interpretation and its consequent ambiguities, they may enter an epistemological crisis, characterized by what Chandler, Boyes, and Ball (1990) called “epistemic doubt.” In this state, they struggle with the erosion of their certainty and may lose confidence altogether that it is possible to be certain about anything. The temporary result may be subjective relativism, a stance epitomized in the quintessential adolescent remark, “Whatever.” Subjective relativism is the notion that as all beliefs are subjectively held, it is impossible to verify any of them with certainty, so no one’s beliefs or opinions are better or worse than those of anyone else.
This relativism is regarded as an early reaction to the recognition that knowledge is conjectural and uncertain, open to and requiring interpretation. In later adolescence or early adulthood, some individuals may pass through relativism to embrace a contextualist commitment to reasoned judgment, although this move is by no means typical or inevitable. The individual continues to understand that knowledge is neither certain nor complete but comes nevertheless to accept that, with good judgment and careful reason, it is possible over time to achieve successively closer approximations of the truth.
Much of this research has been performed with college undergraduates, and the homogeneity of the participants may in part account for the degree of general agreement in the findings about the overall nature of change. However, different models propose different numbers of sublevels along the way. Moreover, there are some disagreements about the extent to which change is regarded as universal or not, the ages at which shifts typically occur, and also the extent to which it is regarded as stage-like and structurally integrated, or composed of a series of relatively independent beliefs about knowledge and learning. Some accounts emphasize change that is primarily linear and hierarchical, whereas others propose that change is merely adaptation to one’s immediate or global environment and thus may not be unidirectional.
Most of the models appear to assume that epistemology is trait-like, so that it is a relatively stable feature of the individual. However, a few (e.g., Hammer and Elby, 2002; Sandoval, 2005) argue that epistemology is situational, an interaction of the individual’s cognitive and historical resources and environmental features that cue or elicit patterns of those resources.
At first glance, some of these ideas appear to be inconsistent with research that suggests that much earlier—indeed, by the time they begin elementary school—children already are well aware that individuals can hold different beliefs about the same objects and events. Beliefs are not simply copies of reality; they are products of the activity of knowing—therefore, they are subject to verification and are potentially disconfirmable by evidence (Perner, 1991). If young elementary schoolchildren understand these