Importance of recognizing our voice: ontology, Epistemology and Positionality
All of the level of students are often asked for view on issues, we take or interpretation, our value-based understanding or positionality. As we approach the stage of thesis writing you will be familiar with terms such as ontology and epistemological stance. Essentially, we are being required to identify our conscious understandings about the nature of knowledge and how we can defend a knowledge claim. We will become familiar with terms such as objectivism, subjectivism, and constructivism, positivism, post- positivism, postmodernism, and so on. These can be slippery terms when it comes to exact definition, but we will need to arrive at a robust understanding by Masters Level. At that stage we will have an awareness of our own voice as a writer in the text. A useful place to begin to come to grips with these ideas is by reading and re-reading the first chapter of The Foundations of Social Research. It is unlikely that you will stay secure in one mind-set throughout our postgraduate study years, but, uncertainty is a useful prerequisite to interesting enquiry and challenging scholarship!
When you begin writing for research you’ll need to get to grips with some challenging academic language. In particular, you need to get on top of three very important concepts: Ontology, Epistemology and Methodology. For no apparent reason, research philosophy tends to send research students into a mild panic. The befuddlement caused by a range of new terminology relating to the philosophy of knowledge is unnecessary when all that you are trying to achieve is some clarity over the status of any knowledge claims you make in your study. Within the broader context of the social sciences, there are standard philosophical positions required to specify the particular form of research you plan to undertake. Collectively, these positions will define what is sometimes referred to as a research design. To comprehensively specify your research design there are five interlocking choices that you, the researcher, should make when specifying how you plan to execute your research: 1. Ontology and 2. Epistemology (which together form your research paradigm) then 3. Methodology 4. Techniques (your data gathering) and 5. Data Analysis Approaches. There is no single ‘right’ way to undertake research, but there are distinct traditions, each of which tends to operate with its own, internally consistent, set of choices.
Choosing our Ontology
Ontology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the trivial issue of the nature of reality. In choosing an ontological position, you are setting out the nature of the world and your place within it Simple yet fundamental stuff. Ontology is rarely used beyond academic institutions and it can therefore be difficult to know how to use it confidently. The word ‘biology’ means the study of life (since ‘bios’ means life). Using the same logic, ‘onto’ translates as ‘being’ or ‘reality’ hence ontology concerns the nature of reality. Beyond the realms of science fiction or fantasy novels, we tend to go about our daily lives with a view that there is only one reality. Yet the Matrix, Narnia and many other fictions are inspired by the idea that this is an unnecessarily limited view of the world. Perhaps, the most well-known of these is the brain-in-a-vat scenario, whereby scientists stimulate a disembodied brain with such precision that it emulates a realistic sense of participation in what we call reality. Does the brain experience reality, or is the experience of the scientist somehow more real?
Ontology is focuses on several related questions:
What things exist? (Stars yes, unicorns no, numbers . . . yes?)
What categories do they belong to? (Are numbers physical properties or just ideas?)
Is there such a thing as objective reality?
What does the verb “to be” mean?
Some of these questions may seem painfully abstract and not very useful, but they are and always have been enormously important to some philosophers, especially to those who believe in foundationalism. Foundationalist philosophers believe that to arrive at truth it is necessary to start with the most fundamental issues—to be sure about the foundations of philosophy–and then work our way up from there to more specific questions. If you believe in foundationalism, then probably the most important questions are ontological questions!
Ontology is also highly relevant to religions and spirituality. No matter what your beliefs about spirituality, they have an ontological dimension. All of the following are ontological statements:
Everything is made of atoms and energy
Everything is made of consciousness
You have a soul
You have a mind
Knowing our Epistemology
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge and is therefore central to any research claims to contribute new knowledge. Epistemology concerns the way(s) in which we set about obtaining valid knowledge. For instance, if you are asked for the time, and guess it correctly without a watch, is this reliable knowledge? Or should this guess be verified somehow? Would hearing the familiar beeping that announces the time having struck the relevant hour represent definitive confirmation of the precise time. Or, would you be unsettled to know that transmissions in AM, FM and digital forms of radio can generate varying delays when replayed through particular devices? The importance placed on the verified accuracy of the time would depend upon the context in which you need to know. If you’re trying to catch a connecting flight the acceptable level of variation may extend to a few minutes. If you are trying to choreograph an Olympic opening ceremony it probably doesn’t. The term epistemology can be also being deconstructed; ‘episteme’ means knowledge and in literal terms, epistemology is the study of knowledge. By being clear about the way(s) in which we might obtain valid knowledge we are in turn being clear about the nature of any knowledge claim that we might make. The observation that happier workers tend to be more productive is one such knowledge claim. As a researcher, you may wish to debate the validity of such a claim, citing other factors that might influence happiness, productivity, or the relationship between the two. Hence, we are required to draw connections between the assumptions we hold about reality (ontology) and the ways in which we might develop valid knowledge (epistemology), even if we often tend not to do so explicitly in anything other than the formal, and somewhat erroneously labeled.
Epistemology is the study of knowledge. It raises questions like
What is truth?Do we really know what we think we know?How can knowledge be made more reliable?
It’s one of the oldest branches of philosophy, reaching far back into the time before Socrates. Today, epistemology is connected with many other areas of philosophy and science — after all, every area of study is a kind of knowledge!
Establish your Methodology
Methodology is the most commonly used of the ology words. It tends to be used as shorthand for the ways in which your epistemology, ontology and methodology interconnect. Certain methods of data gathering and analysis tend to follow from certain research paradigms, although it is important to notice that these implied pathways are not fixed. What is truly important is your ability to recognize and justify the interlocking choices which represent your own research design. That is essentially what any PhD examiner or journal editor is looking for when reading your methodology chapter/section. Someone expressing an objective ontology with a positivist epistemological approach would be making two choices that are naturally aligned in what would often be seen as the conventional and scientific tradition. Trying to understand whether happy workers are more productive from within such a tradition would likely involve statistical techniques, control groups and the generation of generalizable laws setting out reliable relationships between happiness and productivity. The same research topic could equally be approached from a subjective ontology generating a more interpretivist approach but both the research itself and the nature of the claims made would be fundamentally different. Telling the reader that you chose quantitative over qualitative (or vice versa) simply doesn’t cut it.
So what is the difference between ontology, epistemology and methodology?
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Simply put, ontology relates to the assumptions we make about the nature of reality, epistemology sets out beliefs about how one might discover knowledge about that reality and methodology specifies the tools and techniques that we use in the conduct of our research. Critically, these three words form relationships to each other. You ontological and epistemological positions should have some bearing on your methodology, which in turn sets out the data collection and analysis techniques that you will employ (assuming of course that your ontology and epistemology don’t challenge the very idea of either data or analyses). In the social sciences getting on top of these individual concepts and their relationship(s) to each other is vital if you want to (a) be able to write articulately for publication and (b) want to avoid social gaffes in your viva / thesis / dissertation.
Ideally, choose your techniques last
Don’t start gathering data until you have taken a position on the ologies. Techniques flow from ologies and not the other way around. Asking how many interviews will be enough depends critically on why you are doing them. You could be doing interviews ‘as counting’: how many times when people say A do they also say B. Alternatively, the same interviewer and interviewees could be trying to explore meaning such that you begin to understand how people make sense of A happening when B has not. What would constitute good practice in terms of your research is therefore contingent on the nature of the knowledge claim that you hope to make. You will only be able to articulate a defensible position by setting out your position in relation to the ologies. This is why a PhD is a doctorate in philosophy and why you have to “defend” your thesis.
Mix your techniques not your ologiesMixed data collection techniques are de rigueur; however mixed ologies represent an academic faux pas
Vegan rarely order steak, democrats rarely vote republican. Both options, whilst hypothetically possible, represent a lack of consistency that tends to be read as untrustworthy. Be clear and consistent in your choice of ologies in order to avoid being seen as flaky, out of your depth or downright deceptive. Individual researchers can mix their ologies but not within the same research project. These three key concepts emanate from philosophy but it isn’t necessary to have studied philosophy in order to make sense of the terminology. In essence, you need to set out your research philosophy in order to signal to other researchers where your research fits in their world. If you are being examined (for a PhD or perhaps by an editor or reviewer), you need to show that you have engaged in a conscious set of choices that are internally consistent. Historically, certain research philosophies may have been used for certain topics and methods, yet it would be foolhardy to dismiss the potential for innovation to be found in combining ideas and mixing methods.
Classify your heroes
The seminal authors on your field will probably don’t state their choice of ologies explicitly in their written work. However, you should be able to classify their works
The seminal authors in your field will have been read by many. This is what confers on them their status as a hero, often earning them the right to be named as the definite article in the coffee breaks of international conferences and airport lounges … “that’s THE insert name”. Despite their extensive readership and weighty H index, they probably don’t use the ology words in their written output. Indeed, it is relatively rare to find a paper that states that the research was conducted from within a subjective ontology and was interpretivist in its epistemology, whilst adopting a qualitative methodology. There are many reasons for this, not least the one that is springing into your mind just now! However, as a means of checking your understanding of these terms, you could and should attempt to classify the empirical works of the seminal figures in your field.
Think of simple example.
Regardless of what you are studying it is helpful to check your understanding of these obscure terms using a simple example like temperature Graphic – Thermometer
From an empirically positivist point of view the temperature outside is currently +10.5°C. This could be presented as an unambiguous fact, verifiable independently by individual observers normally using a thermometer. Largely it shouldn’t matter who is holding the thermometer or taking the reading, it should still read +10.5°C. In contrast, a constructionist view of temperature would be influenced by social norms, upbringing and beliefs. It would vary between contexts and individual such that it would matter very much who was holding the thermometer. Someone whose childhood was spent near the equator would find +10.5°C decidedly chilly whereas someone whose childhood was spent in the Arctic Circle might find it positively balmy. Further nuances would be revealed by considering whether warm clothing was seen as a sign of opulence or an indication that you were in some way weak-willed. Fond childhood memories of family holidays spend on the tundra / sand dunes (delete as appropriate) would likely add further color to one’s perception of the temperature. Remember above all that you, the research should choose a thermometer or a diary study as the appropriate methods for your study once you have made your initial choice of ology.
PositionalityThe term positionality both describes an individual’s worldview and the position they have chosen to adopt in relation to a specific research task (Foote and Bartell 2011) ; (Savin Baden and Howell Major 2013). The individual’s worldview or ‘where the researcher is coming from’ concerns ontological assumptions (the nature of social reality), epistemological assumptions (the nature of knowledge) and assumptions about human nature and agency (Sikes 2004). These are ‘colored’ by values and beliefs such as: political allegiance, religious faith, gender, sexuality, historical and geographical location, race, social class and status, (dis)abilities and so on (Wellington, Bathmaker et al. 2005) and (Sikes 2004). Positionality “…reflects the position that the researcher has chosen to adopt within a given research study” (Savin-?Baden and Howell Major 2013 p. 71) and is normally identified by locating the researcher in relation to three areas: the subject, the participants and the research context and process (Ibid p. 71). Some aspects of positionality are culturally ascribed or fixed, for example,
gender, race, nationality; whilst others such as personal life history and experiences are subjective and contextual (Chiseri-? Strater 1996). The fixed aspects may predispose someone towards (a) particular point(s) of view; however that does not mean that these aspects necessarily automatically lead to particular views or perspectives. For example one may think it would be antithetical for a black African-?American to be a member of a white, conservative, right wing, racist, supremacy group, and that such a group would not want African-?American members; yet Jansson in his research on ‘The League of the South’ found that not only did a group of this kind have an African-?American member, but that he was “…warmly welcomed…” (Jansson 2010 p. 21).Positionality and its affect on the research process
Researcher positionality can impact on all aspects and stages of the research process. The positionality that researchers bring to their work, and the personal experiences through which positionality is shaped, may influence what researchers may bring to research encounters, their choice of processes, and their interpretation of outcomes”
It is important for all researchers to spend some time thinking about how they are paradigmatically and philosophically positioned and for them to be aware of how their positioning and the fundamental assumptions they hold – might influence their research related thinking and practice.
Positionality is often formally expressed in research papers via a ‘positionality statement’. A ‘good’ or strong positionality statement will typically include description of: the researcher’s lenses (i.e. their philosophical, personal, theoretical beliefs and perspective through which they view the research process), their potential influences on the research (e.g. political beliefs, social-?class), the researcher’s chosen or pre-?determined position in relation to the participants (e.g. as an insider or an outsider – see later discussion) their context and an understanding/explanation as to how, where and when and in what way the researcher may have influenced the research process (Savin-?Baden and Howell Major 2013 p. 75