A good while back, I wrote two posts about what I considered, in my own PhD, to be “scary”-ologies. These posts are here and here. In essence, I tried to write about ontology, epistemology, methodology and what I termed ‘theoryology’. In this post (on Hallowe’en), with the benefit of a few years of thinking and teaching on these -ologies and a sense that students really do find them pretty scary, I’d like to revisit them and hopefully make them a bit less difficult to understand.
I am going to focus in this post on ontology and epistemology, how they connect and work together in research studies, and then point towards methodology. These three ‘ologies’ work in tandem – or should work in tandem – to create a coherent approach to framing and designing a research study. But, to get them to work like this, we need to be able to see them clearly, and see how they connect in research.
Ontology is often where we start with research, even if we may not realise it. Ontology is essentially our position and belief about what the world is like. It also closely informs the research paradigm we choose to work within (although it is not the only influence on this). If, for example, you believe that there is an objective natural and social world that exists independently of us knowing it, you may be leaning towards some kind of positivism. If, on the other hand, you believe that “reality” is wholly constructed by human words, deeds, beliefs, structures, etc, then you may be some kind of social constructivist. You cannot ignore your position on what the world is fundamentally like, or those of others (especially those who write the theory, etc. you will cite and use) because they shape what we think ‘counts’ as legitimate research and research questions.
Ontology is kind of wide-open – you can choose an ontology that makes sense to you, because this is usually the starting point in a journey of creating knowledge and becoming a knower. Choices here, though, start narrowing choices in epistemology, and then methodology.
If you lean towards a ‘positivist’ take on what the world is like, then you will only have certain options open to you in terms of your epistemology. Epistemology is essentially how we think we can come to know the world we think exists, so it makes sense that it is closely linked to what we think that world is like. To follow this example, if you think there is only objective reality then, epistemologically, your options are to believe that we can come to know that world through finding the right tools or experiments to reveal that objective truth or reality. This is an approach associated with many of the natural sciences.
To take the other example, if you believe that humans create or construct reality, and that there are thus multiple realities or competing ‘truths’, then you will have other epistemological choices. Your knowledge of what this world is like will also have to be constructed. You wouldn’t be able to know these multiple truths without having some way of also constructing or creating them, which may be guided by some form of interpretive or critical paradigm.
[These are, quite obviously, two points on a longer and more complex continuum of ontological and epistemological choices; I am deliberately simplifying this for the length and form of this post.]
Epistemological choices, again, narrow your methodological choices, and influence your decisions about the kinds of data you will need to generate and how you will do that. To follow this, if you believe that the natural and social world exists objectively of humans’ actions, beliefs, and so on, then you probably wouldn’t design a qualitative case study methodology, and conduct in-depth interviews. That methodology would make more sense for a critical, interpretive or constructivist study.
There are two key points here: the first is that there are three distinct, yet connected, elements that have to underpin your own research project: ontology, epistemology and methodology. All research is underpinned or guided by choices around these three elements. When you are reading the field, reading theory, and engaging with other writers’ voices, you need to think a bit about where their research comes from, in terms of ontology and epistemology, and keep a critical eye on this. You can’t just put different theorists together, or thinkers together, just because they seem like they are saying the same things (e.g. they both talk about the effects of social structures). If one is conceptualising ‘structure’ as a constructivist and the other as a critical realist, you have two very different arguments, based on different views of what the world is like. So, to be accurate and critical in your own research, you need to pay careful attention to all three aspects of research.
The second key point is that these are choices that have effects or consequences for your research. Again, I am arguing for a thoughtful approach: why are you doing this research, what assumptions about the world and knowledge underpin it, and who shares or does not share these same assumptions and approaches in your field? You will choose to align yourself with those whose ontology and epistemology resonates with your research aims and questions, and your own underpinning beliefs and values. But to critically, carefully and sensibly position your own argument and research questions within an existing field of study, and make a meaningful contribution to the ongoing conversations within it, you need to really think about your own three connected ‘scary-ologies’ – the kinds of choices you have to make and what they mean for the outcomes of your research.
I hope this post has helped you make some sense of these ‘ologies’, such that they may be less scary now, and you can step back and think a bit more critically and thoughtfully about your own (often hidden) assumptions about ontology and epistemology, and then move to make more conscious, substantiated methodological choices. In upcoming posts, I’ll think a bit more about paradigms for research, and methodological choices, but for now: Happy Hallowe’en/All Saints’ Eve/Samhain/All Hallows Eve, if you are celebrating!