Three “scary-ologies” revisited

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.

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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.]

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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!

Changing tenses as you write your dissertation

The PhD student I am supervising sent the first draft of her methodology chapter yesterday with a series of questions and notes for me and the co-supervisor. One of them was about tense: she is writing everything in the present and future tense, but wondered if this was a mistake. It got me thinking (again) about tense in the PhD thesis, and the process of moving from future to past as the project progresses.

I have written here a little about the gap between the logic of discovery and the logic of display or dissemination in writing. As you are working, everything is either ‘I am doing this’ and ‘I will be doing that eventually’. This is pretty much the tense in which you write your proposal – proposals are forward  looking. So, as you start you research, you will naturally be thinking now, and on to the next steps, and your writing will most likely reflect this in the tenses you choose. This is the logic of discovery. As you move along, you will make decisions, close some doors, open others, and your argument will unfold and form as you do so.

getty_tense-155096784But not all parts of the PhD are written in this present/future tense, even as you are working out what your argument is. The literature review and conceptual framework sections, or whatever version of these you have, will likely be written in the continuous present, as most journal articles and academic books are. ‘Bernstein argues that xyz’, and ‘Research in the field shows us that these are the gaps in our knowledge about abc at present’, and so on. Then you come to the methodological and analytical framework, and you are perhaps not quite finished analysing your data, and you and certainly not finished with the PhD, so the tense changes: ‘I am analysing this set of data’ goes alongside ‘I generated these data in these ways over this time period’ alongside ‘I am going to be using this framework to organise the data (when I get there)’. It’s confusing, to be sure.

So what to do now, in the midst of your research and writing – can and should you anticipate being finished and therefore writing everything in the methodology in the past tense, or do you worry about that later? It does seem like more work to write in the voice of discovery while you are still discovering things, and then write again later in the voice of dissemination as you reorganise and display your thinking with the benefit of (some) hindsight. However, I would caution against trying to anticipate too much. A significant part of doing a PhD is the process of doing a piece of research, and learning through missteps, successes and issues like the one discussed here how doing and writing about research feels and looks and sounds. That way, you can go on to do further research, either on your own or with others post-PhD, and you can eventually supervise PhD students yourself.

methodology-blog-asiaslagwool-comBeing in the midst of what can feel like confusion and chaos – ‘Do I write this in the past tense, or just write is as I am thinking it and then change it later? Is this right, or not? Do I even still have an argument or a research question?’ – and then finding your way out to greater clarity, or a more sophisticated argument, or a deeper knowledge of your field is what builds you researcher voice and capacity. As the saying goes: the only way through it, is through it. Trying to see the end when you are still in the middle is likely to create more confusion and frustration.

So my advice, if you are stuck in a similar spot to my PhD student is this: be where you are. Think and write your way through this patch, and write in whatever tense and voice feels most authentic to you at this point. The good news is that there will be time for rewriting, polishing and updating before you submit, and it’s quite a pleasant feeling to go back to this methodology chapter after the findings have been presented and analysed, and find that you can edit, sharpen and focus that section to create a tight, accurate and interesting narrative about the nuts and bolts of your PhD. As you do so, every time you do so, your researcher capacity and voice and ability to add to the conversation through the knowledge you are making grows, and that is what being an academic researcher is about.


Two more scary -ologies

This post follows on from last week’s post about a couple of -ologies I have found a little (and a lot) intimidating over the course of my PhD. These -ologies are often stumbling blocks for me, and for other students I know. It’s almost as if your brain hears them and immediately puts its fingers in its ears and starts saying ‘la la la’ really loudly until you stop asking it to think about these concepts. I suggested last week finding ways to best these -ologies by finding examples and stories to explain them in the context of your own research, or in the context of more familiar ideas. This week I have two more -ologies I have done this with. The first is a very familiar one – Methodology – and the second is my own one – Theoryology. I’ll start with the made-up one.

When I started my PhD in 2010, I had no idea what a conceptual or theoretical framework was. My MA research project was a smaller one – 25000 words – and my supervisor was in Canada while I was in South Africa writing it and she was not a lover of email or sustained feedback, so I did not get a great deal of help with the thinking. I did alright in the end, but it was not a very conscious writing process. I felt like I was simply following her basic instructions to get it done rather than crafting my own project. So, starting the PhD was properly scary because I had never done a research project like this, and I was intimidated and very unsure of myself. And, on top of that I had to start with theory.

Now, I like theory, and I am pretty good at putting pieces of a puzzle together to create a nice, coherent whole. So, I write really good literature reviews. But a theoretical framework is much more than a literature review. It’s just that: a framework; a holding structure; something that makes you study intelligible to readers and that guides the study as it progresses. A literature review is really more of a guide to all the other research you are drawing on to make sense of what your study is about, what it thinks it can contribute to the field, and where it is located in the field. Starting out, my supervisor talked more about me reading my way into finding a framework, rather than a literature review. I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of reading I needed to do, and battled to find the time but more than that the headpsace to do all the reading and thinking. I read a lot and made a mountain of notes, mostly copied quotes from these texts, but at the end of the year I had no framework. I had a great draft of a literature review, but nothing that could really shape and guide my study. I had no Theoryology – no strategy to guide the selection and coherent melding of theoretical tools into a framework capable of shaping and guiding a research study.

I took a break for a while in 2011, and when I started reading again I came to the literature trying to look for something different – trying to find this sort of strategy. I found my way to social and critical realism, and these two fields began to give me what I was looking for – theoryology. I could slowly begin to see the shape of my project, and the scope of the questions I could ask and answer. I think the key difference was that I started to see the theory I was reading as more than just ideas; I started to see tools: tools that could become analytical and a lens with which to look for and look at data; tools that could do different things in different parts of my study. There was other theory that I used as well to build the framework for my study – substantive theory that was more ideas than tools. You need both, but I learned that different kinds of theories can do different things. Some have greater explanatory and conceptual power than others, and you need to find the overarching conceptual or theoretical framework – the theoryology – as well as the substantive theory that helps you to understand and explain parts of your study and that helps you to locate your study in relation to other relevant research.

The other -ology I took a while to get a handle on was Methodology. I took ages to get going on this chapter, mostly because I had no idea what I was really doing with it. What exactly is a ‘methodology’? I did some reading, but what I found was a lot of stuff on methods, which is not a methodology. For ages, though, I thought it was. I think lots of researchers, especially less experienced ones, might use these terms to mean the same thing. I did initially, but that was because I did not see the crucial difference. A methodology is another kind of strategy, linked to your theoryology. You use both to give a more abstract picture of your study – one at a remove from the nitty gritty of the data and the details. The bigger picture stuff, if you like. So, if the theoryology is the framework or holding structure for your study, then the methodology is the strategy you employ for putting the study into action. What data will you collect? Why will you collect this data and not other kinds of data? What will you do with this data once you have it? How will you look at it, question it, analyse it? How will this data connect to the theory and the literature? These are some critical methodological questions. When you get out into the field, and interview, survey, observe, and then come home again and transcribe, draw, sift etc – these are your methods shaped into a coherent form by your methodology – your overall strategy – and held in place further by your theoryology or the theoretical (and eventually analytical) framework you will use to guide your whole study to its conclusions.

These don’t seem like such scary -ologies now, but I think they are potentially intimidating and also confusing for many scholars. Again, finding ways to make them make sense to you and to your study is the best way to gain control over them and out them to work for you.