Finding a starting point in developing a higher level of philosophical awareness and understanding of the position of philosophy within the overall research design (not to mention tackling the limitless and diverse range of approaches, debates, discussions and analysis of approaches) is not easy. I originally approached the position of philosophy through coming to understand my own philosophical beliefs from which I selected the methodology and methods. Now the Ph.D. is beginning to enter the stage of more intense engagement with philosophy with the following guiding question: what is the precise relationship between ontology, epistemology, methodology, theoretical purposes, and methods? Perhaps the answer here is more subjective and relative to my research: surely the answers that I shall form to explain and detail the relationship are not universally acceptable? There is no right or wrong or easy answer to this question in general.
Philosophical and Methodological Independency
To begin forming an answer to this question it is important to understand Philosophy as an abstract, domain independent discipline. Philosophy as a general discipline explores reality in terms of the study of appropriate behaviour (ethics), the study of interactions with and beliefs about reality (metaphysics or ontology) and the study of our knowledge about reality and whether or not there is any real sense of knowing about reality at all (epistemology). It is domain independent because philosophy itself is not exclusive to any discipline although every discipline and category of disciplines has their own philosophy. For example, there is a philosophy of the natural sciences (natural world) and a philosophy of the social sciences (social world or social reality), and within each there is a philosophy associated with each discipline: with social sciences, a philosophy of economics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of education and so on.
Understanding philosophy as an abstract, domain independent discipline enables ontology and epistemology to set out assumptions about the nature and structure of reality and the way in which this nature and structure can be known, but allows the theories and methodologies of a discipline to determine the specific approaches to knowing this reality. In other words, in the context of my research my own ontological and epistemological beliefs are imposed onto the research therefore the research investigation has set assumptions about the nature and structure of social reality and the way in which this social reality can be known. The methodology and methods detail the approaches used to come to understand and know this social reality, continuously working towards the development of a theoretical framework that conceptualises and explains certain aspects and relationships between certain aspects of social reality. They key here now is to begin enhancing, detailing, elaborating, and fully establish the relationship between the philosophical assumptions and methodological approaches.
When I began thinking about philosophy’s position in general in my own research, I came across Yeung’s paper titled “Critical Realism and Realist Research in Human Geography.” (For the record I’m not strictly following a critical realist route nor am I doing research in human geography but it’s an ideal situation to be able to expand your reading scope and think about concepts and approaches in other disciplines: but that’s another topic). In this paper, Yeung offers the position that “philosophy deals with the ontological and epistemological aspects of the social world whereas substantive social sciences themselves address the theoretical and methodological issues” (P.2). His position not only enables the beginning of understanding the relationship between philosophy, methodology, theory and method but also notions independency between them.
The independency enables an argument to be made about free movement occurring between philosophy, theory, methodology and method or in other words methodological liberalism. But this is not usually observed as there is a sense of exclusivity among methodological writers: particular methods are associated only with particular methodologies and particular methodologies are associated only with a particular set of philosophical assumptions. Linking back to the previous discussion, philosophical and methodological considerations are related in the context of a research project, but are in general independent of each other in that a particular methodology does not necessarily have to always associate with a particular set of philosophical assumptions. This independency and liberalism of methodology can be quite a difficult idea to grasp but I am beginning to develop a firm belief that this is what is or should be really happening when learning about all these different philosophical and theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches. I’ll give you an example.
An original key author of grounded theory, Glaser, did not explicitly state ontological and epistemological assumptions therefore grounded theory is classed essentially as being independent of any philosophy. This has worked in its favour (or not, depending on your perspective) because different versions of grounded theory developed over the past few decades carry different philosophical (e.g, pragmatism and constructivism) and methodological (e.g., ethnographic grounded theory, phenomenological grounded theory etc.) assumptions and approaches suitable for a variety of different research designs and different types of data. Despite this sense of liberalism, most texts I have come across associate grounded theory with a qualitative methodology and therefore relativist assumptions about reality. Glaser and his writing partner Strauss professionally parted ways and Strauss with Corbin developed a different version of grounded theory, termed Straussian grounded theory, that was more methodologically comprehensive in that it contained a wider and broader set of principles and guidance for coding data. But even then, no explicit philosophical assumptions were made about Straussian grounded theory until several decades later when Strauss and Corbin made explicit associations with pragmatism and symbolic interactionism. Even so, this version has been used in a variety of different research contexts and it could be argued that its pragmatic nature enables it to be used in a variety of different contexts.
In my research I am using a case study as the methodology and grounded theory as a method, guided by a realist philosophy therefore both have to align with the realist assumptions adopted for the research. This is where I begin to establish that detailed, intricate relationship between philosophy and methodology: not only shall I explain the way in which case study and grounded theory aligns with the adopted realism principles in general, but also the specific version of grounded theory and case study and in what way they align with each principle. You can’t just say “I’m doing a case study” or “a grounded theory study” as you have to be explicit with the variety and variation of variety of the method and methodology you are using, as well as being explicit about the philosophical assumptions. Not easy, but it is worth it.
Therefore, when you are developing your research projects try to think about philosophy, methodology, theory and method as independent but related and important constructs of your research. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that certain methods belong to certain methodologies or that certain methodologies belong to a set of certain philosophical assumptions because this stifles and limits potential and creativity.
A question therefore has to be asked: in what way, exactly, do we justify the use of methodology and methods in our research? Perhaps the answer here lies not just in the common approach of comparing methodological application within empirical literature in order to identify knowledge gaps and therefore methodological needs, which itself is important, but also through philosophical justifications. Why are we always explicit in the comparison of different designs and base justifications on this comparison and existing methodological gaps in the literature, but yet are not explicit and reflexive enough on our own philosophical assumptions of reality and therefore offer little in the way of philosophical justifications?
And that, readers, is a different topic entirely.
‘till next time, keep thinking!
Glaser, B.G., Strauss, A.L (1967): The Discovery Of Grounded Theory: Strategies For Qualitative Research, USA: Transaction Publishers
Strauss, A., Corbin, J.M (1998): Basics Of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory, California: SAGE Publications
Yeung, H.Wai-Chung (1997): Critical Realism And Realist Research In Human Geography: A Method or a Philosophy In Search of a Method? Progress In Human Geography, 21 (1), pp. 51 - 74