All entries for Monday 11 September 2017

September 11, 2017

Ontological Beliefs: The Journey So Far, Part C

The problem I had with critical realism was, to maximise the potential of critical realism, I had to use multiple data collection sources and ideally access to the beliefs and thoughts of the participants. The more I thought about the implications of the context of my research (e.g., I had no access to participant beliefs and perspectives, and they were not required to complete the core aim of the research), the more I realised that this was too risky an option to take. I doubted that I would be able to complete the Ph.D. or make a quality Ph.D. with critical realism, given the new awareness of the research context. Other reasons why critical realism would no longer work include its stratification of reality (reality split in multiple layers termed the real, the empirical, and the actual: read tutorials on critical realism if you are interested in knowing these further) and its emphasis on locating causal mechanisms. Causal mechanisms are multiple, unobservable objects that are theorised to have produced an observation or an event. Whilst applying critical realism to my own beliefs and context it was decided that there was no way I could identify causal mechanisms in the way that critical realism prescribes them. And, besides, the research is based on increasing understanding of the process of a particular learning encounter as well as explaining the way in which this process evolves over time and hence, evaluate its quality. I simply cannot find a way in which causal mechanisms can play a part in this and, also, the data collection methods used simply do not provide the appropriate data to identify causal mechanisms. I had to change tactics.


After reading many papers I came across Michael Hammersley’s ‘Subtle Realism.’ This aligns perfectly with my ontological beliefs: that there is a reality and objects of reality that exists independently of our conceptions of them, but that we shall never fully attain the truth of reality. The best that can be achieved is to edge closer towards truth through critically evaluating our conceptions and reformulating our conceptions of reality. Subtle Realism I have found works well in terms of framing my understanding of the nature and structure of social reality, and the way in which social reality behaves in certain learning contexts.


But the more I read about social ontology and social reality, which refers to social interactions and their nature, the more I became aware of something else that I was doing incorrectly. Perhaps not actually incorrectly, but in a particular way that could be enhanced (how can I assume that I was incorrect at the time if I cannot assume with absolute certainty that I am correct now, etc.)


Objects of the social world differs to that of the natural world. In the natural world objects such as trees, mountains, rivers and weather systems exist outside of our conceptions of them. We do not need to conceive, perceive or become aware of these objects in order for them to exist in reality: they exist regardless of whether or not we have any knowledge of them. In the social world, this is different, and after a while of trying to develop arguments about the existence of social objects I have come to the following couple of key questions: does our consciousness play an important part in the existence of social objects? If we are not consciously aware of the existence of a social object at a particular time during an interaction, does that social object have any existence?


I didn’t think about the role of consciousness before because I was too focussed on the social objects themselves detached from our consciousness. But as I have thought about some of the data that I have collected I was beginning to perceive the existence of social objects that the participants had not perceived. I also noticed differing perceptions among participants: some could perceive certain events whilst others did not, and it is interesting to think about why this might be the case and to test any hypothesis that might be developed. I have many questions, some of which were presented as part of a post yesterday, and ideas forming about the role of consciousness and is therefore a current and ongoing task.


What I do know or am coming to know (and I appreciate that I might not be completely correct at this time, or at any other time) is that subtle realism does not appear to address the role of consciousness with regards to the existence of social objects. But I think with some workarounds it can be used to represent or contribute towards understanding the role of consciousness. I am unsure at this time if subtle realism can be worked around to accommodate consciousness, but upon a search of literature I have found possibilities but have yet to read through these papers to gain a full understanding of what might be possible.


What is known, however, is that I am finding myself returning to a perspective I once dismissed as being irrelevant but now coming to know that it might actually be relevant for my philosophical conceptions, and that is Phenomenology. It might be relevant because phenomenology is the study of the nature and structure of our consciousness including perceptions and awareness.


Reexploring Phenomenology and its possible relevance to my research is another continuous and ongoing task, and shall be the subject of a blog post coming at a later time!


Ontological Beliefs: The Journey So Far, Part B

As a research philosophy, Constructivism emphasises an active relationship between researcher and participant. This is to mean that the researcher co-constructs, negotiates and validates meaning and knowledge with the participants. Truth, meaning, knowledge, understanding and our knowing about the phenomenon of interest is not discovered or interpreted, but is constructed or developed. Therefore, constructivism suggests that there are multiple truths and that no single truth is more valid than the other truths. For various reasons, I was beginning to experience problems with this conception of understanding the phenomenon of interest. Firstly, because I have no actual involvement with any of the participants, therefore, there is no co-construction occurring between myself and the participants. Secondly, because the intention is to contribute to classroom practice it is impossible to conceive of multiple truths. Products that are developed for practice-based disciplines cannot function on the idea of multiple truths, because you cannot have, for example, two models that evaluate the same aspects of critical thinking. One model has to be viewed as being more true to the reality of critical thinking, based on some criteria set, than the other. You can have, however, two models that evaluates different aspects of critical thinking, but not same aspects.


Once I realised this, I realised that I was conflating truth, meaning, understanding and knowledge in terms of the way in which we come to understand each of these terms in our research contexts. They had to be treated separately and differently to the way I was conceiving them. But in what way? Where could I possibly begin? What on Earth does it mean to have single truth and in what way can I come to understand what this truth is? I came to understand that my philosophical beliefs of the time were not compatible with the research context. I could not possibly continue with a constructivist philosophy given my new awareness of the research context and given the nature of a practice-based discipline. And then, I came to know the philosophical concept of ontology, and I realised my mistake: I was conflating ontology and epistemology. I was treating knowledge that we have of reality as mirroring reality itself. I came to know ontology as a separate study unit in itself, so I embarked on separating epistemology and ontology, and studied them further. I shall discuss the journey of epistemology another time.


Now that I separated ontology and epistemology I could focus on understanding my own beliefs of the nature and structure of reality itself. Remember that ontological beliefs refer to our beliefs about the nature and structure of reality, and epistemological beliefs refer to our beliefs about attaining knowledge about this reality. As I read papers and book chapters of ontological books, I came to understand that I didn’t perceive reality as internal within our minds, but that there is a reality external to our minds. In other words, that there is a reality independent of our knowledge and conceptions of it. This was actually a revelation, and not something that I expected. However, now was the time to find out where my developing beliefs could be situated within the existing ontological frameworks and beliefs.


As I reflect on this point in my journey, I remember that I still had that behaviour of trying to pigeon hole my beliefs or fit my beliefs into a pre-existing set of ideals and frameworks. Why was this? I think it was initially more to do with convenience because I was trying to understand the existing frameworks that are available to possibly evaluate and critique them whilst attempting to apply them to my own set of beliefs. With the awareness and understanding I have now, I find it neigh-on impossible to situate my beliefs within any single existing framework. But at the time I just wanted a better understanding.


After reading widely around the topic of philosophy I came across the notion of realism, and this supports the idea that there is a reality out there independent of our conceptions of it. But what version? There are many versions available and it took me a while to align myself with the correct ontology, or what I thought was the correct and relevant ontology. I did settle on critical realism for a fair while due to my research methodological approach of mixed methods. But I came across problems in the mixed methods approach and, therefore, critical realism.


I had to question and really contemplate my ideas about reality, as discussed in Part C!


Ontological Beliefs: The Journey So Far, Part A

I am hoping that I have made clear the importance and value of understanding your own ontological beliefs so far in writing this blog. This is not to suggest that you should know everything about ontology as this would be a pretty impossible task unless you were doing a Ph.D. specifically in dealing with ontological issues. But, I do feel that it is important to engage with ontological issues in the context of your research, in terms of attempting to understand your own ontological beliefs, to situate these beliefs within the wider published field of ontology, and the way in which your ontological beliefs shape your overall research design. For me, this has been a long journey of twists, turns, introspection, doubting, experimenting and challenging my own ideas. And, this is a journey that is still unfolding itself!


The changes that have occurred with my ontological (and epistemological) beliefs over the years lead to the following question: is it that we actively construct and alter our beliefs of reality? Or is it that we simply become more aware of the complexity of reality itself and of our beliefs about this reality? There are no easy answers to these questions, but it is the role of a Ph.D. candidate to explore their own beliefs, and to situate them within the wider published frameworks and theories. I originally thought of this as straight forward, but really, it isn’t, despite the way in which some academic textbooks attempt to portray it as straightforward. Situating beliefs and trying to find where they fit within the wider literature can depend on the research problem, the research context, and the overall, general discipline within which a researcher is situated. But even then, research problems and research contexts can be philosophised in several ways, and can therefore be explored using a variety of different approaches sometimes in combination.


When I first began the Ph.D. I was convinced that I was a constructivist. I conceived reality and knowledge of reality as a personally constructed entity with no real objective existence. Therefore, I had the idea at the time that everyone constructed their own truths and it was the job of the constructivist to find out the way that people perceived the truth of certain aspects of reality based on their experience. My preference towards constructivism was driven by my favourable position towards constructivism as a teaching and learning theory. However, as I found out fairly quickly into the Ph.D., constructivism as a teaching and learning theory is completely different to its philosophical orientation.


The idea of constructivism as a teaching and learning theory is that learners are able to construct their own understanding and knowledge about subjects instead of passively listening to a teacher. Learners are active participants in their learning, and through experimentation and collaboration they build their understanding and knowledge. This is in some sense similar to constructivism as a research philosophy: researchers construct their knowledge of what is going on within a research setting through actively participating within the setting, typically through co-constructing and negotiating meaning and knowledge with the research participants. What is usually found is each participant constructs their own truth about reality therefore leading to multiple truths, and constructivism treats truth of all perspectives as the same.


Whilst this might initially be appealing, I did come across stumbling blocks as I shall discuss in Part B!


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