All entries for Sunday 19 March 2017

March 19, 2017

Realism: ontological or epistemological version?

A key early sub-question that relates to the version of realism to implement is to decide if the version of realism that is being implemented refers to ontology or epistemology. Remember that ontology deals with the existence and state of being and what there is in reality that is real, whilst epistemology deals with whether or not we can come to know something about reality and if this is possible, to what extent can we know something and the way in which we can know something. I have decided upon the philosophical classification of realism but before I get to that point, I’ll provide arguably simplistic conceptualisations of each that suffices for the purposes of this blog post.

Ontological and Epistemological Realism:

Philosophical discussions relevant to research and knowing relates specifically to the idea of truth about reality. Is there such a thing as objective truth, and if so in what way can we come to know this truth about reality? What does this truth consist of and in what way can we understand aspects of this truth? Does objective truth exist or is truth simply a subjective construction invented in our own minds? If objective truth exists can we really attain it? Or, is it simply that what we know and theories progressively move towards objective truth? Although there is much debate, differences and variants of realism at both the ontological and epistemological levels it suffices for the purpose of this post to give the following basic and far too overgeneralising conceptions (but it’s a start!):


Ontological realism can be defined in general as arguing for objective truth that exists independently of our minds, as opposed to ontological idealism that suggests that mind and reality are as a single unit. Objective truth exists and therefore all assumptions, theories, beliefs and ideas that we form must be tested against this truth of reality therefore truth of reality is knowable.


Epistemological realism argues that knowledge itself exists independently of our minds; that knowledge is not a construction within our minds as is believed by epistemological idealists, but that knowledge is discoverable and attainable outside of the mind. The knowledge or perceptions that we hold in our minds about reality corresponds with reality itself; there is a correspondence between what we know, and the way that the world is, with this knowing attained through our experiences and interactions within the world.

Both ontological and epistemological realisms are much debated and discussed in philosophical and research methodology textbooks and published papers.

My Stance: Ontological Realism

The category of focus for my research is ontological realism, because I have the belief that there are universal and objective truths independent of whether or not we perceive, experience, or know about this truth and the extent of objectivity. I cautiously reject epistemological realism because I do not have the belief that what we know about the world corresponds with the way that the world is, because our mental states (knowledge, perceptions and so on) and cognitive processes (the act of perceiving, theorising, knowing, thinking and so on) are fallible. Therefore, whilst I do have the belief in objective truth and that aspects of reality do exist independent of our minds, we cannot really fully know this objective truth or objective reality: the best we can achieve is to progress towards objective truth but never actually attain it. And that from a general perspective and relative to my current understanding and knowledge relates well to my case study methodology and grounded theory method.


Brief Introduction to Realism and my Research: Initial Key Questions

When you have defined the limits of your discussions the next step is to define the key questions that shall help you to begin your further explorations and developments of your philosophical justifications. For me, the key questions are: what kind of realism am I talking about? And, what does realism offer to my research methodology?


What kind of realism?

As part of the philosophical justifications it’s important to be clear on the variant of realism that you are adopting for your research, and there are many variants of Realism in existence within the social sciences with the most popular being Critical Realism. When I adopted a mixed methods methodology I did begin to propose critical realism as the underpinning Philosophy, but began to doubt the relevancy of the human-structure relationship and the general idea of causality in the social sciences. I shall talk about this more in the future as my understanding further increases but essentially, critical realism defines a three layered ontology and has the aim of locating unobservable causes of observable phenomena within the social sciences, and it’s the notion of causality that I have trouble accepting as the way in which to understand social phenomena. Hence, I’ve moved away from critical realism but subscribe to a realist philosophy in general.

A current task therefore is investigating different types of realism to find out if any existing versions align with my own thinking about reality, or if I have to develop my own realist philosophy, or build upon previous realist ideas in some way. This will take some time to develop but this is a key question when it comes to communicating and elaborating on your realist philosophy in your thesis.

Do note that I am not suggesting that critical realism is not important in Educational research, but for my specific research I no longer feel that it is appropriate in accordance to my own beliefs, and also the phenomena of exploration.

What does Realism offer to methodology?

Not only is it best to explain the variant of realism that you are adopting or developing, but also the way in which that variant links in with and guides the methodology. What are the precise details of the realist approach and in what way does it align with and support the progress of the methodology? This is an area that is currently under continuous development, reformulation and reconstruction as I learn more about the variants of realism and the way in which realism feeds into my methodology.

A key benefit with the methodology I am using is that case study and grounded theory are philosophical-independent, meaning that they can work with a variety of different philosophical positions and therefore there is no right or wrong answer. The way in which realism needs to be implemented is dependent on the phenomena of interest, the research problem, and the research question. This is exactly where it is important to fully elaborate on your philosophical justifications for the methodology that you are using, and to explain why realism is the most appropriate philosophical approach compared to other approaches. What is it exactly about your approach that makes your approach to realism suitable and relative to the context of exploration?

In summary:

This is all work in progress, but no matter what I have read and what I have looked at, and from the trial study, realism is what makes the most sense to me based on the phenomena of interest and the way in which I am collecting the data. It is argued in some cases that philosophical perspectives can change as a person really delves into the research and collects and analyses the data. Whilst this is true, and I have read earlier about a couple of Ph.D. candidates who transitioned from critical realism to social constructionism, I am cautiously and currently convicted by my beliefs in a realist perspective of reality.


Brief Introduction to Realism and my Research: context and boundaries

Long term blog readers will no doubt have had their brains melted as I have debated and discussed the use of different philosophical perspectives as a guide for the research methodology, beginning with a constructivist perspective before navigating towards and settling on a realist philosophy. Subsequently, methodology has transitioned from pure grounded theory methodology, to a mixed methods methodology with grounded theory used as a method, before navigating towards and settling on a case study methodology using grounded theory as a method, using a realist philosophy to guide the methodology. Feel free to have a search about my blog to find relevant discussions!

I have been thinking about this for a long time now, and a realist approach is the only overarching philosophical approach that makes sense to the context of my research; therefore, I am beginning to understand and further develop my philosophical justifications and arguments for realism as a philosophical drive for my research design. It is such a complex area however with many variants, directions, debates, discussions and applications; therefore, there needs to be a series of limits set to what can realistically be explored and discussed in the thesis, and on this blog. These limits I find come naturally within the boundaries of my research.

Limits Of Realist Discussions

Different people will have different approaches, but for me so far it’s easier to contextualise discussions of realism within the boundaries of my own research. It is important to lay out a set of limits because it will keep you focussed about what you need to explore, and what you need to discuss in terms of your philosophical justification and the way in which it applies to your research methodology. It’s easy to travel off in different directions as realism like any philosophical perspective is vast, complex and well debated and discussed.

The following are limitations that I have placed on my own investigations and discussions of realism:
· I talk about realism only in the context of social sciences and not the natural sciences
· I talk about realism only in the context of qualitative research
· I talk about realism only in the context of case study methodology
· I talk about realism only in the context of grounded theory method
· I talk about realism specific to the type of case study and grounded theory used

Obviously this blog is not as “formal” or “academic” as the thesis therefore I shall be a little less restrictive about these compared to the thesis so I can talk about, for example, realism in other methodologies and compare to the selected methodology of case study in general. I can also do this in the thesis but it would be more specific, e.g., I assume it would be important for example to compare the use of realism in phenomenology and case study relative to the phenomenon of investigation, as this can contribute to the philosophical justification of the selected philosophical perspective.

A Guide, Not A Strict Structure!

It’s important to some extent to treat these limits as a guide rather than an absolute rigid structure of discussions. Think about it as being set free within the boundaries of your research as defined by the discipline in general, and the overall research design. There is little point, for example, in talking about realism in phenomenological research if your research design is not based on phenomenology; however, that doesn’t stop you from discussing realism applications within that methodology if you can apply it in some way that is relevant to your own methodology. That’s an example of what I am talking about in terms of being set free within the boundaries of your research.

Now that limits have been set, key questions must be asked that shall help develop an overview of what needs to be known, and this is the subject of the next blog post.


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