May 17, 2015

Ontology, Epistemology, Methodology, Whatonology? Part B: the terms

Brief introduction to Ontology

Reality is an important consideration for all researchers including Ph.D researchers, and considerations include the way that reality is perceived, in what way they interact with reality, and what way they act and behave within reality. Is there such a thing as an objective reality, where concepts, behaviours, actions and interactions of reality are common across different populations? Or reality could more likely be subjective, where reality is defined as unique for each individual person; where concepts, behaviours, actions and interactions of reality cannot be generalised across different people and populations. Questions that cover the existence, purpose, interactions with and behaviours within reality are a part of Ontology: the study of reality, of the relationship between researcher and reality, and the relationship between researcher and that being researched or, if you want, the relationship between the observer and that which is being observed. Ph.D. researchers usually have an ontological perspective of reality, they just are not usually aware of their position or do not really understand it until they are in a position where they think about it.

There are two main types of ontology: realism and idealism. Researchers who view the world through a realist perspective view reality as fixed and unchanging, and can therefore explore reality using methods that reduce reality into measurable elements such as variables. Researchers who view the world through an idealism perspective view reality as complex and intricate, containing answers that are not easy to search and locate. Realism considers research findings as generalizable whereas idealism view research findings as more contextual and specific.

Brief introduction to Epistemology

Epistemology is the study of knowledge, of its components, of its sources, and of its origins, and is important for researchers because epistemology is also the study of the way in which knowledge of reality is investigated and understood. The main types of epistemological views of reality are positivism, or postpositivism in Social Sciences, and interpretivism. Interpretivist researchers interpret the actions and events of reality in a way that is usually subjective and unique relative to their personal framework of experiences and perceptions of that event or action. Therefore, interpretivist researchers construct knowledge of reality inside their minds as a result of their subjectivity, and is usually different for each interpretivist researcher. The essential difference with positivitism and related perspectives is that knowledge does not need to be constructed and is therefore readily available to access and be discovered by the researcher. Using a positivist approach, a researcher’s framework of experiences and perspectives of an event does not need to be considered, because knowledge of that event exists regardless of any experience or perspectives.

Brief introduction to Methodology

Ontology and epistemology together explains the way in which a researcher perceives reality, with the former being relative to the relationship between the researcher and reality, and the latter relative to the relationship between a researcher and the way in which they perceive knowledge of reality. Methodology explains the way that knowledge of reality is explored and investigated in order to assist with answering research questions. It is at the methodological level where methods of investigating knowledge is defined, and as can be guessed the selection of methods is influenced by the selected epistemological and ontological perspectives.

There are a couple of general types of methodologies: quantitative and qualitative, each of which contains a large variety of different research methods that explore reality and knowledge of reality in particular ways. Quantitative methodologies involve exploring reality commonly through using experimental and quasi-experimental research designs; qualitative methodologies involve exploring reality and knowledge of reality through very open methods that contain no experimentation or manipulation of reality: case study, phenomenology, interviews, focus groups and observation are examples of qualitative methodologies.

General thoughts

As was said in Part A of this series, although each of these methods are part of a wider umbrella of definitions, all of these methods within each umbrella explore reality and questions of reality slightly differently. As an example, although interviews and focus groups are similar in that they are qualitative investigations of reality, they are different in that they used for different purposes: interviews in terms of obtaining specific views and insights from specific people; focus groups in exploring a particular phenomenon identified among a group of specific individuals.

A key central point to selecting the correct method, therefore, is not only understanding your own ontological and epistemological perspectives of reality, but also fully understanding the research questions that you want to answer in your research project. This shall be covered more in a separate blog posts, at a later time. 

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