August 19, 2017

Should Ph.D. candidates be talking meta–ontology and meta–epistemology?

Continuing to engage with writing the first drafts of various sections of my thesis, and this week I began to redevelop and construct an outline of some of the sections of the literature review. A part of the literature review shall refer to theories of epistemology (knowledge) and justification (methods of providing evidence or reasons of any claims about reality). The section is being written to link with other sections relating to collaborative learning and collaborative technologies and therefore attempting to write a reflective, critical narrative of existing, relevant literature. I want this to flow logically and not be disjointed. This is ongoing work.

As part of this task I have been rereading many different theories of knowledge and justification to identify theories that I can critique and relate to various aspects of the research phenomena of interest. What I have unexpectedly discovered during this reading is that not only can I critique and relate theories of knowledge and justification to different phenomena of research interest, but also relate some of the theories to research design. Many textbooks advise Ph.D. candidates to discuss and explain their ontological and epistemological beliefs and their impact on the research design, but they do not appear, from what I can understand, to request students to go further and jump up to the next level of abstraction. What do I mean by this? I’ll provide an example.

I have the belief that in the social world or social reality there are objective objects that exist independently of our consciousness and mental activities: we do not need to be consciously aware of their existence in order for them to actually exist (I’ll be describing this term in more detail in the thesis). But how do I know this? How do I know that there are objects out there that exist in that way? On what grounds have I based these beliefs on? In what way can I tell that I have developed these beliefs reliably?

Similar questions can be applied to my epistemological beliefs (which, as explained in the previous blog post, are changing; or, more accurately, I have become aware of their incorrectness). Therefore, in addition to discussing and explaining my epistemological beliefs and their relationship to my ontological beliefs, I should also be asking about the genesis of these beliefs. How do I know that the way that I perceive the acquirement of knowledge is correct? Where do my epistemological beliefs come from? On what grounds do I base these beliefs on? In what way can I tell that I’ve developed these beliefs reliability? And in the changes to epistemological beliefs over the years I should ask an extra question: did my epistemological beliefs change, or did I become more consciously aware of their existence? Either way, I need to ask more general questions: on what grounds were these changes made? How exactly did this change occur? Why did the change occur? What impact have these changes had on my research?

I guess these can be loosely termed meta-ontology and meta-epistemology. I am talking here about going beyond the level of discussing, explaining and justifying our ontological and epistemological beliefs to discussing how these beliefs were made, why they were made, and the grounds upon which we have formed these beliefs. This is an extra level of discussion and an extra level of abstraction that does not contend with discussing the acceptability and correctness of the beliefs themselves. Acceptability and correctness of the beliefs themselves shall be judged by the general criteria of the research project. What I am talking about is the method or approach that we have taken to form, come to know, become aware of, and ground our ontological and epistemological beliefs. I appreciate that some people might not view the worth of such discussions. I’m not entirely sure myself as I’ve only just thought about this since writing the previous blog post, but I think it is something that is worth thinking about further. Also, I am not entirely sure that, if these discussions do go ahead, they should be a part of the methodology chapter of if discussions should be in a separate chapter perhaps based on researcher reflexivity.

These are all tentative, initial ideas, but might be something worth pushing for. I shall have to ask for advice on this from my supervisor but I think perhaps discussing the core question how we know what we know should be considered more important.

Keep asking questions and never think that any idea is ridiculous because at Ph.D. level anything is possible. Remember, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, but the strength of argumentation!

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