On Ontology, Epistemology, Theory and Methodology

Image: Laurentius de Voltolina [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This morning I sat at the feet of a professor who wrote many of the texts I studied as an undergraduate student. I still have a sense of wonder whenever I do so. I tend to be a positivist and so far I have ignored normative aspects of the world as I conduct my research. However, recent challenges require me to be more in tune with different perspectives of "being" and "knowledge" as I develop my research philosophy. Here I want to record the key things I took away from the session this morning.

This is the third time I have attended this particular seminar, yet today was the first time I went with an open mind and an open heart. Previously, I have tended to neglect anything that did not fit with my ideas, not about the world, but about the form my research takes. It is clear that this narrow view helped me in the past, but it is of little value today. In many ways, I was ready to attend this seminar for the first time today.

I will start with some definitions. First, ontology refers to a theory of the nature of being. What is there to know? For example, a foundationalist/realist might say that men and women are essentially and eternally different, then this is our ontological stance or statement. Whereas an anti-foundationalist/ constructivist might say that gender is socially constructed, and that across time and space the differences reflect different social constructs, then we have a different ontological stance. The crucial thing is the way we understand the world.

Which ontological statement is true? How do we determine the truth? How do others perceive the truth? And on what basis can one claim to have an accurate assessment of how people understand the world?

Second, epistemology refers to a theory of knowledge, or what and how can we know about the world. There are three broad points of view:
  1. Positivism - the dominant view, where we tend to get on and do the research without concern for epistemology. This has been me for a long time but I think I am ready to move beyond a narrow conception of ontology and epistemology in my research (I have never been a pure positivist in my understanding of the world). Put simply, we develop a hypothesis to explain an observed phenomena, and then we test our hypothesis through experimentation or, in the social sciences in particular, by testing our hypotheses using quantitative data based on an appropriate sample size. I have tried to do this using the comparative method - often referred to as a "quasi-experimental" method, but while the text books mention this approach, examples of comparison that are not based on large-N, quantitative methods are rare. This probably reflects the focus on scientific method I addressed in my Essay Notes. Put simply, positivism attempts to make "if, then" statements as broad generalisations about social phenomena. The approach states that, in establishing causal explanations, objective relationships between phenomena can be observed.
  2. Constructivism - anti-foundational, where we believe the world to be socially constructed, and rather than existing in "reality". We can only discover how people narrate or understand the world. It is not about "truth" (because there is no "real world" as espoused by positivists), there is only meaning. The double hermeneutic can be useful in conceptualising meaning in the research context. First, we need to discover from people their understanding of their actions. Second, we need to discover our understanding, as observers, of people's understanding of their own actions.
  3. Critical Realism. A middle way? I asked about these epistemologies in relation to technological determinism versus social constructivism, and the "middle way" known as technological momentum. Critical realism takes a similar space by critiquing positivism and constructivism. So material versus cultural, structure versus agency, and so on. Roy Bhaskar was known for this approach in critiquing Tony Blair's "New Labour" or Third Way. I was studying commerce and management during Blair's time and when I returned to political science in 2004, I was so far behind. Tiananmen Square, the Spratly Islands, and whether China would retain Most Favored Nation (MFN) status with the United States, in the light of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, were all in vogue. By the time I returned to the fold, it was post 9/11, and things were different.
  4. Others. Foucault, Deleuze, and the role played by dominant narratives or dominant discourses about action. I will need to delve into this again soon (I have avoided Foucault since my undergraduate degree as advised by the positivists who surround me!).
These three perspectives relate to the three 'grand old men" of sociology:
  1. Max Weber - constructivist
  2. Émile Durkheim - positivist
  3. Karl Marx - critical realist
The point of knowing these things is an understanding that, as a social scientist, using the right methods in the right way is crucial to sound research. These issues should be in our thoughts, but necessarily all the time.

But we must be aware of "reflexivity" as a key aspect of methodology. This means that our own biases and conceptions of knowledge can influence our research decisions, in particular, how "our" understanding of "their" understanding is affected by these.

My learned professor argued that our ontological and epistemological conceptions are a "skin not a sweater" - they are not something one can easily take off.

Some discussion around Enlightenment thinking and whether neoliberalism had rejected this, rather than attempting to find the "truth" in order to improve things. Thankfully, "post-truth" was ignored, probably out of boredom with the stupidity of it all. But to sum up, positivism looks for a real world independent of our understanding, whereas constructivism argues that there is no real world except how we understand it. There was also a suggestion that there is a third level of hermeneutic, that of the person reading's understanding of your interpretation of their interpretation of meaning. If that doesn't make you want to be a positivist, then nothing will!

Another way to conceptualise the differences is that of the material versus the ideational. Here, the issue is the definition of  what is "real". In my learned professor's view, concepts such as structure and agency are "metatheoretical issues" that all lead back to ontology and epistemology. 

Once we have our ontology and our epistemology under control, we can then look at our methodology. So unless you are a post-structuralist, the crucial link flows from ontology to epistemology to methodology. I mentioned this above, but positivism leads to general statements about the relationship between social phenomena, and points towards "if, then" statements that horde for the population. Now to look at all the research design in series:
  1. Positivism: Theory > hypothesis . testing > falsification (see Karl Popper) > re-specification of theory.
  2. Critical Realism: Theory > identification of the problem > empirical investigation > interpretation of results which is theory > dependent > changing elements of theory. If your theory can explain what another theory cannot...
  3. Interpretivism: Narratives rather than theory as narratives are one understanding of reality. Which narrative or discourse is dominant?
  4. Major/minor approach: E.g. positivists major = quantitative, minor = qualitative. Your work must be quantitative if you want to make generalisable statements.
Karl Popper's mention of "white swans" (of course, Canberra has black swans), made me think of Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his book The Black Swan. I am currently reading Antifragile, so will need to go back to his earlier book. Interestingly, I am struggling to get through the book because of the exact words used by David Runciman in his review of the book in The Guardian

Here's me busting my butt to develop my understanding of the world while Taleb is telling me my whole life has been a crock and he knows all the answers, like some other popular figures at the moment both here and abroad. But I digress.

For the future: Design thinking and co-production?

And finally, why are these differences important? The differences relate to what we can do, how we can do it and, crucially, what we can conclude on the basis of what we find. Some interesting discussion of deduction versus induction caught my attention and I must delve into it in detail.

An example of deduction is rational choice theory. We start with a theory.

But induction starts with a puzzle. Most of what I do starts with a puzzle. I think I have been trying to force a deductive model on an essentially inductive approach. 

Mention also of Herbert Simon's term "satisficing", rather than maximising preferences in rational choice theory. But induction starts with observations and builds a theory based on those observations. This predominantly is what I do. It is a major discovery.

Can we find the truth? How can we do it? We could start by more deliberate reading of our weaknesses. This session today was a good start.