Ontology – Epistemology – Ah!

One thing you come across, sooner or later, during your PhD, is your definition of your ontological and epistemological stance. This topic is barely touched during an undergraduate or Master’s study. To be honest, I have found myself imperilled by this during my first year of my PhD. Enthusiastic and keen to start with my data collection, I have been confronted to be clear about my ontology and epistemology first, and go on the journey to find it. At first, it didn’t feel like a journey, more like a jeopardy, a gamble, a torment. I didn’t know what is meant by “nature of reality” or “nature of knowledge”. My heart was with scales, surveys and numbers. I was a big fan of statistics and quantitative methods. Starting to question it, wasn’t the most pleasant thing to do. Thinking about ontology and epistemology still makes my brain hurt sometimes. But I love to challenge myself and think about something until I feel dizzy. So, make yourself a nice cup of tea or a strong coffee, and start your journey. The epiphany is waiting.

Elaborating your ontology and epistemology is not directly about your research or your project, so don’t try to put the cart before the horse. It is to be clear about you as a researcher, your values, your assumptions and your position. You will scrutinise who you are as a researcher, where your assumptions come from, and the main thing: how this will influence your research. Your choice of topic, research focus, methodology, and analysis will be directly influenced by you, even if you don’t want or realise that. Your research will be unique because it is conducted by you.

Ontology

Ontology is the “nature of reality”. These are your assumptions about the world, how you see it, what it is, and your place within that. Ask yourself “What exists?”, “What do I accept as real?” and “What is the nature or form of the social world?”.

The four major ontological positions are realism, constructivism, positivism and pragmatism. They differ in the assumption that there’s either a singular objective reality that exists independent from what we know about it (realism), or there’s multiple realities constructed by individuals (constructivism).

I have linked further descriptions to every positions that helped me to understand them.

Epistemology

Epistemology is understood as the “nature of knowledge”. It is about your assumptions what you know or can know. Ask yourself “How do we create knowledge?” and “How do people come to know what they know?”.

The major epistemological positions are constructionism, social constructivism, interpretivism and positivism. I don’t want to confuse you but these epistemological positions correspond with the ontological, but not under the same name (realism to positivism, constructivism to interpretivism). Direct knowledge of the world is possible to be achieved through direct observation or measurement (positivism). In the social constructivist epistemology, knowledge is constructed through interaction with others.

Methodology

Your methodological assumptions reflect your ontological and epistemological position. You have to ask yourself “What procedures or logic should be followed?”. It is about how you design your research to ensure valid and reliable results that address the research aims and objectives. It refers to what data you collect, who will be in your sample, how you collect the data and how you will analyse them.

After you are clear about this, you will choose your methods – quantitative methods (surveys, scales, etc.), qualitative methods (interviews, observations, focus groups, etc.) or a mixed-method approach (

Don’t give up!

Don’t worry if you don’t get it the first time. Lots of people I have spoken to about their ontology, epistemology, and their adventure to find it, said they have had nightmares and woke up thinking about it.

One thing you can do to get an idea of other researchers stance, is to read their thesis, especially the methodology/ methods chapter. Very few will actually use the words “ontology” or “epistemology” (so don’t try Crtl + F), but you will find their elaboration how they have chosen their methods and why they used a particular method. You can find theses in your field on EThOS.

Also: talk about it! Ask your supervisors and other PhD students. You will see that you are not alone with this. I have been there. I am still there (with you).

Here are some links that helped me: It’s not you, it’s your data, Business Research Methodology and Forum Social Research.

Books I recommend for this topic: Coe, Waring, Hedges & Ashley (2021), Pring (2015), Somekh & Lewin (2011) and Braun & Clarke (2013). This is my personal choice, no paid marketing.

Photos for this post are by cottonbro, Thirdman, Andreas Piacquadio, Ike Iouie Natividad, Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

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