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 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 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.


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

The 7 Rs of Sustainability

Before I go into further detail with the actual actions we can take, I want to explain what sustainability is about, and what sustainability includes. In my blog post Why sustainability? I already explained, why we want and need to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. In this post, I will show the aspects of sustainability, called the 7 Rs of Sustainability. They are Reduce, Reuse, Respect, Rethink, Reflect, Recycle, Redistribute. Everyone of these has its benefits and purposes, and one is easier to realise than the other. But see for yourself what seems doable for you.

Some people talk about the 3 Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle. Others even add another 9 – Refuse, Replant, Respect, Replenish, Repair, Reinvent, Recover, Responsibility, Restore, Repurpose, Rot. I will start with the first 7 and will address the additional 8 in another post.

The 7 R’s were identified by Brundtland Commission Our Common Future (1987). OMEP World Assembly (2010) also promoted three integrated pillars into the dimensions – Environmental (Reduce, Reuse), Social (Respect, Rethink, Reflect), and Economical (Recycle, Redistribute).


To reduce means to do more with less, and to cut down on the usage of resources, especially when they are limited and valuable, such as water, fossil fuels and forests.

Consequently, we switch the lights off when we leave the room, to save electricity. We turn the tap off while we brush our teeth, to save water. We read journal articles online instead of printing them, to save paper. We use a reusable cup for our coffee to go, to reduce plastic and paper. We use reusable bags, to reduce plastic and paper. We reduce the amount of toys we buy, and play with a few selected.


To reuse means making more use of old things, and continue using things instead of throwing them away.

Consequently, we reduce the amount of energy expended for manufacture and production of goods as well as we reduce waste (litter, garbage, etc.). Buying second hand in charity shops and online marketplaces, and donating spare goods, reuses everyday goods. Refilling (plastic) containers and jars, which would repurpose them. Reusing cans as plant pots, to build a bug hotel, or pencil cup. Reusing boxes, filling material, and envelopes to send it to somebody else.


Respect can be understood in different ways. On the one hand, it means the respect for resources and nature. It means to be grateful what our planet has to offer, and to value nature’s biological bounty.

On the other hand, it means to respect choices of others in our community. Especially, when it comes to an environmentally friendly lifestyle. We should respect how a person chooses to live their life. We should strive to provide individuals with resources and create a welcoming feeling that fosters their desire to take sustainable actions.


To live a more environmentally friendly and sustainable lifestyle, we need to work on our values and state of mind. We need to review our view on natural resources, then sustainability is much more than a set of actions or even a change of lifestyle. It is also about gradual and long-term changes rather than radical, often doomed to fail, changes.

“Every dollar you spend or don’t spend is a vote you cast for the world you want to live in.”

(L.N. Smith)

To live a more environmentally friendly and sustainable lifestyle, it is critical to realize that every choice we make is very important to the health of the planet. 


Working towards a more environmentally friendly lifestyle also means to reflect on cultural differences, and realities. It also means to reflect on human issues as well as environmental issues.

We all need to learn to live with diversity and complexity, and education […] needs to reflect on this and discover its advantages.

Pramling Samuelsson & Katz, 2008, p. 10


To recycle means to separate and sort waste, following a local recycling program. The most common schemes in the UK are first and foremost, recyclable (green bin) or not recyclable (brown bin). Then there is garden waste (black bin). To decide if it goes into the green or brown bin is not as easy. Especially, different kinds of plastic are either recyclable or not. Symbols on the packet will help. It is also important to check if there’s different material, and the whole package needs to be taken apart. For example, a ready meal has a plastic container, a film, and a wrapper. The film is mostly non recyclable, but the container, and the paper wrapper are. Very confusing. I will write a post about that soon. I will also take a look into recycling schemes of other countries, and compare them.

The idea behind recycling is to either reuse the material and resources, or to properly dispose hazardous material.


To redistribute means to use resources more equally. We share resources with other members of our community, or other countries. I specifically avoid to use the word “poor” here, as we could get something else in exchange. So this is about the process of equal distribution of recources.

The redistribution could include surplus food, essential goods, toys, books, or natural resources. By sharing these we avoid to waste them, and give them to somebody who needs them. In exchange, we might get something we need.

Photos for this post are by Vlada Karpovich, Anna Shvets, Jacob Kelvin, Pixabay, Retha Ferguson, Lisa Fotios, Cottonbro, Tara Winstead from Pexels

Why sustainability?

Sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The concept of sustainability is composed of three pillars: economic, environmental, and social—also known informally as profits, planet, and people.

When I talk about sustainability, I mean environmental sustainability. My research focuses on pro-environmental behaviour, so I am interested how people develop environmentally friendly attitudes and behaviour, what contributes to this process, and how can we live in harmony with nature (again).

So why sustainability?

Environmental issues, resulting from global warming, have made care for the environment an increasingly urgent matter. The careless usage of limited and valuable resources such as water, fossil fuels and forests, as well as the pollution of air, water and soil, has led us to a situation where we are at a tipping point and in need of an urgent change in attitudes and behaviour towards the environment.

If we all start and continue to do our bits to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, we can help the earth to recover and save humanities existence.

Living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle means to consume without sacrificing the health of our planet, and to take steps to help the earth to recover. I am talking about “a more environmentally friendly lifestyle” because I know how difficult it can be to break routines, change habits, and adjust to new circumstances. So, making little steps into this direction, and doing the bits we can is already a substantial progress. If everyone is doing a bit, we are altogether doing a lot. On my blog, I will explain what exactly can be done. I will also explain what, for example, the carbon footprint is, why it is important to reduce our carbon footprint, and what else a more environmentally friendly lifestyle includes.

Taking steps follows the 7 Rs of Sustainability: Rethink, Refuse, Reduce, Repurpose, Reuse, Recycle, Rot. To every of these categories, I will post what it means, and can be done.

Regarding the fact that you read my blog, I assume you are interested in living environmentally friendly and/or you already do your bit, but of course we have to consider that everything that seems “green” is good for our planet. It is a big argument that helping the earth to recover will save humanities existence, but what else is a good argument for sustainability? And which steps are questionable, doubtful, or even pointless? Are there any?

And as a researcher I will be critical and scrutinize everything I am writing about.

Photos for this post are by Akil MazumderChris LeBoutillier, Markus Spiske, Anna Shvets and Alexas Fotos from Pexels

What is this all about?

I am Kathrin and I am currently doing my PhD in Education at the University of Plymouth. I am in my second year and about to run a pilot study for my project. My research is about the influence of preschool gardening on preschooler’s pro-environmental behaviour. As a keen gardener and environmentalist I am interested in how a preschool garden could contribute to the development of children’s environmentally friendly and sustainable attitudes and behaviour.

During my PhD journey I needed to scrutinise the core questions of my research and also explore my beliefs and motivation. It’s not an easy task to do this but it helps to be clearer about the elements of my research and, in the end, be confident.

Why am I writing this blog? The blog serves different purposes. On the one hand, by explaining core parts of my research I comprehend them thoroughly. Because explaining helps me to think it through and also to see the strengths and weaknesses in my argumentation. On the other hand, I want to explain my research to a broader audience and communicate science.

In between I will also write about what it’s like to be a PhD student with it’s ups and downs, and post (hopefully) useful tips for certain parts of being in academia, such as academic writing, citing, how to do a literature review, how to find motivation in difficult times, and much more.

I am happy to see you here and hope you will follow my posts. I will very much appreciate comments and feedback.

As research is very much a question of community and every researcher contributes with his knowledge and expertise, I will cite resources for further reading, and link other blogs and accounts.

If you would like to contribute to this blog, have your blog supported or cooperate in research with me, just get in touch! I am looking forward to hear from you.