Ontology and Research
If you are wanting conduct ontological research, may I wish you the best of luck and Godspeed, but this is not the page for you. If, however, you are in the Social Sciences and your supervisor, colleague, co-author, reviewer or editor is suddenly wanting you to talk about ontology or defend your ontological position like some demented pseudo-philosopher who has just swallowed a dictionary: Welcome!
Ontology is the branch of philosophy that studies of reality. Don’t panic! take a breath and relax. It really is all very simple. You are writing about something or researching a phenomenon. For example why do people stand patiently in queues? or Does time seem to drag when queuing to get into a ride at a theme park? Hang on, you shout, can I study queues at theme parks, I didn’t know I could do that! Yes, you can, it has been done. Don’t lose focus, back to your reality.
Commonly held Ontological Positions
When undertaking a research project adopt an ontology and stick to it. Don’t chop and change between the two! You just end up sounding confused and appear as if you don’t know what you are talking about.
There is only one reality. The world that you are researching is external and you, as a researcher, cannot affect it. Regardless of your perspective there is a single objective reality to any research phenomenon. There is only one way of correctly understanding it. As a researcher you are going to: remain detached; create a distance; make no value judgements and be emotionally neutral to your research.
Reality is multiple and relative. Understanding world that you are researching depends on other influences for meaning. Knowledge is socially constructed rather than objectively determined and can perceived in many different ways. Human interaction is central and the research design can be complex. Subjective research tends to understand and interpret the motives and meanings of human behaviour rather than to generalise and predict causes and effects.
Other things you should probably know about ontology
Principal questions of ontology include:
- What can be said to exist?
- What is a thing / entity?
- Can we categorise things?
- What is reality?
- What are the meanings of existence?
Now you have selected your ontology, it is time to consider your epistemology, but before doing that, just time for some ontological fun!
Types of Entities
Totally irrelevant to your study, but very interesting none the less, Jeremy Bentham distinguished three kinds of entities:
- The Real: those that can be perceived, or can be inferred from perception.
- The Fictitious: abstractions that referred to perceptible things.
- The Fabulous: those that can be found only in the imagination, where the word ‘exist’ applies to such only in the sense that they do not really exist.