exam revision: epistemology and ontology

Some brief summaries for the DT840 exam in research methods and skills. I am revising the secondary literature and OU course material as discussed on 4th and 8th August.

Ontological and epistemological positions provide fundamental aspects of research as they concern the philosophical questions what counts as reality and how beings come into being as well as what constitutes knowledge and how knowledge comes to be established. Two core positions can be distinguished in either area: positivist and constructionist.

  • positivist ontology: the world is ‘out there’, it operates in a systematic and lawful manner, discrete and observable events, reality is separate from human meaning-making;
  • constructionist ontology: assumes the world we can study is a semiotic world of meanings, represented in signs and symbols, language is central to this position;
  • positivist epistemology: knowledge can only be gained by gathering facts in a systematic and objective manner, predominantly by the experimental method and by testing of hypotheses in order to gradually build laws. The aim is to refine them and achieve applicability on a universal level;
  • constructionist epistemology: knowledge is constructed rather than discovered, it is a representation of the ‘real world’ and interpreted by the researcher. Knowledge is subject to time-space configurations and a means of power (e.g. doctors as ‘architects of medical knowledge’). Scientists and their institutions shape the production of knowledge by their choices and values.

These positions significantly shape research designs and methodologies.

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About Britta Bohlinger, CFE

Founder and Director of RisikoKlár in Iceland. Native German, global perspective - previously in London and Berlin.

2 responses to “exam revision: epistemology and ontology”

  1. Mark says :

    This is great, but it’s got me thinking… In my college, all PhD students had to take an introduction to educational inquiry class that covered various philosophies of science. In that class we covered positivism, post-positivism, etc. (and like a horrible student, I can’t remember them all). It’d be great if you could list all these out too. :p

    What strikes me is that some of these ways of looking at the world are deeply personal. More recently, for example, I was struck at how different activity theory is from actor-network theory and that it seems like the proponents of either camp have investments in their theory of choice because of their personal beliefs about the role of humans in nature, etc. Are humans special or not? etc.

    Ok, just babbling… 🙂

  2. britbohlinger says :

    Hi Mark, Thanks so much for your comment. Great you like the summary, and yes, this is very basic, I know there is a lot more to ontology and I think what I am going to post is rather more bits and pieces related to the wider area of research methods – reason being: lack of time, exam ahead – I hate this dilemma and wished there would be time to delve deeper into this area, especially as there seem to be very few blogs out there discussing this.

    As you say, I also strongly believe some aspects in research including bias in theory selection, methodology and even financing projects are under-addressed and often downplayed – perhaps because the issues of politics, power and subjectivity are perceived as un-scientific. Which actually helps to keep them operating in a powerful manner.

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