If a person’s ontology is like their skin, and not like a cardigan, something that they can take off or change, it will define their epistemological approach to their research. Ontological approaches can be divided into four general groups:
Realists and positivists both believe in a real physical world that can be measured, touched and quantified while people who hold a constructivist view would argue that there is no real world that is independent of our senses. In short they don’t believe that.
In a positivist or realist world we have access to the world and therefore can plan for what might happen. They believe that the world can be studied objectively and that we can make causal relationships between event a and event b. A positivist would suggest that there are causal relationships in the sense that where it can be shown that event X has occurred there will be a relationship with with event W such that event W caused event X.
On the other hand a constructivist will argue that there is not a real world that is independent of our senses. To understand the world they create a double hermeneutic:-
1. what we are doing is identifying what people understand about their world.
2. as observers we are not objective so the best we can do is understand our understanding of their understanding.
The third group that we will look at here are critical realists. Their ontology sits between these two previous groups, sometimes uncomfortably, sometimes persuasively bridging the gap between these two extremes. Critical realist would argue that there is a real world but that we don’t have simple access to it. There are deep structures that can be critically observed but are difficult to touch, measure or objectively assess. It could be said that they believe that the realist and positivist views of the world are of limited use.
As an example, if we look at the question of patriarchy, it can be said that we can observe inequality between men and women but it doesn’t prove patriarchal relationships. The way that you establish that there are deep structures is to observe through what can be observed. This view is more complex than realism which is relatively naive.
Each of these views read two different causal explanations of the world and different levels of objectivity. It could be so that a constructivist would have trouble marking essays because there is no measurable reality between two. However the constructivist would argue that within the University there are accepted conventions that need to be honoured and that these conventions can be applied to the marking process.
So how does the internal argument stack up?
Ontology begets epistemology. Ontology underpins epistemology, in a realist or positivist and even possibly in a critical realist ontology it might be agreed that the ontology will define the epistemology or methodology to be used. While positivist wants to make statements about relationships, what are the causal relationships? They will only be able to deal with generalisations between social phenomena and causal relationships.
A constructivist on the other hand will not agree that ontology underpins epistemology they can argue that these two ideas can be co-constructed. Constructivists will draw upon reflexivity-how do you reflect upon your understanding of their understanding? Using a reflexivity principle constructivists will argue that the epistemological approach taken in research methods will change according to the reflections and frameworks for understanding other people’s paradigms.
So what about the critical realist?
How a critical realist does relate to theory or hypothesis?
A positivist will generate a hypothesis that must be tested and negated through inductive deductive methods.
Positivist will take a scientific or pseudoscientific approach generating a thesis and questioning the validity of the thesis which might not be able to be proved but could be negated through experimentation and either inductive or deductive reasoning.
So what about the constructivist?
It is much more likely that the constructivist will be interested in narrative rather than theory-the things you observe can be related to narratives. From the constructivist position, how can you say that one narrative is better than another? Theories or narratives in this ontology are used to interpret the world and at various times there are dominant narratives. Within this ontology a theory allows you to establish what might be real in the world.
The critical realist?
On the other hand the critical realist will look at the third level and the world and think about the deep structures that make it up.