A guide to ontology, epistemology, and philosophical perspectives for interdisciplinary researchers

Community member post by Katie Moon and Deborah Blackman

katie-moon
Katie Moon (biography)

How can understanding philosophy improve our research? How can an understanding of what frames our research influence our choices? Do researchers’ personal thoughts and beliefs shape research design, outcomes and interpretation?

These questions are all important for social science research. Here we present a philosophical guide for scientists to assist in the production of effective social science (adapted from Moon and Blackman, 2014).

deborah-blackman
Deborah Blackman (biography)

Understanding philosophy is important because social science research can only be meaningfully interpreted when there is clarity about the decisions that were taken that affect the research outcomes. Some of these decisions are based, not always knowingly, on some key philosophical principles, as outlined in the figure below.

Philosophy provides the general principles of theoretical thinking, a method of cognition, perspective and self-awareness, all of which are used to obtain knowledge of reality and to design, conduct, analyse and interpret research and its outcomes. The figure below shows three main branches of philosophy that are important in the sciences and serves to illustrate the differences between them.

guide-to-ontology-moon
Social science research guide consisting of ontology, epistemology, and philosophical perspectives. When read from left to right, elements take on a more multidimensional nature (eg., epistemology: objectivism to subjectivism). The elements within each branch are positioned according to their congruence with elements from other branches so when read from top to bottom (or bottom to top), elements from one branch align with elements from another (eg., critical realist ontology, constructionist epistemology, and interpretivist philosophical perspectives). Subcategories of elements (ie., 3.5a–c and 3.6a–c) are to be interpreted as positioned under the parent category (ie., 3.5 interpretivism and 3.6 critical theory).

(Source: Moon and Blackman 2014)

Ontology

The first branch is ontology, or the ‘study of being’, which is concerned with what actually exists in the world about which humans can acquire knowledge. Ontology helps researchers recognize how certain they can be about the nature and existence of objects they are researching. For instance, what ‘truth claims’ can a researcher make about reality? Who decides the legitimacy of what is ‘real’? How do researchers deal with different and conflicting ideas of reality?

To illustrate, realist ontology relates to the existence of one single reality which can be studied, understood and experienced as a ‘truth’; a real world exists independent of human experience. Meanwhile, relativist ontology is based on the philosophy that reality is constructed within the human mind, such that no one ‘true’ reality exists. Instead, reality is ‘relative’ according to how individuals experience it at any given time and place.

Epistemology

The second branch is epistemology, the ‘study of knowledge’. Epistemology is concerned with all aspects of the validity, scope and methods of acquiring knowledge, such as a) what constitutes a knowledge claim; b) how can knowledge be acquired or produced; and c) how the extent of its transferability can be assessed. Epistemology is important because it influences how researchers frame their research in their attempts to discover knowledge.

By looking at the relationship between a subject and an object we can explore the idea of epistemology and how it influences research design. Objectivist epistemology assumes that reality exists outside, or independently, of the individual mind. Objectivist research is useful in providing reliability (consistency of results obtained) and external validity (applicability of the results to other contexts).

Constructionist epistemology rejects the idea that objective ‘truth’ exists and is waiting to be discovered. Instead, ‘truth’, or meaning, arises in and out of our engagement with the realities in our world. That is, a ‘real world’ does not preexist independently of human activity or symbolic language. The value of constructionist research is in generating contextual understandings of a defined topic or problem.

Subjectivist epistemology relates to the idea that reality can be expressed in a range of symbol and language systems, and is stretched and shaped to fit the purposes of individuals such that people impose meaning on the world and interpret it in a way that makes sense to them. For example, a scuba diver might interpret a shadow in the water according to whether they were alerted to a shark in the area (the shark), waiting for a boat (the boat), or expecting a change in the weather (clouds). The value of subjectivist research is in revealing how an individual’s experience shapes their perception of the world.

Philosophical perspectives

Stemming from ontology (what exists for people to know about) and epistemology (how knowledge is created and what is possible to know) are philosophical perspectives, a system of generalized views of the world, which form beliefs that guide action.

Philosophical perspectives are important because, when made explicit, they reveal the assumptions that researchers are making about their research, leading to choices that are applied to the purpose, design, methodology and methods of the research, as well as to data analysis and interpretation. At the most basic level, the mere choice of what to study in the sciences imposes values on one’s subject.

Conclusion

Understanding the philosophical basis of science is critical in ensuring that research outcomes are appropriately and meaningfully interpreted. With an increase in interdisciplinary research, an examination of the points of difference and intersection between the philosophical approaches can generate critical reflection and debate about what we can know, what we can learn and how this knowledge can affect the conduct of science and the consequent decisions and actions.

How does your philosophical standpoint affect your research? What are your experiences of clashing philosophical perspectives in interdisciplinary research? How did you become aware of them and resolve them? Do you think that researchers need to recognize different philosophies in interdisciplinary research teams?

To find out more:
Moon, K., and Blackman, D. (2014). A Guide to Understanding Social Science Research for Natural Scientists. Conservation Biology, 28: 1167-1177. Online:  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.12326/full

Biography: Katie Moon is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. She is also an adjunct at the Institute for Applied Ecology at the University of Canberra. She has worked in the environmental policy arena for 17 years within Australia and Europe, in government, the private sector and academia. Her research focuses on how the right policy instruments can be paired to the right people; the role of evidence in policy development and implementation; and how to increase policy implementation success.

Biography: Deborah Blackman is a Professor in Public Sector Management Strategy and Deputy Director of the Public Service Research Group at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. She researches knowledge transfer in a range of applied, real world contexts. The common theme of her work is creating new organisational conversations in order to improve organisational effectiveness. This has included strengthening the performance management framework in the Australian Public Service; the role of social capital in long-term disaster recovery; and developing a new diagnostic model to support effective joined-up working in whole of government initiatives.

5 thoughts on “A guide to ontology, epistemology, and philosophical perspectives for interdisciplinary researchers

  1. Thanks so much for the debate and discussion around the blog post. Machiel is right in pointing out that the blog post (and the article it is based on) was intended as a conversation piece, and we’re pleased that a useful conversation is taking place. The resources and links are very helpful, philosophy is a fascinating discipline and the opportunity to learn and expand our thinking is endless.

    We tried to make it clear in the article the blog post is based on that we wanted to bring attention to philosophy; it was obviously impossible to do the discipline of philosophy any real justice within 6,000 words. We wanted to start a conversation: “The purpose of the guide is to open the door to social science research and thus demonstrate that scientists can bring different and legitimate principles, assumptions, and interpretations to their research.”

    As Jessica and Melissa point out, it can be challenging to offer social research to a natural science community that typically adopts a narrow philosophical position (e.g. objectivist). The paper was intended to encourage natural scientists to consider alternative ways of generating knowledge, particularly about the human, as opposed to natural, world.

    We accept unequivocally that the framework does not get close to accommodating the depth and diversity of philosophy. Adam, we agree that the approach we have taken may not resonate with some philosophers, but we wanted to communicate with a particular audience (conservation scientists) and so we defined ontologies and epistemologies (and posited them relative to one another) that are most commonly observed within this discipline and that might be best understood by the audience. We tried to identify points of difference between ontologies, epistemologies and philosophical perspectives in an attempt to explain how they can influence research design. In the article, we use a case of deforestation in rainforests to demonstrate how different positions can influence the nature of the research questions and outcomes, including the assumptions that will be made.

    We did explain in the introduction to our paper the limitations of our approach: “The multifaceted nature and interpretation of each of the concepts we present in our guide means they can be combined in a diversity of ways (see also Lincoln & Guba 2000; Schwandt 2000; Evely et al. 2008; H¨oijer 2008; Cunliffe 2011; Tang 2011). Therefore, our guide represents just one example of how the elements (i.e., different positions within the main branches of philosophy) of social research can apply specifically to conservation science. We recognize that by distilling and defining the elements in a simplified way we have necessarily constrained argument and debate surrounding each element. Furthermore, the guide had to have some structure. In forming this structure, we do not suggest that researchers must consider first their ontological and then their epistemological position and so on; they may well begin by exploring their philosophical perspective.”

    This point comes back to Bruce’s comment, about pragmatic approaches to research. Often researchers pick and choose between a range of options that will allow them to define and answer their research questions in a way that makes most sense to them. We make this point in the paper: “Each perspective is characterized by an often wide ranging pluralism, which reflects the complex evolution of philosophy and the varied contributions of philosophers through time (Crotty 1998). All ontologies, epistemologies, and philosophical perspectives are characterized by this pluralism, including the prevailing (post) positivist approach of the natural sciences. It is common for more than one philosophical perspective to resonate with researchers and for researchers to change their perspective (and thus epistemological and ontological positions) toward their research over time (Moses & Knutsen 2012). Thus, scientists do not necessarily commit to one philosophical perspective and all associated characteristics (Bietsa 2010).”

    We tried to anticipate concerns that scholars of philosophy might have with our rather reductionist approach, but felt that the more important contribution to make was to bring attention to alternative worldviews, and highlight the importance of philosophy in generating any type of knowledge.

    With respect to the characterization of epistemologies, we adopted a continuum provided by Crotty (1998) that focuses on the relationship between the subject and the object. Again, this choice was made on the basis of our audience, to demonstrate that different types of relationship can exist between subject and object

  2. This blog post has generated an interesting discussion on the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies listserv (INTERDIS@LISTSERV.UA.EDU). Selected excerpts below.

    Adam Potthast: I hate to make one of my first posts to this list critical without the time to correct some of the errors, but I don’t think you’d see many philosophers agreeing with the characterizations of philosophical views in this post. The infographic strongly mischaracterizes a lot of these positions, and the section on epistemology doesn’t map on to any of the standard understandings of epistemology in the discipline of philosophy. I’d caution against thinking of it as a reliable source to the philosophy behind science.

    Gabriele Bammer: Thanks Adam for raising the alarm. It would be great if you and/or others who have problems with this post would spell out your criticisms – not only via this listserv, but (more importantly from my perspective) in a comment on the blog itself. Non-philosophers are hungry for a version of epistemology, ontology etc that they can understand and use and this blog post (and the paper it is based on) address this need. If it is seriously misleading though, that’s obviously a problem. It’s important that this is pointed out and that better alternatives are offered. I appreciate that time is an issue for everyone – anything you can do will be appreciated.

    Stuart Henry: Well a good start, so we don’t reinvent the wheel again is James Welch’s article: https://oakland.edu/Assets/upload/docs/AIS/Issues-in-Interdisciplinary-Studies/2009-Volume-27/05_Vol_27_pp_35_69_Interdisciplinarity_and_the_History_of_Western_Epistemology_(James_Welch_IV).pdf

    Gabriele Bammer: Thanks Stuart, I may be missing something, but it seems to me that Welch’s article covers different terrain, being more about the philosophy underpinning interdisciplinarity. What Moon and Blackman provide is a quick guide to understanding people’s different philosophical positions, so that if you are working in a team, for example, you can better understand why someone sees the world differently. The Toolbox developed by Eigenbrode, O’Rourke and others provides a practical way of uncovering these differences.

    Julie Thompson Klein: Good point Gabriele about the value of the Toolbox, though people still need the kind of background you’re aiming to provide.

    Machiel Keestra: Although I agree that the blog post should perhaps not so much be taken to offer a current representation of the main positions in philosophy of science or about the interconnections between epistemological and ontological positions, I think it does a nice job in offering a conversation piece: what are relevant positions and options that people might -implicitly– take and how are they different from other positions. Given the modest ambitions of the authors, I think that is a fair result.

    In addition to the interesting approach offered by the Toolbox Project, an alternative is presented in Jan Schmidt’s Towards a philosophy of interdisciplinarity: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10202-007-0037-8
    In our Introduction to interdisciplinary research, I’ve inserted an all-too brief philosophy of science which should help to raise some understanding of this difficult issue as well: https://www.academia.edu/22420234/An_Introduction_to_Interdisciplinary_Research._Theory_and_Practice

  3. Lovely work! Thank you. I am also initially trained as a natural scientist, and now consider myself a ‘social-ecological researcher’ and have had to do a lot of learning about ontologies, epistemologies etc. I think I might use this paper as a discussion paper in our department as I think it is crucial for interdisciplinarians to understand these issues.

  4. Kia ora Katie and Debbie, great post! I am a biophysical scientist who has come to social science and one of the struggles is being able to place the new and relevant concepts about questions that we don’t necessarily ask as biophysical scientists. Your table is a really useful aid to this – I immediately sent it to all my colleagues! It also makes it clearer to me how I can use the concept of triangulation that Bruce alluded to in his reply. So thank you for explaining so concisely. Thanks, Melissa

  5. Hi Katie and Deborah,

    Thank you for that discussion. I think that you have created a really useful table showing the philosophical continuums/polarities, how the various ontological and epistemological positions relate to each other, and the importance for researchers to be aware of them. In my own research practice, I am not committed to any one particular philosophical theory or perspective. They all appear to be true to some degree, that is, in some conceivable context – even though some of the concepts and philosophical positions appear, in the extreme form of their statement, to be contradictory, that is, if one end of a continuum/polarity is true then by implication it seems the other must be false – thus creating a quandary of research perspective. Hence the attraction, for me, of the application of a multiplicity of methods, approaches and philosophical perspectives – as and when they seem able to give ontological or epistemological insight – with triangulation between the results of the disparate approaches as the temporary arbiter of an evolving meaning and truth. This might be considered a pragmatic, perhaps even an opportunistic, approach to conducting science. However, as the old adage goes “the proof is in the pudding” – how useful is the knowledge obtained?

    cheers
    Bruce

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