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

By Katie Moon and Deborah Blackman

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 (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.

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.

Related posts:

A guide for interdisciplinary researchers: Adding axiology alongside ontology and epistemology by Peter Deane
https://i2insights.org/2018/05/22/axiology-and-interdisciplinarity/

Epistemological obstacles to interdisciplinary research by Evelyn Brister
https://i2insights.org/2017/10/31/epistemology-and-interdisciplinarity/

Transforming transdisciplinarity: Interweaving the philosophical with the pragmatic to move beyond either/or thinking by Katie Ross and Cynthia Mitchell
https://i2insights.org/2018/11/13/transdisciplinarity-and-either-or-thinking/

What is the role of theory in transdisciplinary research? by Workshop Group on Theory at 2015 Basel International Transdisciplinary Conference
http://i2insights.org/2016/02/17/role-of-theory-in-transdisciplinary-research/