By Peter Deane
Can philosophical insights be useful for interdisciplinary researchers in extending their thinking about the role of values and knowledge in research? More broadly, can a model or heuristic simplify some of the complexity in understanding how research works?
It’s common for interdisciplinary researchers to consider ontology and epistemology, two major arms of philosophical inquiry into human understanding, but axiology – a third major arm – is oft overlooked.
I start by describing axiology, then detail work by Michael Patterson and Daniel Williams (1998) who place axiology alongside ontology and epistemology. The outcome herein is to cautiously eject and then present a part of their work as a heuristic that may help interdisciplinary researchers to extend understanding on philosophical commitments that underlie research.
This post expands on the thinking in an earlier blog post by Katie Moon and Deborah Blackman, on A guide to ontology, epistemology, and philosophical perspectives for interdisciplinary researchers.
Axiology is the study of value or, more adequately, theory on the nature of value. In plain-English; what’s good (or bad) in life and what do we find worthy.
Axiology incorporates ethics (theory of morality) and aesthetics (theory of taste and of beauty), as well as other forms of value. Asking what ‘ought to be’ is axiological.
Axiology is a part of value theory (video: 5 minutes), which has broader applicability, but here axiology is the core focus.
Axiological concerns infuse research. Two general examples are:
- what makes a good researcher (eg., impartial, curious; caring; diligent, etc); and,
- what is worthwhile science (eg., correlational, causal, problem-centred, hypothesis-centered, experimental, applied, private, public, etc).
A particular example concerns research question formation, as created and enacted from personal, scientific and other commitments; eg., what is valued as a research question and outcome.
Futhermore, these issues are multi-dimensional, eg.,
- “In what context is the research situated (paradigmatic influences)?
- What are the philosophical values chosen and why (guiding the inquiry)?
- Why is a specific inquiry chosen (focus of research)? and,
- Which claims are made (and suggestions to practitioners)?” (Biedenbach and Jacobsson 2016)
Axiology then, is a part of the overall usefulness of philosophy to thinking about interdisciplinary research.
Bringing ontology, epistemology and axiology together – normative philosophical commitments
Patterson and Williams (1998) use insights from philosophy of science to present a model of science which, at the time, advanced discussion about social science within natural resource management. Only a part of their model is discussed here.
They make the case that science has, in part, a normative structure. So, doing ‘X’ kind of scientific research is therefore underwritten by ‘Y’ set of normative philosophical commitments.
These philosophical commitments involve theories about:
- the nature of reality and of what really exists (ontology)
- the relationship between the knower and what is known (epistemology)
- what we value (axiology)
- the strategy and justifications in constructing a specific type of knowledge (methodology), as linked to individual techniques (method/s).
Taken as a whole, a set of philosophical commitments form a meta-theoretical (theory of theory) structure that can help with further understanding research as a phenomenon in its own right.
Another layer of complexity is that ‘X’ kind of scientific research may involve multiple normative philosophical commitments, especially when it is structured by a particular community of researchers who say that their collection of philosophical commitments and practices constitutes a science.
So, some researcher communities rigorously police their science by dogmatically controlling research with a very tightly defined and usually implicit, and therefore opaque, set of normative commitments. In contrast, certain communities of researchers tolerate diverse, messy or explicitly stated sets of normative philosophical commitments (hello interdisciplinarians!).
The normative commitments detailed below, it is suggested, provide a heuristic (that uses comparison across a handful of attributes) through which research may be thought about.
Note though, that the normative commitments are applied at a high degree of generality – essentially at the level of worldview (eg., rationalist; relativist), and paradigm or research tradition (eg., interpretivism, positivism/empiricism, critical inquiry).
Although the normative commitments are an integral part of research, at the lower level of individual research programs (eg., specific theories, methodologies and methods that researchers conduct individual ‘real-world’ research projects within), the diversity of phenomena involved make applying the normative commitments as described here problematic; there are just too great a number of additional attributes that could be compared.
The difficult part then to applying such a heuristic is to draw out and make explicit the normative commitments operating at higher degrees of generality. Notwithstanding what was said immediately above, this may include taking into account the way that disciplinary theories, methodologies and methods are put together to form the most obvious parts of research work and which can infer what normative commitments lie behind these various choices.
Lightly adapted from Patterson and Williams (1998) are the three tables at the end of this post:
- ontological commitments;
- epistemological commitments; and,
- axiological commitments.
Each table can be read by row; eg., the table ‘ontological commitments’ is made up of the sub-rows: ‘nature of reality’; ‘nature of human experience’; and, ‘human nature’. Within each of these three sub-rows there is a further bifurcated sub-row set. So, the ‘nature of reality’ row is further split between the somewhat contrasting ‘objectivist ontologies’ as against ‘constructivist ontologies’. A further layer of connectivity exists between each set of somewhat contrasting items (eg., objectivist; deterministic; and, information-based ontologies on one hand, as contrasting with constructivist; narrative; and, meaning based ontologies on the other). This overall patterning is replicated across the other two tables, always producing somewhat contrasting bifurcated statement sets. This further means that, in regards to the paradigm or research tradition within which the research lies, the axiology, ontology and epistemology utilised should be consistent together, as detailed in the figure below from Patterson and Williams (1998: 286).
Understanding the way that these contrasting commitments cohere across all the various options in the three tables below and in regards any worldview, paradigm or research tradition encountered, can help to make explicit what is often implicit regarding the principles underlying research.
It can be argued that struggling with philosophical insights into research strategy, design and practice is an interdisciplinarian’s burden.
As a practical philosophy for interdisciplinarity, and although their article is 20 years old, using an element of Patterson and Williams (1998) work as a heuristic that presents a small number of attributes containing simple, bifurcated sets of statements is potentially useful for thinking about the normative philosophical commitments underpinning the worldview and paradigmatic/research traditions involved in research.
What’s your experience been of axiological thinking or in dealing with values in interdisciplinary research? Are there other examples, models or heuristics that you’ve found useful in drawing out how research works? Or, to return to the central concern of this blog post, have you found other philosophical works or practices that have informed your interdisciplinary journey?
Biedenbach, T. and Jacobsson, M. (2016). The open secret of values: The roles of values and axiology in project research. Project Management Journal, 47, 3: 139-155.
Carneades of Cyrene (Carneades.org). (2017). What is value theory? (Axiology and Theory of Value). Online (video: 5 minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLXTOyKz6eY
Laudan, L. (1984). Science and values: The aims of science and their role in scientific debate. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, United States of America.
Patterson, M. and Williams, D. (1998). Paradigms and problems: The practice of social science in natural resource management. Society and Natural Resources, 11, 3: 279-295. (DOI): 10.1080/08941929809381080
For an overview of the role of ontology, epistemology and axiology in research, see:
Organizational Communication Channel. (2017) Epistemology, Ontology, and Axiology in Research. Online (video: 8 minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhdZOsBps5o
Biography: Peter Deane is a Research Officer on the Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) team at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health in the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University.