Ontology and Epistemology: A Simple Explanation
6th February, 2023
Ontology and epistemology. It sounds complicated, doesn’t it? Well, it doesn’t need to be. Today I will explain in simple terms what is meant by the terms epistemology and ontology and why you should be including a section on this in your research project methods chapter.
As I explained in this post- ‘Why do I need a research philosophy?’, you need to define your world views and perspectives in terms of your research. This is known as your research philosophy and is done through your ontology and epistemology.
Research philosophy is essentially a set of beliefs or metaphysics that represent the researcher’s world-view; the nature of ‘the world’, the individual’s place in it, and the range of possible relationships to that world. This tends to be either scientific or society-based. The former being associated with positivism and quantitative research and the latter being associated with interpretivism and qualitative research.
Ontology and epistemology
What is ontology?
Ontology is an area of philosophy that deals with the nature of being, or what exists. It is concerned with reality and is often presented with questions such as ‘what is the meaning of being?’ or ‘what can be said to exist?’.
There are two dominant positions within ontology; realism and nominalism.
- Realism: The researcher views the world as existing separately from humans and their interpretations of it.
- Nominalism: The researcher believes that their interpretations of the world are based on their inner subjectivity and the personal ‘lens’ through which they are viewing.
Whilst this may sound simple, it is not black and white – in fact there are many shades of grey! Researchers can sit anywhere along the realist-nominalist continuum, from the extreme realist to the moderate nominalist.
What is epistemology?
Epistemology is an area of philosophy that is concerned with the creation of knowledge, focusing on how knowledge is obtained and investigating the most valid ways to reach the truth. Epistemology essentially determines the relationship between the researcher and reality and is rooted in the ontological assumptions (as noted above).
There are three significant branches within epistemology: empiricism, rationalism and transcendental philosophy.
An empirical researcher gives cognition (or understanding) a passive role, indicating that the object of study is recorded by the brain, but is not produced by the brain. This image is then associated with similar objects, thus requiring the use of a concept. This concept is formed through a logical process known as induction.
As I covered in my post ‘The research onion for beginners’, induction works from the broad through to the specific. Initial data or specific observations are used to logically reach generalised conclusions. Inductive reasoning moves from specific observations to broader generalisations and theories, and although the results may suggest the truth, they do not ensure it- a limitation of induction.
In contrast to this, we have the rationalist researcher. Rationalists regard logical reasoning as the active producer of concepts ex nihilo (out of nothing), and therefore adopt a deductive logical reasoning process. Deduction occurs when an initial premise that is assumed to be true, is used to determine what else must be true. This is the opposite of inductive logic, as it begins with initial theories or ideas that are then narrowed down to reach hypotheses. Providing the initial premise is correct, deductive logic can provide absolute proof of conclusions reached and is strongly associated with scientific research.
In the middle of the two, we have transcendental philosophy. This is when the role of reason in the construction of knowledge is questioned. Grounded in the belief that concepts and objects are not fixed, but are constantly evolving, transcendentalists believe the rationalist claim that objects are deduced from a general concept. They reject the claim that the concept is a product of ex nihilo. Instead, they argue that concepts are formed in one’s consciousness through a combination of previous existing empty templates of reason, also known as a priori categories, and the raw material of the object under study. In effect, transcendentalists believe that the templates of reason and the data acquired from the human senses change and develop continuously.
To further understand how ontology and epistemology contribute to your research project, I recommend that you take a look at the research onion. YouTube can also be helpful for explaining new terms such as this. I’ve included a video for you below.