Theodore Schatzki on why ontology matters in educational & social research

I was inspired to write this, and base much of the content on:

Schatzki T R (2003) A new societist social ontology. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 33(2), 174-202.

Schatzki considers whether social [and educational] researchers should simply to implement methodological strategies for investigating social affairs and to avoid ontology altogether—for ontologies are nothing but unnecessary and empirically unconfirmable presumptions.

In my words, what he is saying here is: it could be argued that ontology is an abstract philosophical concept best left to philosophers, while social scientists get on with rigorous empirical enquiry.

When Schatzki talks about the ‘social’ he does not mean social in terms of the opposite of anti-social (ie sociable). The social refers to things pertaining to human existence. All educational research is thus social research on these terms.

Schatzki: Types of ontology however, have implications for method.

Schatzki tells us that ontology affects:

  1. The choice and use of particular methods
  2. The inferences that are made from observations and measurements to statements about social matters [ie. how we interpret evidence]
  3. The formulation of these statements [ie. The kinds of knowledge claims we make, and the degree of certainty and universality that apply to them]
  4. What of the social is thought to be directly experiencable, observable, and measurable [ie. Which phenomena we assume we can directly see or measure. This gets messy quite quickly when, as in educational research, we are making claims about social phenomena such as learning, educational achievement, boredom, interest, motivation, emotions etc. Can we see these things? What does evidence of these look like?

Schatzki says: these matters will vary depending on whether a researcher is an individualist [someone who believes individual free will or agency control the world] or believes in social structures [things like class and race as primary influences on human life]… or social facts distinct from facts about individuals (and maybe their relations).

He then considers: An investigator might proceed oblivious to this dependency and simply carry on research. How he proceeds, however, will implicate stands on these issues that collectively affirm at least some general type of ontology (e.g., individualism).

What Schatzki is saying here is that like it or not, and whether we are aware of it or not, as soon as we embark on research, we are making ontological assumptions. They are not optional extras. They are inevitably, always already part of the process. You don’t choose to have an ontology or not. (You can choose which kind of ontology you work with).

Schatzki, as a philosopher, then tells us of the benefits to social research of being explicit about our ontologies, and exploring differences between them. He calls this ‘the advantage of ontological self-consciousness and choice when studying the social world’.

When I was a student I was often sceptical of the value of such self-consciousness, which seemed at times like naval-gazing, abstract introspection ladled with technical terms designed to confuse and frustrate (see another of my posts for more on my love/hate relationship with research perspectives as a set of concepts).

Schatzki then considers how a ‘methodologist objector’ (someone who is less convinced of the advantage Schatzki speaks of) might reply:

OK, a variety of ontologies might inform social research. There is still no reason to argue for and against particular ontologies. Justification in social science is empirical validity, and ontologies cannot be empirically tested.

What is being argued here is that the advantage of one ontology over the other is not something that can be put to empirical test. (NB. This is not the same as the advantage of ontological self-consciousness, which is being aware and explicit about ontology).

As social scientists we care about empirical evidence in leading us to make some claims about the world and to reject or question others. If we can’t test our ontological assumptions this way, then they are just arbitrary choices. Not very ‘scientific’ at all.

Schatzki considers one way of testing ontologies: to see which is the most successful research, and then go with whatever ontology that research is based on.

Great. Easy.

Too easy (as they say in Australia 😉 )

But. Big BUT…

Schatzki says: There are at least two problems with this response. First, unanimity does not exist in social science about what counts as a ‘successful’ research program.

In other words, not all social research projects have the same success criteria. They have many different aims. So establishing which is the most successful research isn’t going to be easy. Or fair.

Schatzki again: Second, and more specifically, what counts as success often reflects ontology.

What good research looks like (and I’ve written about this before) depends on the ontological assumptions upon which it is based, not just our aims (though these are linked).

The person who says ‘identify the best research and follow whatever ontology it uses’ is asking us to identify what ‘best’, but ‘best’ cannot be judged independent of ontology. It’s a circular argument that gets us nowhere.

Schatzki then offers us a genius phrase: So empirical validity is not ontologically innocent.

He adds: And because ontology is tied up with social research, there is room and need in the overall enterprise of social research for ontological disputation.

For me at least, he has won the argument. Even as a researcher who really cares and worries about data and evidence (in a way that some would regard as old fashioned), I simply can’t escape the need to be thoughtful and clear about questions of ontology.

Don’t like philosophy? Don’t like long words that end in –ology or –ism? Want to just get on and do some proper social research? Tough sh!t – ontology is coming your way whether you like it or not. In fact, it’s already there.


One thought on “Theodore Schatzki on why ontology matters in educational & social research

  1. Pingback: Martyn Hammersley’s framework for critical reading of (ethnographic) research: why I like it | Nick Hopwood

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