Tag Archives: epistemological foundations

From Land of Hope & Glory to Lasagne: ontology, epistemology and social research!

A student (Samantha Thomas) posted this response to my podcast about music, ontology and epistemology.

I think the way she takes the idea of the metaphor and applies a new one is great. Thanks Samantha! I have also put a reply from another student underneath!

This podcast was great and really got me thinking about the different ways that we can unpack an idea.  I’m not sure how helpful this will be as a metaphor, but given I listened to this podcast over dinner I thought I would try and relate it to my meal – beef lasagne.

So, if I were to think about beef lasagne in terms of ontology (a very strange thing to do) and ask ‘what is it?’ then I could describe it in a very scientific way in terms of the exact ingredients, measurements of those ingredients, cooking time, cooking temperature, method of cooking etc.  Basically talk about it in terms that a recipe would, 500g of mince, 1 onion, 2 cloves of garlic etc, baked in an oven at 180 degrees for 45 minutes.  This answer assumes that there is a single reality about what I ate and is therefore a positivist perspective.  And if the ontology of positivism says that there is a single reality that is undeniable, then it follows that the epistemology is about uncovering the truth/answer that already exists (finding the recipe in this case).
However, I could look at my lasagne as a collection of ingredients that were put together by a chef (or a very bad cook), interpreting and following a recipe and using the equipment and utensils at hand.  The meal is a result of not only the ingredients, but the way they were assembled, the quantities used, the skill of the chef in following the recipe (what is a dash anyway?) and the type of equipment used (electric vs gas oven etc).  Not only that, but each person’s taste buds are different, and so the answer to the question ‘what is it?’ is also influenced by the individual who ate it as well as the individual who made it.  And so, with all of these variables, the ontological question  ‘what is lasagne?’ could have a number of different explanations and therefore realities.  This is an interpretive perspective which accepts that there are multiple possible realities at any one time as the reality has essentially been constructed.  So, if the ontology allows for multiple answers to the question ‘what is it?’, then the epistemology has to be concerned with considering all of of these factors, weighing up their importance, and providing an answer to the question based on this interpretation.
If you add in further human meaning to this somewhat ridiculous question ‘what is lasagne?’ and look at it from a vegetarian’s perspective, then their answer to that question might be that it is an inhumane meal that should not be eaten.  And if I were Italian, my understanding of ‘what is lasagne?’ might be very different from my own Australian perspective.
Anyway, I’ve got way too carried away thinking about food, and I’m not sure if it is at all relevant to be discussing lasagne in terms of ontology and epistemology anyway…..
And then we got this reply, which I also like:

I really like the metaphor, however, your recipe for lasagne needs some ‘chilli’. Where are the radicals in your approach? There needs to be someone that disputes the name and origins of the meal. I am sure the Greeks were making food this like before the Italians.  Actually, there is possibly some “undiscovered’ tribal group in Central America cooking up a meal just like this and they would cook in on an open fire – none of this new age electricity!!!!

Great analogy in your comments

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.

Why the idea of research perspectives is brilliant and annoying at the same time

What are research perspectives?

This is a term that is often used to describe different approaches to research. These differences are generally understood as being rooted not simply in the focus or methodology, but in deeper ontological and epistemological foundations of research. Ontology concerns assumptions we make about reality. Epistemology is our theory of knowledge, and how what we come to know relates to that reality (or those realities). Methodological approaches and study foci can in some ways be seen to flow from these deeper (philosophical) points of view.


Brilliance lies in the fact that acknowledging different research perspectives (others may use the term paradigm, though it’s not quite the same thing), we are forced into a number of important realisations:

  1. Not all researchers understand this thing called ‘knowledge’ in the same way
  2. So… the enterprise of doing research in order to advance knowledge is understood very differently. Some are looking to discover knowledge that gets close to a single truth. Others are looking to create knowledge that provides different possible answers to the same questions.
  3. By implication, what it means to do research well changes according to the kind of research we are doing. I like metaphors, so let’s think of this in terms of Olympic runners. We can compare the running style of a sprinter and that of a long distance runner. Who is the better runner? The sprinter moves quicker, and develops and uses her body to effectively cover short distances. The marathon runner develops and uses her body differently. It’s not fair to say one is better than the other because they are trying to do different things. What ‘good’ running is depends on which race you’re running in. What ‘good’ research looks like depends on the perspective taken. Bing!
  4. Finally brilliance in the idea of perspectives lies in the fact it forces us not to take knowledge, evidence, methods, data, and truth for granted. If we are in the business of producing new knowledge we need to take these things seriously, not brush them under the carpet.


But we have to be clever in the way we work with these concepts. Why?

  1. These are conceptual categories that have a mixed, sometimes quite problematic relationship with actual research practices. Many studies don’t fit neatly into one or other category.
  2. Categories tend to turn messy, blurred boundaries into neat, separate entities. Most people who write about research perspectives acknowledge this – we need the concepts as sign posts and to give us some clarity of thought; but at the same time we need to be flexible and hold them loosely. Aargh!
  3. People can develop a security in applying long words that end in …ism as a kind of badge or label that fits their research, or even themselves as a researcher. But like many things in the social world, research isn’t a stable activity, and projects may evolve, researchers may change their views, or hold contradictory views at the same time. Badges have their limitations.
  4. Badges or terms like ‘interpretivism’ also turn into chunks what might be better conceived as a continuum, or even a big set of splodges and squiggles (like a modern art painting maybe). Many books write of positivism, post-positivism, interpretivism, feminism, critical approaches, poststructuralism etc (and the terms used to describe the same, or near-same things vary; that’s another issue!). But however long the list, there’s always more. Practice theory has a ‘site’ ontology (see the annotated bibliography of Schatzki). Actor-Network Theory makes other ontological assumptions again. But they have some points of overlap.
  5. I’ve often been asked, what about a big quantitative study that studies gender inequality in schools? The quantitative stuff perhaps signals a post-positivist perspective. But the gender inequality might be redolent of critical or feminist approaches. Which is it? To return to our metaphor: it might not be clear which race is being run: Is there a sprinter warming up on the starting line for the marathon? Or is there some hybrid or complex combination going on? (Here’s where the metaphor runs dry, [excuse the pun]). That’s the difficulty when we set up categories like all the …isms. But at least the categories have been useful in getting us to think about the assumptions made by the researchers and their purposes.

So caveat emptor – buyer beware: use these concepts cleverly, and with caution.

PS. There is nothing new here. I’m by no means the first person to write about these issues.