On Ontology and Epistemology in Methods Courses

Students often start to feel queasy when they hear sociologists use words such as ontology and epistemology, and all the old fears about excessive abstractness and the hostility and panic that it induces rise to the surface. To some extent, it is our own fault, because we're using terms from philosophy to apply to so much more concrete issues in sociology. I think we do this to remind ourselves that we are entering deep philosophical waters.

The usual definition of ontology is that it refers to statements about reality and its nature. If we're going to study the real world, we are inevitably obliged to discuss what makes it real, and what sort of objects we are going to find in reality. To put it abstractly like this is to invite a whole series of philosophical discussions, using philosophical terms, and addressing philosophical issues and problems such as how Being discloses itself to us, whether there are some essential characteristics of reality lying beneath surface appearances, or what is the part played by transcendental and ordinary consciousnesses in constructing reality. Characteristic philosophical arguments, from my limited reading of them, often turn on attempting to reconstruct a plausible picture or model that will both explain certain interesting features apparent in normal life, and solve problems with earlier philosophical arguments.

Luckily, sociological interests are nowhere near as abstract. Try the following questions about reality and let me know when they become too abstract for you:

Is our climate really warming up, or is it all a big scare designed to make us fly less often?
Is the crime rate really falling in Britain?
Are there still social classes in modern Britain? If sociologists stopped asking people about their social class, would the whole issue fade away?
Is the violence in video games the same as real violence? Does it have real effects?
Do we really know what interests lie behind American foreign policy?
What effects is mass immigration really having on British society?

You'll see here that we are asking questions about reality, but they're not really philosophical questions. They are more to do with what counts as reality, often in the sense of meaning that issues exist independently of the thoughts and actions of researchers. Occasionally, the discussion does lead on into attempting to explain what this independent reality might look like. Even so, the agenda is still often driven by sociological attempts to understand, and sociological issues already put on the agenda by other sociologists, rather than straying into philosophical discourses as such. It is common to call these more abstract inquiries 'social theory' . Philosophically modest though these questions might be, a lot of interesting sociological issues turn on them, as we have seen above .

Any serious academic discipline has to make basic enquiries about reality at least -- are dreams real? Is there really an unconscious level which affects cognition? How are films about historical events made to look real? To what extent do the models of markets in classical economics match up to the reality of actual movements of prices in modern economies?

Even the most well-grounded normal individual often finds themselves asking questions about reality like this. Does my wife really love me? Am I really more likely to be killed if I ride a motorcycle rather than driving a car? Do I really need to buy a bigger computer? Are house prices really going to drop by 10 per cent?

To return to sociology , questions like this usually stray pretty rapidly into discussions of research methods -- does a correlation between two variables indicate a real relationship between them, or is it just a measurement error? Have ethnographers really got to understand Melanesian society, or are they just projecting their own understandings of that culture?

This brings me to what philosophers would call epistemology, which usually defined as an inquiry into how human beings gain knowledge of the world. Philosophers have their own intriguing questions about epistemology, often put on the agenda by previous philosophers. One which sociologists occasionally bump into is whether human beings have the same categories for understanding the world, or whether there are significant cultural differences in the ways in which we understand the world. Other intriguing questions cover such matters as whether human understanding advances or evolves, whether human language expresses understanding or helps to construct it, or whether human knowledge reflects our stance towards Being .

Epistemology for sociologists usually covers more modest issues such as how we get to know what we know, what counts as reliable and valid knowledge, and what the best way is to gain such knowledge. At the most abstract level of social theory, this might involve us in discussing matters such as how understanding develops between human beings, what role is played by our ability to construct symbols, whether there is or is not a strong effect exercised by cultural traditions which have developed in the past, and whether human beings still act 'naturally'.

Again, the most usual arena to encounter discussions about knowledge is found in debates about research methods. Here we find issues such as whether we can achieve an objective understanding of the actions of others, especially in areas of human life where people are not simply following agreed rules of behaviour. If we can, what is the best method to use to achieve such objectivity? Should we try to eliminate any source of subjectivity, by using an abstract method of inquiry such as a fixed - choice questionnaire, or an experimental design involving a methodology of random sampling and carefully controlled trials? Should we use our own subjective resources instead, and attempts a much more informal understanding, perhaps by participating in the activity ourselves? Is it best to use a standardized test or scale, such as the Hope-Goldthorpe scale which measures social class? When we have collected the data, do we search for relationships between, say, social class and educational attainment, or do we ask the respondents to link those two issues together in some free narrative which expresses their own understanding? Do we identify patterns and groups using statistical analysis, or do we try to see if those patterns and groups exist independently of our analysis?

These are important issues, not just abstract academic ones. We are talking about important issues here such as crime and deviancy, discrimination and opportunity, social policy and social benefits, the possibilities and limits of particular reforms and practices such as those in education. We owe it to the public to get the best and most reliable knowledge about these events and practices (asuming the public gives a damn).

Some readers will also have noticed that there are links with what we were discussing above -- the sociologists' version of ontology. The last question about patterns and groups could easily lead into ontological issues like the ones with which we began -- are there really patterns and groups out there, irrespective of the particular ways in which we've tried to define and measure them?

Finally, issues like these put on the agenda a number of important questions and topics for anyone wishing to do critical analysis of research processes and findings. There is no need to use terms like ontology and epistemology, unless you also wish to remind yourself of the deep philosophical waters which lie quite close. There is no need either to pursue questions too far into social theory, unless you particularly wish to do so. Again, there are theoretical issues which are clearly involved with research methods. Using methods naively cannot avoid these issues: whenever you choose a method, such as questionnaires or ethnography, you are making some kind of theoretical commitment. You are assuming that important aspects of human behaviour can be studied without investigating subjective meaning, or the reverse. There are clearly political implications involved as well, because if I claim to understand your behaviour better than you do, this puts me in a position of superior knowledge and insight (at least until I share that knowledge with you and you decide to act on it in your own way).

However, it is a matter of priority. It is impossible to prioritise all these questions equally. You could spend a large amount of time exploring some of the philosophical, theoretical, or political implications before doing any empirical research at all. Indeed, this is clearly how some theorists and academics prefer to advance their understanding of the subject, and they see little point in doing any empirical research by comparison. However, requiring people to do empirical research, or letting them choose to do so, implies that we also let them set different priorities, putting the philosophical theoretical and political implications on hold, as it were, while focusing on the methodological and technical issues of questionnaire design or statistical analysis. It would be rather unfair to insist that empirical researchers solve all problems at once, or to insist that they must hold their ground against theoretical and philosophical specialists before they proceed .

It is even possible to suggest that these levels of inquiry might proceed in stages. There seems to me to be nothing wrong in proceeding with empirical research in order to begin to understand social life, assuming the usual safeguards against doing harm. People might  need to be warned against assuming too much -- that they can 'prove' that a particular policy has been effective, for example. And they might be invited to consider and clarify some of the theoretical, philosophical and political questions subsequently.

I conclude with my own view that any approach or method that leads to the critical analysis of social reality should be supported. Philosophical and theoretical approaches and discussions do not necessarily have a high priority, but nor does a straightforward and naive attempt to just go out there and  'get the facts'.