2.2 Ontology and epistemology
Ontology refers to what a researcher thinks about reality: is it singular, fixed and definitively describable? Or are there multiple realities that are subjective and complex depending on individual viewpoints?
Theories about reality that are relevant to research in education or with children and young people, concern how you understand reality, which also involves people and their interactions. Ontological theories are concerned with how you understand the social world, what it is, and what you should pay attention to in order to better understand it.
Epistemology is the term used to describe theories about what you know about the world and how you know it. Epistemological theories explore ideas such as whether knowledge and reality are measurable using specific research tools. They are a matter of perspective, or are subject to individual perspectives and interpretation, constructed through social interactions.
Activity 5 Exploring your world view
Figure 2 shows a photo of a cup of tea. Consider for a moment how the person who made the cup of tea in the photograph learned how to do it. Reflect on the following questions.
- Is there a single ‘right’ way to make a cup of tea?
- If there is more than one way, why do you think there are different ways to make a cup of tea?
- How might you find out the different ways that people have been taught to make tea?
Making a cup of tea is something that a range of people will experience, but their experiences and approaches may differ. Deciding if one believes there is a fixed single way of making a cup of tea or that there are multiple ways of making a cup of tea, will inform the approach taken in an investigation into what those different ways might be and why there are different ways.
The thinking behind a research ontology works in a similar way: single reality versus multiple realities. Epistemology then follows a path toward exploring the single or multiple ways using a particular theoretical approach, depending on whether one considers tea-making to be a very individual or predetermined experience.
As you develop as a researcher, you will become more confident and clearer about your ontological and epistemological position.
Epistemological and ontological theories determine how research problems and questions are framed from a collection of ideas (conceptualised), and how they should be addressed. The logic behind the investigation or enquiry that follows these theoretical positions are typically referred to as research methodology. After identifying what a researcher believes about reality, and how they are able to know it, the researcher decides what information (data) is needed in order to find out what they want to know.