Engaging with postgraduate research: education, childhood & youth
Engaging with postgraduate research: education, childhood & youth

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2.6 Thinking about ontological positions

In the TLRP briefing document you looked at in Activity 7, you might have noticed that there was explicit reference to a scientific methodology at points in the document. This might have made you feel that a particular epistemological stance might be expected from researchers. However, making assumptions about the research perspective when reading research literature is not straightforward. It is important therefore to dig beneath the surface and to scrutinise the research design and methodological choices made in order to clearly understand the researchers’ intended stance, rather than making assumptions at purely a surface level.

A dog digging sand on a beach.
Figure 4 Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper in the literature

Language is very important in conveying which position you are adopting and, if terms are being used with particular meaning, they need to be explained to a reader. In the TLRP document, although ‘scientific’ is used at several points, the studies they are referring to as being judged for the various purposes included in the paper would not necessarily be expected to adopt a ‘scientific’ approach. If they are not adopting a ‘scientific’ approach and yet are being evaluated on this basis, a researcher needs to take especial care in offering a clear rationale for the position of their study in the academic landscape.

In the next activity, you will consider ontological and epistemological positions and the significance of different theoretical perspectives for how practice is understood.

Activity 8 Identifying ontological positions

Timing: Allow approximately 30 minutes

Part 1

Watch Video 1.

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Video 1 Social media in the lives of youth with disabilities in Kenya
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The research described in Video 1 relates to young adults with disabilities and their sense of agency via social media. The researcher asked her participants to describe the impact of people and institutions on their lives. Consider for a moment the ontological and epistemological frame the research is positioned within and respond to the following questions.

  • What does the researcher think about reality (ontological position)?
  • Make a note of what the researcher says about how she intends to investigate her topic. What does this suggest about the researcher’s epistemological position?

Part 2

Now listen to the following extract of an interview with Gill Adams, an academic at Sheffield Hallam University. In the interview she is asked to reflect on her doctoral research studying Maths’ teachers and describes the approach she took.

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Audio 1
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  • Make a note of what Gill says in relation to what she wanted to find out. What does this suggest about the ontological position behind her research?
  • Do Video 1 and Audio 1 make your personal theoretical views about the relationship between theory and practice clearer?

Discussion

These researchers explain how they have developed methods to collect data as ways of coming to know the world (their epistemological view). Both hold views that the world is social and that the human experience is personal, likely to be unique and related to their complex histories and experiences.

In Video 1, Alice wanted to come to know how young people with disabilities used social media and needed to find ways for them to express their experiences, taking into account their disabilities.

In Audio 1, Gill wanted to find ways to support her participants reflect on their experiences to date and explore how it was informing their present.

Both worked with their participants to create spaces to reveal new insights, new both to the participants and to the researchers. These are subjective realisations, which mean that what the participants said or reported will have depended on what they were asked, how they were asked and how safe they felt when they were asked. They might also have been influenced by what was said or done prior to the data collection. If these factors had been different, they might have offered different insights. This view of the world is in contrast to objective views of the world as stable and measurable in repeatable ways. What do you think about the world in relation to the topics you are interested in?

In this course so far, you have been introduced to some key terms and concepts that are used when people engage with the research process, either through reading literature or undertaking an enquiry. You have explored the meanings of ontology and epistemology and how they are the theoretical roots of research paradigms. You have also seen how sometimes these theoretical roots are assumed, and not discussed, in the research literature. The next section will build on this learning and take you through an exploration of the language and ideas behind paradigms and paradigmatic positions.

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