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Critically exploring psychology
Critically exploring psychology

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3 Ontology, epistemology and methodology

In all areas of psychology and across all disciplines, the way you study the subject really matters. It is important that you evaluate the work you do, the evidence you offer, and the claims that you make.

Activity 1

Think about the following:

  • What happens when you learn a language, fall in or out of love, suffer a brain injury, or experience prejudice and hatred?
  • How do people behave in private, and why might they behave differently in groups?
  • What makes one person compassionate while another appear uncaring?
  • Why do people have phobias? How would you help a child overcome a fear of the dark?
  • Why are some people good at maths, but others are good at music?
  • What makes a joke funny, or some memories more important than others?

What other questions might psychologists have? Think about all of the different ways that the question could be asked, and how this might guide what steps you take to answering it.

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There are so many very different kinds of questions that psychologists need to try to answer. Consequently, there are many different methods for doing so. But how do you know which is the right or best method to use? There is no right way; much depends on the perspective that the researcher is coming from.

6/9 written on a blackboard. An arm coming from the bottom of the image writes six, an arm from the top writes nine.
Figure 8 A different perspective of the same image

Researchers (whether they work within psychology or any other discipline) always work on the basis of particular sets of theoretical assumptions. These theoretical assumptions can sometimes be implicit and shaped by the values accepted within a particular society, culture and during a particular time in history. They can be referred to as a ‘paradigm’ or a way of framing what we know, what we can know and how we can know it.

To better understand these broader frameworks within which psychological research is conducted, it is important to introduce a few key definitions.

Key definitions

  • Ontology: is the philosophical study of being. It refers to your view of reality and to what extent it exists ‘out there’, to be captured through research. Ontology is concerned with what is true or real.
  • Epistemology: is the ‘theory of knowledge’. It refers to the principles of what can be known and how you can know it; that is, how you can find out about it.  
  • Methodology: is the ‘theory of methods’. It refers to the overall theoretical rationale and the principles that define how a research question, set of methods and data are embedded within a perspective.  
  • Methods: are the tools and techniques that you use for gathering and/or analysing data  
  • Data: is what you gather when you apply a method. Data can come in any shape or form, it can refer to behaviour, inner experiences, material or symbolic data.  

You will now focus on two specific frameworks, positivism and constructivism, and see how ontology, epistemology and methodology apply to them.