There are a great many guides to ontology, epistemology and methodology in social research and no need to refer to them all here. In brief, ontology, as a branch of philosophy, is the science of what is, of the kinds and structures of objects. In simple terms, ontology seeks the classification and explanation of entities. Ontology is about the object of inquiry, what you set to examine.
Ontology concerns claims about the nature of being and existence. One of the longest standing ontological questions in philosophy concerns the existence, or otherwise, of God or at least some sense of a higher being. This has provided a springboard for philosophers to question, among other things, the purpose of existence, the nature of a priori reasoning, the meaning of sensory experience and what constitutes valid argument. In the more down to earth world of social research thinking about ontology refers to beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality, in particular social reality. These beliefs are often discussed in terms of dichotomy (e.g. Bryman 2001) between, on one hand, an objective reality which exists independent of the observer, and, on the other, reality as it appears subjectively or, more commonly, as negotiated within groups. The former typically comes under the banner of objectivist, realist or foundationalist ontology, the latter an anti-positivist or anti-foundationalist ontology, informed by constructivism or interpretivism. The anti-positivist position is, in our experience, more widely held among those interested in social theory but this generalisation does not necessarily hold across all countries, disciplines and indeed across time.
Ontology seems very abstract as an idea but questions of ontology are central to the questions asked in social research, to the concepts we use and the steps taken. For example, the postivist may ask cause and effect type questions, say, ‘how does class background affect educational attainment?’, while the anti-postivist may rephrase this question to ask ‘what different meanings have been ascribed to concepts of class and attainment?’ and ‘what type of explanation has been put forward to argue that class influences educational attainment?’. Ontology therefore sits at the top of a hierarchy under which epistemology, methodology and methods all ‘get into line’.
Many researchers deal only superficially with questions of ontology and bury discussion of both ontology and epistemology by simply aligning with a method or methodology: ‘this is a quantitative study’; this is ‘case study’, ‘action research’ or ‘grounded theory’. However when ontology is not examined research often ends up being incoherent: it seems to set out within one ontological position and ends up working within the logic of another. This is helpfully discussed by Grix (2002) in a paper aimed at new researchers. The paper considers research into social capital: the key ontological question here is whether the concept of social capital (broadly speaking social capital covers question of trust and networking between people and is associated with civic and other types of social participation) should be treated as ‘foundational’ or not. If so, social capital can be treated as a ‘dependent variable’ and can be measured through survey and other instruments. If not, social capital must be seen as a product of social construction, and an independent variable requiring methods which will enable interpretive understanding. Methods are then, implicitly or explicitly, the outcomes of an ontological position.
Grix (2002) is very helpful but needs qualification. First it is very difficult (and confirmed in Grix and discussed with subtley in Crotty, 1998) to talk about ontology without covering epistemology at the same time; the two are so tightly entwined. It is not, then, surprising that researchers often talk about a positivist and interpretivist ‘approach’ to capture both ontology and epistemology, though, of course, the word ‘approach’ is notoriously vague and requires careful definition. Second, many accounts of ontology present beliefs as immutable, the more strongly held in fact for being tacit or taken for granted. However it is possible to ‘cross borders’, if not change belief, regarding ontological assumptions. As an ontological exercise researchers might view their research from an alternative standpoint in order to better understand a position ‘from the inside’.
Bryman, A. (2004) Social research methods, Oxon: Oxford University Press.
Crotty, M. (1998) The Foundations of Social Research. London: Sage
Grix, J. (2002) ‘Introducing students to the generic terminology of social research’, Politics, 22, 3: 175–186.
Below is a link to an introduction given by David James to doctoral centre students in Wales. He takes us clearly through key concepts and explains their significance for the new researcher. The key question for you is how does your understanding of social reality affect the theoretical claim you are making in your research.
Grix, J. (2002) Introducing students to the generic terminology of social research, Politics, 22, 3: 175–186.