Thursday, January 12, 2012
WHAT ARE ONTOLOGY AND EPISTEMOLOGY?
In philosophy, some things stick in your head, and some don't. Many people have trouble understanding, and then remembering, what ontology and epistemology are. They don't seem to fall naturally into the head as memorable or useful concepts. Here is an attempt to make things a bit clearer, in the context of social psychology.
This word comes from the greek: ontos = being, and logos = study - i.e. it is the study of being.
Your 'ontology' is your answer to the question: 'What is reality?' (i.e. what can be said to really exist, or be?)
It is important, because whatever assumption you make affects how you approach science.
For example, if your ontological view is: 'Reality is a load of facts out there waiting to be discovered' then you are a Realist, and you might be comfortable with an experimental approach.
Alternatively, if your ontological view is: 'Reality is, ooh, very fluid and elusive, and only exists through people's claims' then you are a Postmodernist, and you might be comfortable with a discursive approach, where reality is regarded as a constructed account.
This word comes from the greek: episteme = knowledge, and logos = study - i.e. it is the study of knowledge.
Your 'epistemology' is your answer to the question: 'How can I know reality?' (i.e. even if something really exists, how can I know that?)
It is important, because whatever assumption you make about what can be known, affects what you bother to try to find out scientifically.
For example, if your epistemological view is: 'My senses help me know the objective world: to see is to know' then you are an Empiricist, and, as above, you might be comfortable doing experiments with lots of sense data to gather knowledge.
Alternatively, if your epistemological view is: ''Ooh, wouldn't trust the senses: knowledge is constructed subjectively by people and groups' then you are a Constructivist, and, as above, you might be comfortable doing discursive analysis, working with the interactive construction of knowledge.
In short, roughly speaking, you might divide social science into:
1. Experimental, with a more realist ontology (i.e. reality is out there), with an empiricist epistemology (i.e. and I'll gather sense data to find it);
2. Postmodernist constructivism, with a less realist ontology (i.e. reality is just a load of competing claims), and a constructivist epistemology (i.e. and I'll analyse those competing accounts to explore it)
Applied, then , to social psychology, it is important to understand the tension, throughout its history, between:
1. A more traditional experimental (quantitative) approach, which sees social reality as a set of facts to be known for all time by measuring people in the laboratory;
2. A more critical, discursive (qualitative) approach, which sees social reality as mutually constructed between people in the real world.
I've simplified things horribly to make the distinctions as clear as possible, but I hope this helps anyone who is struggling to get a handle on these terms, and apply them to social psychology.
You could use the invented word 'OBEK' to remember it: basically, Ontology = Being; Epistemology = Knowledge.
And if you want to know where the word 'OBEK' comes from…
I just socially constructed it!