There is no doubt that one can only grasp the sociological knowledge when examining the process of thoughts that stand behind every single research in social science. In essence, the ontological and epistemological positions represent the basis of the work of political scientists. On the surface, these positions are often not apparent but they can be demonstrated by the process of methodology. Therefore, it is, to a large degree, necessary to apprehend the connection between the foundations of research.
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The first part of this essay will focus on the definition of the these key concepts of research: ontology, epistemology and methodology. Furthermore, the essay will examine and evaluate the connection between the ontological and epistemological positions, such as Positivism and Interpretivism. Secondly, the essay will concentrate on the analysis of the relationship between these three stances in terms of social research. It will be argued that there is a close and logical relationship between the ontology and epistemology but also methodology, however some other perspectives will be take into account as well.
Ontology and epistemology play very significant role in philosophy but also in the work of political scientists because both terms are used in relation to the discussion of theoretical issues in their thesis. It can be argued that these theoretical positions are fundamental to their process of research and scientist’s inclination to subject as “they shape the approach to theory and the methods” that are employed by social scientist (Marsh& Furlong, 2010: p. 184). It is vital to recognize that both ontology and epistemology are mainly based on the researchers beliefs and personal persuasion about the conception of world and have certain methodological consequences (Hay, 2002: p. 61).
The first term ‘ontology’ can be used to relate to the scientific and philosophical theory of being. It primarily deals with the elementary structure of the world and what exactly does it signify to exist in that world. In other words, ontology is concerned with the question: “is there a ‘real’ world ‘out there’ that is independent of our knowledge of it?” (Marsh& Furlong, 2010: p. 185).1 To point out, there are two distinct ontological positions: firstly, foundationalism postulates that the real world exists as a mosaic which is consisted of various substances existing in the world, individually of human experience, knowledge and thought; secondly, anti-foundationalism predicates that the real world does not occur “independently of our knowledge”, however it is socially “constructed by human actors” (Grix, 2004: p. 61). It must be noted that the ontological issues have substantial theoretical significance. To a certain extent, ontological matters are inextricably linked with the epistemological foundation of research.
The second term ‘epistemology’ represents the “theory of knowledge” and its epistemological assumption is focused on the study of the nature of the world and how we know what we know (Marsh& Furlong, 2010: p. 185), so it is directed at “knowledge-gathering process” (Grix, 2004: p. 63). In case of epistemology, there are also two major epistemological positions being associated to foundationalist and anti-foundationalist ontology: firstly, positivist epistemology2 views the world as existing independently of knowledge of it (Marsh& Furlong, 2010: p. 190), therefore the objectivity is achievable due to the fact that the things are perceived by individuals in the identical manner; secondly, interpretivist epistemology3 concerns with the disputability of objective or value-free observation which is largely influenced by the personal perceptions and social constructions of the world. The key aspect of this argument is that the essence of the world is illuminated by various actors whose interpretations are construed by the observer, therefore this “double hermeneutic”4 results in limited objectivity (Grix, 2004: p. 81).5
The term ‘methodology’ arises from the ontological and epistemological position of the researcher, therefore it is more than evident that between ontology, epistemology and methodology is close interconnection. Methodology is mainly associated with the design of the research, and the approach to data analysis. Furthermore, this term is generally employed to refer to the whole process of data collection in the research. It is indispensable to realize that certain types of epistemologies require the specific use of survey methods (Hay, 2002: p. 63).6
1 In terms of political realm, the ontological question can be formulate as: “what is the nature of the social and political reality to be investigated?” (Hay, 2002: p. 61)
2 Positivism results from the empiricist tradition of natural science and emphasizes that there is analogy between social science and natural science; hence according to positivist’s view, the relationship between social phenomena may be formed, “using theory to generate hypotheses which can be tested by direct observation” (Marsh& Furlong, 2010: p. 194). From this follows, that the real world exists and represents an objective entity, therefore it is possible to perceive the reality around us, independently of our knowledge of it. In positivism, quantitative research tools 7 are involved in order to be able to generalize and replicate collected data. It is important to underline that the main aim of positivists is to explain a particular behavior rather than the meaning of this behavior (Marsh& Furlong, 2010: p. 194).
3 On the other hand, Interpretivism (or Relativism) is characterized by its denial of objective real world. According to interpretivists, the real world does not exist as it is constructed “through the interactions of individuals” (Grix, 2004: p. 83). Additionally, it is impossible to use a pure observation in order to perceive social phenomena, mainly because they are dependent on the personal interpretation. So it might be said that every observation affects what is observed thus objectivity cannot be maintained considering that researcher are “not ‘detached’ from the subjectâ€¦” (Grix, 2004: p. 83). In interpretism, qualitative research methods8 are applied to create a more precise understanding of social behavior and clearly ignore aspects, such as the meaning and explanation of that behavior.
4 The term “double hermeneutic” relates to the “act of interpreting an actor’s perception and interpretation (Interpretation 1) of his or her situation in a particular context (Interpretation 2): effectively an interpretation of an interpretation (Grix, 2002: p. 81); therefore this “double interpretation is less unbiased and objective than the initial interpretation.
The Analysis of Relationship between Ontology, Epistemology and Methodology
It is essential to highlight that the relationship between the key terms ‘ontology’, ‘epistemology’ and ‘methodology’ is “directional” in the way that “ontology logically precedes epistemology which logically precedes methodology” (Hay, 2002: p. 63). Furthermore, these concepts should be set apart considering that “they are inextricably linked” (Grix, 2004: p. 60).
According to Marsh and Furlong, ontology and epistemology represent “a skin not a sweater” therefore it is clearly impossible to “put on and take off” these research foundations whenever the research chooses (Marsh& Furlong, 2010: p. 184). This reflects the methodological consequences of different positions and indicates that researchers demand various positions in order account for their selected method. Nevertheless, the ontological positions are very significant in terms of interrelationship between epistemology and methodology, thus it could be said that certain ontological positions result in epistemological positions. It is worth noting that the foundationalist’s beliefs (ontology) represent a premise for positivist or a realist traditions (epistemology) of research whereas the anti-foundationalist’s views result in an interpretivist position. This implies that there is strong link between all components of research, therefore it is vital to approach these major blocks of research collectively.
According to Mason, the role of epistemology lies in the fact that it leads to creation of knowledge and “explanations about the ontological components of social world” (Grix, 2004: p. 64). Moreover, it is substantial to realize that there might be more than one particular epistemology, thus at the same time they will not be analogous or coincident with their own ontological position. However, it is clear that various epistemological positions require to employ a divers methodology, therefore it can be argued that there is dependency between epistemology and methodology.7 To a certain extent, this means that different ontological and epistemological positions can result in completely diverse views of the same type of social phenomena.
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Another relevant point is that Spencer raises a very apt question: “how can we have a theory about what knowledge is, without some presupposition about the nature of the knowledge?” (Marsh& Furlong, 2010: p. 188) Therefore, in Spencer’s opinion, ontology is prior to epistemology so that knowledge can be logically generated from their close relationship. While these two concepts are narrowly related, they have to be kept separate in order to start the research from a person’s view of the world (Grix, 2004: p. 66).8
In conclusion, it is extremely crucial to recognize that these three theoretical positions play a pivotal role in a set of conceptions concerning the research theory. Due to the high level of generality, ontology is a type of concept that is rarely utilized. However, epistemology and methodology are used more frequently. Most importantly, otology, epistemology and methodology are interlinking and dependent on each other and together denotes the most important contrasts between various ways of knowing. Finally, Marsh and Furlong maintain a position that there is an evident interdependence between epistemology and methodology, also Hay sees a “directional dependence” in relation to ontology, epistemology and methodology. However Smith advocates that it is not possible to create a hierarchy between these terms because all of them are narrowly interrelated together.
5 In a sense, epistemology can be employed in the connection with “positivist epistemology” which means that the knowledge claims basically are grounded on the universal principles of the natural science. The most crucial point is, therefore, that the ontological assumptions made about the nature of the reality and world, in some way, have far-reaching consequences for the chosen epistemological position.
6 In case of a positivist epistemology, the research methods are in form of surveys and questionnaires in order to be analyzed quantitatively. Whereas, a interpretists epistemology uses methods, such as participant observations and unsystematic interviews to gain quantitative analysis and data.
7 In Bryman’s view, “there is nothing inherent in the properties of the different methodologies which prevents their use by researchers who are operating from different epistemological positions” (Read& Marsh, 2002: p. 232-3).
8 On the other hand, it is crucial to highlight that some scholars, such as Smith, consider ontology and epistemology as two interconnected realms. According Smith’s view, “neither ontology nor epistemology [is] prior to the other, but instead [he] sees the two of them as mutually and inextricably interrelated” (March& Furlong, 2010: p. 188). From this statement follows that it is not possible to undermine the importance of ontology at the expense of epistemology or the other way around, therefore ontology cannot be considered as prior to epistemology.
Appendix 1: The Definition of Qualitative and Quantitative Data in Social Research
7 When qualitative data is adopted in social science as a way for conducting an experiment or analysis, its aim is principally to create a complete and detailed description for a particular fact. Qualitative data is presented in form of words and images. In this case, the knowledge claim can be supported by individuals who develop subjective and direct concern with the meaning of involved experience in order to understand the complexity of views. Therefore, it is important for researcher to become subjectively engaged in the subject matter (Grix, 2004: p. 117-8).
8 The quantitative data has a very straightforward purpose, to classify features, count them, construct statistical model in an attempt to explain what is observed. For that reason, quantitative data involves numbers and statistics. This type of data reflects a need to explore causes that affect certain results, thus the assumption is also based on thorough observation and measurement of objective reality in the world. The researcher, in this instance, tends to be objective in terms of the concerns (Grix, 2004: p. 122).
However, as it follows from the description of qualitative and quantitative data, the major difference between these two types of data lies in their distinct functions. It is quite essential to realize the fact that qualitative data is related to research that inclines to use an inductive approach to develop theory; therefore the researchers gather the data from the study of a particular sample of people and maintain an understanding of social behavior as it arises from this data. On the contrary, quantitative data is involved in research that is directed to deductive approach, using predominantly hypothesis and examining it in order to prove true for the general sample (McBride& Schostak, 2011).
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