Philosophical Foundations of Research: Ontology

Philosophy is a term that is commonly used but hard to define. To put it simply, philosophy explains an individuals or a groups worldview in general or in a specific context. Such questions as the nature of knowledge, reality, and existence are questions that philosophy tries to answer. There are different schools of thought on these questions and these are what we commonly call philosophies

In this post, we will try to look at ontology, which is the study of the nature of reality. In particular, we will define it as well as explain its influence on research.

Ontology

Ontology is the study of the nature of being. It tries to understand the reality of existence. In this body of philosophy, there are two major camps, ontological realism, and ontological idealism.

Ontological realism believes that reality is objective. In other words, there is one objective reality that is external to each individual person. We are in a reality and we do not create it.

Ontological idealism is the opposite extreme. This philosophy states that there are multiple realities an each depends on the person. My reality is different from your reality and each of us builds our own reality.

Ontological realism is one of the philosophical foundations for quantitative research. Quantitative research is a search for an objective reality that accurately explains whatever is being studied.

For qualitative researchers, ontological idealism is one of their philosophical foundations. Qualitative researchers often support the idea of multiple realities. For them, since there is no objective reality it is necessary to come contact with people to explain their reality.

Something that has been alluded to but not stated specifically is the role of independence and dependence of individuals. Regardless of whether someone ascribes to ontological realism or idealis, there is the factor of whether people or independent of reality or dependent to reality. The level of independence and dependence contributes to other philosophies such as objectivism constructivism and pragmatism.

Objectivism, Constructivism and Pragmatism

Objectivism is the belief that there is a single reality that is independent of the individuals within it. Again this is the common assumption of quantitative research. At the opposite end we have constructivism which states that there are multiple realities and the are dependent on the individuals who make each respective reality.

Pragmatism supports the idea of a single reality with the caveat that it is true if it is useful and works. The application of the idea depends upon the individuals, which pushes pragmatism into the realm of dependence.

Conclusion

From this complex explanation of ontology and research comes the following implications

  • Quantitative and qualitative researchers differ in how they see reality. Quantitative researchers are searching for and attempting to explain a single reality while qualitative researchers are searching for and trying to explain multiple realities.
  • Quantitative and qualitative researchers also differ on the independence of reality. Quantitative researchers see reality as independent of people while qualitative researchers see reality as dependent on people
  • These factors of reality and its dependence shape the methodologies employed by quantitative and qualitative researchers.
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