“You keep using this word. I’m still not sure what it means. Can you explain again?”
So said a postgrad student to me in class last week as we discussed ontology and its importance in writing research proposals. Admittedly, it can be a dense, philosophical term that seems more like something you have to talk about rather than something you want to. In my undergrad and postgrad classes on qualitative research methods (for social science, education and sport), the first definition we use for ontology is “the nature of the world” or “the nature of reality”. Not sure that’s helping much. Just to lay it on even more, ontology and epistemology (“the nature of knowledge”) are the first topic we cover in this unit (module) – chucked in at the deep end! But, I argue, if you don’t know how you are approaching your research or what your philosophy is, you cannot make any of the following steps, like those of research design, methods, participants and analysis. However, some weeks later, it’s clear that these dense terms need some support – we need to keep checking that they are understood.
So here’s the response I gave to my class.
Ontology is about the way we define the world or what is in the world. It is about the extent to which we think we can offer definitions or fix what things and ideas mean to us and to others. Ontology prompts us to ask what we think the world is: is it a fixed world that we see and experience objectively, or a subjective world where things might be different for different people? This gives us ways to come to definitions which we might use throughout our writing and so it helps to know exactly what we mean when talking about, say, “schools”, or “health” or “overweight”.
Let’s take schools. Can you define school?
Let’s say we define school as a building in which students are taught by teachers. We could add details, such as there are classrooms; those classrooms contain rows of benches and desks facing the board or screen at the front; the teacher-student relationship is such that the teacher has authority over the students. The students are children and they are taught by an adult teacher. The students are tested within a written examination system.
If this was our definition of school we would be making an ontological statement about what school is. We might be certain that this is a fixed, unchanging definition – all schools look like the one we just described, and if a place doesn’t look like this, then it isn’t a school. We would then go about our research into schools going by this definition only, and make conclusions that would fit this definition of school. Ontologically, we are thinking objectively. There is a certain reality, concerning what school is.
However, we might look at this definition of school and raise some questions. We might say, well, the word learning doesn’t appear once in that definition, but isn’t learning a crucial part of school? We might ask, what if the school is not always in a building, such as a forest school, can we call it a school then? What if the students are not children, or the place is built on equality and not teacher authority, or the desks are in small circles not facing the front, is it a school then?
If we acknowledge that there are a lot of different ideas that make up a lot of different places that are all called school, and that it is difficult or even impossible for us to create a definition of school that encompasses all of those places, or that different people have a different idea of what school is, then ontologically we are thinking subjectively. We cannot be sure what the reality of school is, what we will encounter if we visit a school. We might be cautious about creating a definition of school that is aimed at generalising to all schools, because we acknowledge we might miss some schools out.
So ontology might be thought of as a question of defining and fixing a “reality”.
How about another example: “healthy”. Can we define healthy? Is healthy a fixed and measurable notion? (The ontological question: what is it?) Can doctors examine someone and state whether they are healthy or not? (The epistemological question: how do we know?)
Ill health is often linked by some to overweight or obesity: if you are overweight, you are not healthy. A simple definition, an objective reality and easily measured: using BMI. Over 25 BMI, that means you’re overweight, and therefore not healthy.
Yet we know that BMI is frequently questioned as a measure of fat; and who says fatness and overweight are unhealthy anyway? Someone might be really active, never get ill, eat properly (a can-of-worms phrase in itself!), but be defined overweight by BMI, and therefore treated as unhealthy. We know that Healthy At Every Size and similar movements challenge the notion that fat is inherently unhealthy. What if healthy to one person means mental health as well as physical? Or well-being? Or “the pain is not there today”; or “the pain has disappeared”? All these offer different definitions of health or healthy such that I argue it is difficult for us to fix a definition of health that we can measure and by which we will form our conclusions. Is there a difference between states of “I feel healthy” “I live healthily” or “I AM healthy”? What if I say “I feel healthy” but a doctor tells me “you’re not healthy”? These are ontological questions fundamental to what we can define as reality: my reality and the doctor’s reality. We might go as far as to say that health is a totally subjective measure; at the least, as researchers and educators we need to be aware that there are multiple measures of health, that it’s not a fixed concept or state, and is measurable differently in different people.
As always I welcome comments on my thoughts!