Ontology: a working definition

“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!


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9 thoughts on “Ontology: a working definition

  1. David Aldous May 8, 2014 at 9:11 am Reply

    Hi Joanne,
    I really enjoyed this blog post. As someone who is ‘responsible’ as module leader for engaging students in such discussions, examples like this are invaluable. It was interesting to see that such discussions were with postgraduate students. Do you think introducing ontology and epistemology at this stage of their learning experience is too late? The reason I ask is that I am messing around with the idea of introducing these terms in my PE research methodologies/methods module with year 2 students. It has been an interesting experience: sparks the imagination of some, makes the universe of research even more distant to others. I wonder whether I have got the balance right.

    Anyways, thanks again for the blog, it was a really good read. Hope to catch up in a non-social media universe in the not so distant future.



    • Dr Joanne Hill May 8, 2014 at 9:45 am Reply

      Actually, I introduce these terms in year 1 undergraduate, because I think it is important to at least recognise the terms, and then build on their meanings in later years. Perhaps that’s the wrong way round and we need to work on the problem first then define the solutions, I don’t know – this is the first year I’ve taught UG research methods so we will see. At postgrad, with the students coming from a variety of first degrees, some will have encountered the terms and some not. My experience for example was as a history BA and a social science MA – so these social research terms were new to me. As always, variety in teaching and learning tasks/approaches will hopefully bring the newbies up to speed and push those who’ve dealt with these terms before.

      I agree that the problem can be making research a distant thing for some – but it should be accessible to all. Conversations about ontology and epistemology might have the possibility of showing that scientific methods are not the only way to create knowledge (as led to feminist methods, for instance), as well as the more immediate benefit of pushing for rigorous research projects – again something that should be accessible to students.

      For books on this topic I like Fox et al (2007) Doing Practitioner Research, Sage.

  2. Alan Thomson May 8, 2014 at 1:25 pm Reply

    Very interesting Joanne. As someone who is fascinated with qualitative methodology, I am always keen to engage in debates about when to introduce this to students. I deliver a (mostly) qualitative research methods module to second year undergraduates, and introduce this around the third week, having spent the first two looking at different approaches. Some students do struggle with getting their heads around this, but for many it helps position their thinking around the previously discussed methods ranging from case study to (auto)ethnography.

    By introducing it early, I would reinforce what you say in that it becomes (for some) a part of their vocabulary. For some students, opening up this thinking is like switching on a light that illuminates the other parts of the course. In turn when they come to examine the theories behind behaviourism and constructivism, and how these link to teaching actions, the students can relate back to ontology and epistemology which helps inform a rationale for their own teaching philosophy. I think it also helps the students write more critically in their assignments as they become aware of the notion of multiple realities and examining phenomena through different lens.

    It is reassuring that you are introducing this at Level 4, and when it come to re-validating next year, I will aim to follow your example and push to do the same.



    • Dr Joanne Hill May 8, 2014 at 2:10 pm Reply

      Hi Alan,
      that is an important point about relating research philosophy/paradigms to similar concepts in teaching philosophy. It’s worth paying attention to. Connections between different threads in the degree programme is something we are also concerned with here. It might also deepen understanding of the similarities and differences between a social science and a science perspective (our students can follow a BA with lots of socio-cultural studies, or a BSc with physiology and biomechanics) beyond it being just a case of preferring words or numbers!

      Another concern is how exactly to write about these things and what needs to be said. “I take a up constructivist philosophy” – well what does that mean for you? Again something I want to incorporate more into my classes.

  3. Alan Thomson May 8, 2014 at 2:32 pm Reply

    Hi Joanne – I would add to what you say by examining the notion of the ‘performance gap’ – the space between teaching philosophy/beliefs and teaching actions. Particularly for students and teachers ‘why’ that it is the case. Are teachers/students unaware that they demonstrate a ‘performance gap,’ or are there constraints upon their teaching actions that determine the ‘performance gap?’

    The notion of ontology extending across the course has proved useful for example in getting students to understand the impact/influence of neoliberalism on education. How politics (micro to macro) determines what is taught, how it is taught, to whom and by whom. I am sure that there is much more that you could add……

    • Dr Joanne Hill May 11, 2014 at 3:25 pm Reply

      Yes the influence of neoliberalism is an interesting topic to add into examinations of ontology, as we could look at what counts as evidence and how that evidence is used, regarding definitions of, for example, student achievement, teaching style, appropriate assessment, appropriate subjects for study.

      I was editing a lecture this week in which I referred to the construction of knowledge within the media as certain stories or certain angles are given more air time / column inches, shaping what audiences believe even while they think they are getting an impartial account. Leading to conversations about power as well. There are a number of ways that ontology can be illuminated by our subject content.

      • David Aldous May 12, 2014 at 5:25 am

        Hi Joanne and Alan – There are some really interesting links to be made between forms of ontology, epistemology, student experience and the impact of what has been illustrated as ‘neo-liberal governance’. Discussions regarding ontology and epistemology are almost like the genome of providing a critical and dynamic stance regarding issues within the PESP universe – for staff and students alike. The more illustrations and links that can be made to ‘live topics’, the more students will be able to recognise and embody it into their own languages. I think the current discussions make utopian hopes for research methodology modules not the distant dream it once seemed. Would making discussions regarding the link between knowledge, reality, and power central to the development of research methodology/research method modules allow for pedagogic creativity and student agency?

  4. Alan Thomson May 12, 2014 at 11:33 am Reply

    Your question regarding teaching research methods to students is pertinent David. Do (undergraduate in particular) students understand ‘why’ they wish to engage in a research topic, and additionally in the way that they choose to research it? For many (undergraduate) students, what is out there to be known in the ‘PESP universe’ is very limited. Hence some students will reproduce similar topics year after year. By becoming familiar with an understanding of ontology and epistemology and how it underpins and intertwines social reality very early in the PESP courses, students’ research topics and the methodologies they undertake are limited only by what supervisors are comfortable working with. A supervisor’s positionality is obviously an issue in itself, and maybe offers a rationale for the repeated topic areas and methodologies, something that arguably extends into PESP research environment.

    The fundamental questions ‘what is going on here?’ and ‘how do we know?’ should be applied to all practical and theoretical aspects of PESP courses from the very beginning of the student’s life in University. Indeed the questions should not just be limited to their courses.

    • Dr Joanne Hill May 15, 2014 at 8:40 pm Reply

      We are finding a great number of ways in which ontology and epistemology are crucial in learning and teaching across PESP courses!

      I always start my research methods courses telling students that they are capable of adding to the knowledge in our areas; that they are not just readers of research but can become researchers with the skills and knowledge to create knowledge and offer something more to the field. In order to do this, though, I think they – and supervisors as you say Alan – need to be confident in questioning existing knowledge, creating critical perspectives and following new leads. Shyness about critiquing existing thought or practice, especially when power is involved, might be part of why the same topics are reproduced again and again (although that also raises the issue that practice just isn’t improving, or is struggling to – take girls’ disengagement as an example: decades of research and the same conversations).

      It’s too easy to slip into a quant v. qual or even a numbers v. words position in research methods when students seem to want a quick way of getting their heads around it. So modelling critical approaches and showing where definitions and assumptions have come from, how knowledge has shifted across time and place, is vital throughout different modules/units so that ontology and epistemology are not just concepts for the research methods classroom.

      For instance, hopefully we are seeing changes in the discourse surrounding topics such as the relationship between obesity and health, so that we can get students to be aware of differing knowledge – and then point out to them that *this* is what considering epistemology is all about.

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