Friday, 22 July 2016

Ontologies: subjectivism versus objectivism

Ontology is how we are, as beings, in our universe. It is our understanding of ourselves. Epistemology is the next level down: the how we come to 'knowing' who we are, in our universe.
Epistemology is often called our research philosophy at under-graduate level (post-grad requires both ontology and epistemology).
It is important to know what our epistemology is, because where we start guides how we pose our research question, how we design our research project and the individual methods - tools - that we choose. It becomes the central theme pinning our project together (as per the diagram shown above, which I have adapted from Creswell, 2009).

The trouble is that often we don't know where to start with a philosophy. Most of us have never stopped to think about it.

Below is a fast and dirty ontological summary of subjectivist and objectivist approaches curated for my research students, to aid research epistemology.

Firstly, I have an edited table from Donald Hastings (2004) comparing the difference in ontological/epistemological stance between objectivism and subjectivism:

(Positivism, Empiricism)


Single reality.

Reality exists independent of the observer (subject-object split).

Reality is experienced through the senses, catalogue by the mind, and measurable either direct or indirectly.

Researcher may engage the world in a value-neutral manner (ie, objectively).

Knowledge may be built cumulatively following scientific canons emphasising observation, reliability in measurement and analysis, and confirming or refuting hypotheses logically derived from theory.

Theory is cumulative. It embodies the explanatory principles, empirical laws on how classes of events and processes work across time and space (universals). It allows us to predict how reality works.

Emphasis is on explanation and control.

Internal or external to research subjects.
(Constructivism, interpretivism, Idealism)


Multiple realities.

Realities are symbolically constructed and meaning is observer dependent.

Social reality is engaged through cognition and organised in memory.

Researcher engages the world in a value-laden manner (ie, subjectively).

Understanding is possible by dint of people’s ability to exercise empathy.

Knowledge is based on observation. Theory is situationally and historically specific to a given social context.

A statement describes how an event or process works (particularistic).

Emphasis is on discovery.

For more information on discovery, see Brannigan, Augustine (1981). The social basis of scientific discoveries. UK: Cambridge University Press. 

Internal to research subjects.

This summary is supported by some additional reading and resources below for further thought, for those who would like to take things further.

Ingmar Persson's book chapter detailing subjectivism and objectivism suggests that subjectivists approach research wanting to understand "desires and/or emotions had under some factually described circumstances", looking inside the person for answers. However, objectivists will look both inside or outside the individual to see whether the circumstances are right, or if those circumstances are necessary: "only the sufficiency of such a condition or both its sufficiency and necessity [...and] could be either internalist or externalist, depending on whether they accept the necessity of this link to attitudes" (2005). 

Additionally, Robert McIntosh (2015) put together a flowchart showing how our research philosophy choices fit the later methodological choices that we make (though I find Robert's stance overly narrow on surveys solely fitting with empiricist/positivist approaches - I feel that modern survey instruments gather rich data which can be meaningfully qualitatively coded).

I hope this is useful!




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