PhD workshop on social ontology

Some time ago I published a post on ontology in order to explain why it is important for any research project. There I emphasized the difference between adopting a objectivist and subjectivist ontological position. The former focuses on the formal structure of the organization under study, usually via quantitative methods, while the latter do it on the informal structure (i.e. one assumes the condition of social actors of the organizational member). Hence qualitative methods are usually more connected.
This is actually a dilemma that I have dealt with in my PhD project. As I mentioned in the past, the topic of my dissertation was the social impact of a large scale mining industry in a rural area. The research question was What social changes in the community around are associated with such development? Adopting a subjectivist approach I would have taken into priority the discourse of social actors involved, i.e. neighbors, politicians, associations representatives etc. The point here would be studying how social actors have experienced the phenomena under study. On the contrary, under a objectivist approach, I would have avoid this and focus on statistics in order to analyze, for instance, evolution of employment or social disruption indicators such as divorce or suicide rate. The point here is to come up with objective indicators of the social change. The truth is that I did a kind of combination of both, since I consider that both could enrich the research process. Social actors perception provided me with good insights that later on would give way to hypothesis to be tested via qualitative methods. But the truth is that it took me a while to distinguish between both perspectives, as well as realized which one better fit for my research.
This dilemma came to my mind this morning when reading this interesting announcement about a workshop on ontology. I would just like to paste here the content and provide you with a further details link.

Ontology can often prove a contested and confusing issue within social research. Everyone has on ontology, explicit or otherwise, but the process of drawing this out and thinking through its implications for research can often be a confusing part of the PhD process. This participatory workshop explores the practical significance of ontological questions for social research, inviting participants to reflect on their own research projects in a collaborative and supportive context. It aims to help participants negotiate the sometimes abstruse matter of social ontology, linking theory to practice in the context of their own research projects. The main focus throughout the day will be on how ontological questions are encountered in social research, the questions posed by such encounters and how engaging explicitly with social ontology can often help resolve such issues.

All participants will offer a brief (5 minute) presentation of their research project and the ontological questions which have been or are expected to be encountered within it. Those still early in the PhD process are welcome to substitute this for a discussion of their research interests and potential project. We’d like to ask all participants to reflect in advance on their own social ontology and how it pertains to their project. Uncertainty here is not a problem, in fact it will be a useful contribution to discussions on the day!

We also invite two more substantial presentations (10 mins) for the first afternoon session, reflecting on your engagement with ontological questions in your own project in order to help begin a practical engagement which encompasses the entire group. If you would be interested in leading the discussion in this way then please make this known when registering.

To register please contact socialontology@warwick.ac.uk with a brief description of your research and your interest in social ontology (500 words or less). The event is free but places are limited. Travel bursaries are available, please ask for more details.

The Centre for Social Ontology

http://go.warwick.ac.uk/socialontology/

 

Ontology in research

Imagine all managers in a given organization leave and are replaced by new ones. Would such alteration have an important impact on the organization itself? Would the organization keep being the same? If you as researcher consider that such change is irrelevant to understand the organization itself, it means that your ontological position is rather objectivist. You would tend to think that changing managers doesn’t affect the object of your research purpose. Hence you think that the organization is defined by its formal structure regardless who is a member. In other words, you would focus on procedures, policies and resources and all those things that are independent from people within the organization. This is actually a perspective that comes from the natural science.

On the contrary, if you think that such changes would have a high impact on the organization to the extent that it is possible to consider it a different organization, then your ontological position would rather be subjectivist. In that case, it is the human perspective of those who compose the organization what inform about its proper existence.

Once said this, we can now purpose a more theoretical definition of ontology. It is a branch of the so called metaphysic that study the nature or being, becoming, existence or reality. In other words the study of what may be seen as existent or not. Actually, many traditional questions of the philosophy can be understood as ontological questions: does God exist? Do mental entities as ideas or thoughts exist? Do abstract entities as numbers exist?

What are the implications or one or another ontological position in terms of one´s research project. Every research project always deals with some kind of organization: neighborhoods, companies, cities, etc. They may be more or less abstract, but organizations after all. The point here is that assuming its existence or not will largely determine the rest of the research process in terms of, for instance, the way we collect information. Assuming an objectivist philosophy your research will focus on the formal structure of the organization, i.e. countable things like in which parts are divided, how many people, how many, let´s say, computers, etc. You would not consider any information coming from those people involved. Hence you will be more prone to use a more quantitative approach, meaning applying more quantitative methods like questionnaires, content analysis or secondary data.

What if you apply a more subjectivist point of view? Logically the opposite, you will omit any information coming from the formal structure of the organization and move on the informal one. What is it exactly? Those things that are not written anywhere but still exist. Those things that one can’t measure (or at least at a first glance) but one think they are still important. They way organization’s members see each other, the way they interact, the hidden hierarchies among them and many other details of human situations. As well as objectivism lead you apply more quantitative methods, subjectivism lead you to do the same with more qualitative ones like in-depth interviews, observation, mass-observation, focus group, etc.

Choosing one of another ontological position normally depends on the researcher’s way of thinking. Should you are more kind of human observer; you will tend to adopt a subjectivist position. Should you are a more number-centered person; objectivism is going to fit you better. However, it must be said that there is a tendency to consider ontology as a continuum, that is, to avoid radical positions as far as both may provide with rich and complementary information.

According to my personal experience, one may avoid the “ontological dilemma” and go ahead with the rest of the research design. However, considering the ontology of one’s research project contributes to better understand the universe under study, as well as organize one´s idea at the always difficult beginning of the research process. With regard to PhD dissertations, it’s also recommendable to raise this issue both in the research proposal and the submitted document. In the research proposal because it informs the supervisor about one’s decision. This may also give way to a helpful feedback. In the final document because it informs the readers about one’s philosophical alignment. This will both orient them throughout the whole reading of the document, and will also alert him/her in case they want to do some critiques in future works on the same topic.

Understanding research philosophies

The point of this post is not about choosing one or another philosophy for your research. Actually, you could skip this topic and begin thinking about whether you will use questionnaire or secondary data method. The point here is enhancing your understanding of the way in which we approach the study of a particular field. Bear in mind that the philosophy you assume will influence the way you answer your research question.

Although philosophy might sound very profound, this term just refers to the development of knowledge and the nature of such knowledge.

Three questions you must answer for a major understanding of the process of developing knowledge and its nature:

  1. Is your organization independent of its members? (Ontology)
  2. Are you a “resources” or “feeling” researcher? (Epistemology)
  3. What roles do our values play in our research? (Axiology)