Key themes in Qualitative Research and Enquiry Based Learning: ontologies

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Some Notes Concerning: Ontologies and knowledge of underlying realities (metaphysics)

John Schostak, January 2008, revised July 2008

The problem with discussing ontology and metaphysics is that they seem incredibly abstract with little to do with the concrete demands of everyday life. However, they have to do with trying to grasp what reality really is, that is: metaphysics is generally thought to be about the underlying reality of things and ontology as the being of things. As such, they are critical to qualitative research methodologies.

Quine (1948) gave a succinct statement:

A curious thing about the ontological problem is its simplicity. It can be put in three Anglo-Saxon monosyllables: ‘What is there?” It can be answered, moreover, in a word – ‘Everything’ – and everyone will accept this answer as true.

What is at stake in ‘Everything’ can be illustrated by comparing three perspectives on the ‘real’, that is everything:

  1. the medieval conception
  2. the Enlightenment, Modernist and Scientific conception
  3. the postmodern ‘conception’

Each conception has its distinct ‘ontological commitments’ as Quine would say.

1. the medieval conception
In medieval times for example, it was all very straightforward. One example of this can be seen in Taylor’s (1975: 4-5) account of the medieval conception of the world that provided the ‘proof’ that Galileo’s discovery of Jupiter’s moons was wrong. He illustrated his account from an early seventeenth century argument about the perceived order of nature:

There are seven windows given to animals in the domicile of the head, through which the air is admitted to the tabernacle of the body, to enlighten, to warm and to nourish it. What are these parts of the microcosmos? Two nostrils, two eyes, two ears, and a mouth. So in the heavens, as in a macrocosmos, there are two favourable stars, two unpropitious, two luminaries, and Mercury undecided and indifferent. From this and from many other similarities in nature, such as the seven metals, etc., which it were tedious to enumerate, we gather that the number of planets is necessarily seven.The argument is essentially metaphoric in that there is a vision of meaningful order. It can be called meaningful because the notion is that different elements in creation express or embody a certain order of ideas – this is why the apertures in the head, the planets, the metals, and other phenomena ‘which it were too tedious to enumerate’ can all be put in relation with each other. They all embody the same idea reflected in different media, rather as ‘it’s hot’ and ‘il fait chaud’ express the same statement in different languages. And because of this correspondence, we can conclude to the nature of one from the other just as I know from learning that someone said, in French, ‘it’s hot’ that he said ‘il fait chaud’. The idea of a meaningful order is inseparably bound up with that of final causes since it posits that the furniture of the universe is as it is and develops as it does in order to embody these Ideas; the order is the ultimate explanation.

(Taylor 1975: 5)

This example indicates the fundamental role that people’s conceptions of what is really real and how it is organised affects their reasoning. It also shows something of the potentially disturbing nature of research and of critical thinking.

2. the Enlightenment, Modernist and Scientific conception
In Western thought, those who are considered to be the Enlightenment thinkers in philosophy and the empiricists and positivists in the domains of science, engineering business, politics and the arts represented a fundamental challenge to theological and traditional beliefs by placing the thinking and reasoning individual in the position of authority and of creativity once the exclusive domain of God.

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! "Have courage to use your own understanding!"--that is the motto of enlightenment.

(Kant, ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?' (1784)

Essentially Kant asked: what can be known, what can we do and what can we hope for? Only by having the bravery to challenge the prevailing metaphysics and ontologies could the Enlightenment project in terms of knowledge, action and a hoped for way of life and world be realised.

Nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters. But on all sides I hear: "Do not argue!" The officer says, "Do not argue, drill!" The tax man says, "Do not argue, pay!" The pastor says, "Do not argue, believe!" (Only one ruler in the World says, "Argue as much as you want and about what you want, but obey!") In this we have examples of pervasive restrictions on freedom. But which restriction hinders enlightenment and which does not, but instead actually advances it? I reply: The public use of one's reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among mankind; the private use of reason may, however, often be verynarrowly restricted, without otherwise hindering the progress of enlightenment. By the public use of one's own reason I understand the use that anyone as a scholar makes of reason before the entire literate world. I call the private use of reason that which a person may make in a civic post or office that has been entrusted to him. Now in many affairs conducted in the interests of a community, a certain mechanism is required by means of which some of its members must conduct themselves in an entirely passive manner so that through an artificial unanimity the government may guide them toward public ends, or at least prevent them from destroying such ends. Here one certainly must not argue, instead one must obey. However, insofar as this part of the machine also regards himself as a member of the community as a whole, or even of the world community, and as a consequence addresses the public in the role of a scholar, in the proper sense of that term, he can most certainly argue, without thereby harming the affairs for which as a passive member he is partly responsible. Thus it would be disastrous if an officer on duty who was given a command by his superior were to question the appropriateness or utility of the order. He must obey. But as a scholar he cannot be justly constrained from making comments about errors in military service, or from placing them before the public for its judgment. In this logic, private reason commands obedience, but is subject to criticism by the freedom to use reason in public and is ultimately open to progressive change.

Progress, indeed, is another key theme of the Enlightenment and the constructors of Modernity. With Reason and empirical reflection and evidence it provides the strategy through which to discover and realise an underlying reality. Through it, one can ask questions about the essential nature of reality and through reason discover the structure of reality. The motive for Kant was to distinguish what can be known from what cannot be known: between the thing-in-itself (noumenon) which cannot be known and how its appears to observers (phenomenon) which can, of course, be known.
The revolutionary import of this new metaphysics of reality can be gauged by the ‘revolutions’ that took place in science, industry, politics and society, e.g.,

Along with these was the emergence also of the sciences of mind and society in terms of economics, sociology, psychology and psychiatry. For people living through such changes, the experience could be summed up with the judgement that

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his, real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

(Marx and Engles, Communist Manifesto 1848)

The old verities which had seemed eternal or solid melted under the revolutionary impact of Reason (see, for example Berman 1982, Bauman 2001; Harvey 1989).

Where in previous ages mythological or religious accounts provided a means of understanding the nature of the world and one’s place as an individual in the ‘natural order’ of things, the Enlightenment proposed Reason. If Reason was the underlying truth of Being then the history of the world and people’s actions could be judged (critiqued) according to their progress towards the universal realisation of a fully rational society. For Hegel as for Marx the realisation of this rational society would be the End of History itself. One could say that this would result in what would effectively be totalitarian rule by Reason (c.f., Popper 1966). Or, it could underpin a Republican view of rule by democratically elected ‘governors’ or ‘experts’. Alternatively, one could also make the case that if all people employed their reason to bring into being the End of History, then they would have democratically chosen it because it is the form of society that exactly coincides with their desire for freedom in community with others (c.f. Hardimon 1994). In each case, Reason adopts a deciding role as to what counts as real; indeed, Being and Reason are, in each view, coextensive (that is, the gap between the thing in-itself (its being) and its appearance was erased). Putting it another way, through Reason nature can be mastered. The most prestigious and successful form of this mastery was, initiated by such people as Descartes and Bacon, through the use of geometrical or mathematical procedures (c.f., Husserl 1970) in conjunction with empirical methods.

Some Implications for Projects
Reason enables:

  1. the identification of universal laws from particular appearances; or, the construction of ‘covering laws’ that explain (or connect ‘particulars’ – or variables - together in terms of causal relations) a variety of particular observations (c.f., Hempel 1942).
  2. understanding laws enables the control of nature and its exploitation for human (rational) purposes, thus determining what can be known, what can be done and what can be hoped for
  3. having universal laws or criteria provides a basis for critique

If the above are true, this means that projects can be rationally designed

  1. to analyse and define the essential features of phenomena in order to classify and make an inventory of the ‘things’ (the ontological furniture as it were) that compose reality. With such inventories or taxonomies of the real one is able:
  2. to engineer systems and organisations to produce desired outcomes
  3. to engineer tools, technologies and machines to produce desired outcomes
  4. to engineer human behaviour to produce desired outcomes
  5. to formulate rational laws to govern social, economic and political behaviour

Through the above one can gradually create the conditions for the emergence of the ideal rational society and thus bring about the Hegelian ‘End of History’ (c.f., Kojeve 1981, Fukyama 1992). But could it also be that the Enlightenment project emancipates people only to create and preserve their own prison? Weber, for example saw a rapport between the technologies of reason and the puritan ethic:

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter's view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the "saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment". But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

(Weber 1932, 2001 edition: 123)

Work that was good for the soul, an expression of righteousness aligned to Reason that could produce the social, political and economic technologies of Progress are powerful allies. But what if ‘reason’ can also be the slave of other kinds of non-rational motives or agendas forged under conditions, say of the desire to dominate, of greed, of hatred? That would point to other conceptions of the essential nature of the human being and of society.

The Post-Modern, and other ‘Posts’
If in premodern times all fell under the all seeing eye of God, people were simply wandering at street level seeing only what was within their visual reach, unsure or ignorant of what was round the corner. Only through revelation could they glimpse the underlying realities but never perceive the whole. If Reason could reveal the mysteries of fundamental reality, then it effectively occupied the place of God (‘X’ in the diagram).

(Diagram from Schostak and Schostak 2008)

However, during the Twentieth centuries there was a greater scepticism concerning the powers of Reason. Besides the obvious successes of reason in the form of scientific achievements in physics, chemistry, engineering, and medicine, the Twentieth century saw the rise of totalitarianisms, global warfare, genocides, the self-destructive exploitation of natural resources, and runaway pollution that threatens planetary disaster. Reason was not and perhaps could not be the great master.

If Modernity was about using reason to master nature, post-modernity arises at the very limits of reason. That is to say, it arises in recognition that reason cannot provide a master narrative, a narrative that explains all. Instead of a narrative promoting a steady accumulation of knowledge, there were competing narratives where science developed not by continuous progress but by revolutions as one paradigm replaced another (Kuhn 1970; Feyerabend 1975). In short, instead of a master narrative, Lyotard (1984) proposed that there were only small local narratives. Thus, there could be no central all dominating viewpoint as in ‘X’ in the diagram, only mini-viewpoints that provisionally worked for local circumstances and contexts – rather than Modern, we have now entered the post-Modern. It is a world where reason and its technologies are still employed but without the assurance of mastery, that is, where mastery assures unity, control and certainty – rather, it is a world of risk (c.f., Beck 1992), chance and conflict between a plurality of competing views concerning the real, interests and demands (Foucault 2003).

Mastery through Reason implies a closed system that can be mapped unambiguously onto reality. The experience of post-Modern times has shaken confidence that this can be done. Methodologically a closed system may be said to have a centre, that centre is Reason. However, if there are events that cannot be included in the system or sources that provide motivations for decisions and actions that are outside of Reason (Faith, Desire, Anger, …) then it can be said that the centre no longer holds, there is a de-centring, an ‘out-of-jointness’. Or, it can be said that instead of a closed system, there is an open system (critical realism, cf., Sayer 1993, Archer et al 1998). Or, it can be said that since the world cannot be conceived as a unity, there is a plurality (c.f., Walzer 1985) and thus we need to consider how to engage people in dialogue to create the basis for managing conflicts.

Ontologically (metaphysically?) the issue is whether conflict, chance events, heterogeneity is a fundamental condition of the real (Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard,) that means there can only be the illusion of unifying ideas and whether there is still some way of retrieving a real unifying framework through say rational consensus reached through dialogue (Habermas) or a new unifying myth that can provide the conditions for political action (Badiou, Zizek); or a democratically achieved symbolic framework through which essential conflicts can be continually engaged to produce dynamically changing social configurations to meet changing demands and conditions (Laclau and Mouffe 1985, Mouffe 2005, Schostak 2002, 2006, and Schostak and Schostak 2008).

Where Modernist thought in terms of Unity, homogeneity, clear cut classifications and methods that result in ‘proof’ or ‘certainty’ and ‘truth’ that could be mapped onto the essential underlying realities of the world and social life, the post-modern thinks in terms of plurality, heterogeneity (or radical difference), fuzzy or ambiguous boundaries and transitional spaces, rhetorical strategies to persuade or bring about ‘truth effects’ in contexts that are fundamentally uncertain and undecidable. Instead of being able to ascertain the essential structures of social life as in structuralism (c.f., Levi-Strauss 1969) , there are various forms of post-structuralist thinking where all identities and structures are subject to and open to change and difference as different viewpoints, different events, different possible relationships occur. That is, where the underlying reality was thought of in terms of a fixed structure (like a language, having basic elements that are defined only in terms of their difference from each other and rules of how to combine the basic elements), the ‘real’ is characterised by fluidity so that fixity is achievable or constructed and sustained by force of various kinds (e.g., force of argument, weight of opinion, force of law, police force, military might,….And Reason may be overturned by unconscious drives, by seduction, by fascination, by desire, or by dread, fear, panic ….

Some Implications for Research Projects
Uncertainty/undecidability and the displacement of reason means:

  1. project methodologies need to be designed to be appropriate to the (ontological) nature of the social reality/realities to be researched. For example, if highly controlled experimental conditions – that is, a totally closed system - can be constructed then Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) are appropriate. However, if the focus is an open system, the RCTs are inappropriate – it might be argued that they involve a ‘category mistake’. That is to say, they mistake the category of artificially constructed domains for naturally occurring domains; or, particularly in the social sciences, the domains of inanimate material objects for symbolic objects and processes. RCTs are appropriate in closed systems not open massively complex systems.
  2. projects may be designed to focus on those voices or aspects of social life that are unheard, marginalised, silenced, overlooked, rejected or repressed by rational or at least powerful and dominant/dominating organisations/institutions. The method involves including the excluded.
  3. projects may be designed to reveal the complexities of social life and the strategies that are employed to ‘make sense’ and achieve desired outcomes in a context of uncertainty or undecidability (since perfect knowledge is not possible in dynamic open systems)
  4. issues of how order is maintained and people included, excluded, become key foci for research into social processes and contexts. Project methodologies need to be constructed to enable the exploration and ‘deconstruction’ of the key organising concepts underpinning order. For example:

    a. what concepts are considered to be natural, given, ‘brute facts’ of reality? Can they be historically shown to have developed and changed over time? If so, then they have been historically constructed rather than indicating an essential unchanging ‘nature’ of the underlying structure of reality. Have particular concepts of the ‘ral’ nature of people and the world been associated with particular elite groups, classes, social and political structures?
    b. what are the mechanisms, structures, processes employed to ‘govern’ people?
    c. how do people become ‘subjects’ or adopt particular ‘subject positions’ in social contexts?
    d. how are identities constructed and maintained?
    e. what/who is excluded from ‘society’, ‘communities’ public spaces for decision making, etc?
    f. what is rendered ‘invisible’ ‘inaudible’ by the forms and networks of power in societies and their institutions, organisations, communities,….?

What are the metaphysical presuppositions that inhibit change?
reflection enabling plays of compare and contrast ….

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