Ontology and epistemology are two dimensions of research that are easily despatched in a sentence yet which give every research a lifetime of heartache. Ontology is the theory of the nature of reality, and epistemology of the acquisition and evaluation of knowledge about it. Both are facets of understanding. It is the most opaque and the most all encompassing topic which represents a special challenge. Everything, every question of life and the universe, can be divided into questions of ontology or epistemology (fight me). All the tricky questions of research flow from these first principles so it does help to get them in focus if not finalised early on (no pressure). They should help you as a researcher but it is easy to get caught up in unhelpfully broad statements about the social construction of this and that which do not help very much. They often do not connect to the nuts and bolts of being there in the field.
Like learning a language, it’s best to get stuck into real usage and then work back from that. It takes you straight to the point when these questions are really going to start to matter. Say you wish to study theft. What is it? Who is doing it? What kind of data is there about it? You want to move from a common sense understanding where everyone ‘just knows what it is’ to a critical understanding of what we don’t know and refuse to acknowledge about it. Let’s say it is the acquisition of a good or service without the owner’s knowledge, consent or process. The 1968 Theft Act for England and Wales defines it as ‘dishonestly appropriat[ing] property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it; and “thief” and “steal” shall be construed accordingly.’ The Act states ‘It is immaterial whether the appropriation is made with a view to gain, or is made for the thief’s own benefit.’ In doing so it established intent as critical and excludes consideration of purpose. Altruistic taking is still theft. The Act has a lot more to say on these themes.
The first step is to self critique and lay out what this definition excludes and the effects that has. My ‘or process’ handily categorises compulsory purchase orders, taxation, governments taking jewellery from asylum seekers, fees for access to industrial tribunals and courts and many other charges as not theft. If those other acts are wrong, they are wrong in a different way to theft. Another gap in the definition is that it does not say who or what the taking is from, and what control over the item stolen is necessary to establish theft.
The process lays out what aspects of the taxonomy are contingent and which are necessary, and which are socially constructed and which are naturally occurring. Some questions that will lead you in this direction. What needs to exist for this phenomenon to exist? Private property is one. People and organisations who steal stuff are great fans of private property, they just think yours would work much better if it were theirs. Just in case anyone thinks stealing is some radical anti capitalist activity, most looting is carried out by established institutions. Theft is built into many business models and practices, not least theft of people’s time. The time a worker spends pursuing his or her employer for unpaid wages is a kind of theft. What we understand then is that the definition implies claim about human nature and society.
It naturalises private property rights and de-historicises them. For example, let’s say I find that my ancestors once had rights to pick up fallen timber on formerly common land and spend my time going a pickin’ up wood for my stove. The land was subject to enclosure as part of the great land enclosures that happened in England from the 13th Century on and the great loss of common rights that happened mainly during the 18th Century. EP Thomson and other historians have documented this mass theft. Well I cannot pray in aid the fact that these rights were taken from my ancestor and therefore from me without any recognisably just process. The status quo is what matters. What I am doing is theft, m’lud.
That examples gives us an opportunity to create difference, another critical act in the ontology thinking process. Creating difference means laying out what looks like our object of study but is not it. Scavenging, salvaging, beachcombing, dumpster diving and other acts are a bit like theft (taking without consent or knowledge of the owner) but are not. Some are legal in some circumstances, some are governed by other statutes, and some are in that intriguing grey area of ‘not legal or illegal because we didn’t think anyone would bother doing it.’ The law is a great study of process ontology because the legal system has to address these fundamental problems all the time. That also explains our fascination with medicine which has to make similar calls. So with ontology think in a similar way to a barrister. Every judgement is contingent but should refer to past decisions and anticipate future ones.