Ontological problems are research problems

Ontological problems are research problems

Ontology (‘what is’) is a topic students often have difficulty grappling with in their work. It tends to end up being a set of buzzwords that people lay fealty to (interpretivist! Social constructionist!) and generalist statements about society being ever changing and such. It should be a set of thinking tools that should help you work through the research problem you are examining. Let’s start by asking why we care about this dimension, and what it means. Ontology has two aspects. First, it is the set of ground truths that you take as elemental to your study which limit how you can study it. Second it is a set of disputes about the nature of social reality and evidence about it which both affect your research and that can be studied as part of it.

To illustrate both, here are some competing ontological statements:

  1. What we call society is just the observed outcome of social interaction.
  2. People’s identities are intersectional
  3. IQ is destiny

Each statement claims a ground truth about an element of social life which is fundamental to it. Each is structured something like ‘before we consider anything, we have to consider this’. Before talking about education outcomes, we have to consider that children enter the education system with a set of capacities measured by IQ, which shape outcomes far down the line. Before examining how people group themselves into functioning units we need to see how they create boundaries through interaction. Before considering experience we must understand position.

How are research problems produced from these statements? Consider what might falsify each of these statements. For example, if you studied intersectionality and found that class position was dominant. Or that sex mattered in a way that was fundamentally different from other identity categories.

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. What tangible entities shape human life but are independent of it?
  2. How do human categories map onto naturally occurring taxonomies?
  3. What purpose do cultural categories serve?
  4. Are there natural laws in social life?

The best way to understand ontology as a concept is through tracking disagreements in your field. Here is one: at the moment medical startups are seeking to develop psychedelic treatments that do not have psychedelic effects. This is part of legitimating the treatment as a medicine. But many people in the psychedelic community do not see the positive effects as separable from the psychedelic experience and see this is a questionable, somewhat hostile move. You cannot alter your state without altering your state. The same disagreement played out over cannabis’ analgesic properties. Can you produce a drug that separates out its intoxicant effect? Is it the same drug, and the same experience? These are ontological question. Questions about what the object is, fundamentally.

Another example, which is about how people position themselves in relation to natural entities. People say ‘follow the science’ until the science disagrees on something they care about. Then they question the science. ‘The science’ is treated as some unified final court of appeal about whatever the issue is. When they do not like what the science is saying, they immediately seek to discredit it, pointing to various epistemological limitations and biases. Its ontological status changes from a bias free revealed truth to a politicised, human shaped process which can be questioned. Is one true and one false?

This takes us from ontology to epistemology, which asks where knowledge about the world derives its authority from. In the above case, the source of authority is political expediency. In other places it is traditional authority, or ‘it’s aye been that way’. The quality these have is there is something that refuses to be questioned.


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