Why does ontology matter in my research?

Why does ontology matter? Well; what is ontology? If we draw on the Oxford dictionary, the meaning is “the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being” (oxforddictionaries.com..ontology, 2016). The definition for ontology shows us that this is a branch of philosophy that deals with the “first principles of things” (oxforddictionaries.com..metaphysics, 2016). In that case, an ontological perspective is really looking at the core of where things are defined or derived from, but on first look does not appear practical in any day to day sense.

The second word that is often found alongside ontology is epistemology. In the case of epistemology, the definition extends to the methods, validity and scope of the theory of knowledges (oxforddictionaries.com..epistemology, 2016). In a sense, this philosophical perspective appears more practical, given the consideration of and importance placed on methods.

In my earlier research, I struggled with where my research might take me philosophically and what the differences are between a large number of sometimes similar sounding philosophies. At the time of confirmation of my project which will involve extensive interviewing over an extended period of time, my research was proposed to be located in the post positivist philosophical area, which accepts that there is an objective truth (the realm of positivism) but that this truth is difficult to identify due to the impact of the researcher on the observation (the post in post positivism). At the same time, I was struggling with how the research would allow me to fully investigate the truths as understood by the participants in their descriptions of their experiences. That type of research can be described by the interpretivist view which assumes knowledge to be constructed by the actor “who is experiencing, processing and labelling the reality” (Ponterotto, 2005). The contrast between these two perspectives can be seen clearly, given that the positivist position requires knowledge confirmed by the senses, whereas the interpretivist position relies on subjective meaning as informing the research or understanding (Bryman, 2012). My impression was and is that neither position would be fully effective for my project.

Due to subsequent investigations I became aware of semiotics, or the study and interpretation of signs as a means of meaning making through the work of Stables and Gough (2006), which in turn spurred my consideration of semiotics and the interpretation of signs and signals as a methodology for my project. On further investigation, it became clear that semiotics sits within the field of pragmatism (Hookway, 2013). Therefore, my investigations took on a new direction.

At this stage in my research, my philosophical stance has turned to a pragmatic perspective or pragmatism, that appears to provide what is needed for the more practical implications of my research and the area that the research is planned to investigate (adult learning choice making); without being constricted by issues of philosophical purity. It is expected that the scope allowed by the philosophy of pragmatism and the practical use of semiotics will provide a framework that will lead to contributions to research appropriate for the aims and research questions proposed.

An early understanding of the ontological perspective of my project is important, in that it ensures consistency in approach as well as providing access to methodology and methods that may not be appropriate for other ontologies. In my case, the use of semiotics is afforded by pragmatism. The next step is to delve deeper in to what that means for me and my project.

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