ontology and epistemology – like trees in the woods

There’s no getting away from it. I have to get philosophical.

Ontology and epistemology go together. You can’t have one without the other. Ontology is about reality; it refers to the subject of existence or the nature of the world. All the heavy stuff!

Epistemology is how your ontology is understood. This is knowledge itself; what constitutes knowledge and how new knowledge is created. The good thing about a phd is this can be personal; no one insists on a single answer – or at least they shouldn’t. The idea is you find your own, a bit like deciding on a religion but instead of a traditional deity, it’s the academic philosophers who adopt the role of defining existence. The trouble is there’s so many of them and they all have different ideas.

The starting positions are interpretivist or positivist. Interpretivism privileges individual ways of being in the world while  positivism can be seen as more of a mass market approach. Our choice becomes our theoretical perspective. This duality is a simplification. There are cross overs. When Edward Bernays adopted his Uncle Freud’s understanding of individual psyche to create and promote mass consumerism – using psychoanalytic techniques to persuade people to respond to want rather than need – he blurred the lines between positivist and interpretative approaches.  Bernays created propaganda; the science of persuading individuals to behave as a single entity. The nature of reality can be complex.

To capture ontology and epistemology on the page we choose a  research methodology. Here is another duality – the qualitative and quantitative debate. Our methodology is informed by our theoretical perspective. Now it starts to get heavy because this is where philosophy has complicated the available alternatives. It’s no wonder the ancient greeks were so sure of themselves; they simply had less choice. The enlightenment philosophers have a lot to answer for.

It’s not enough to rely on instinct or intuition with regard to the nature of existence; you have to back it up too. I can’t go into a viva and say my allotment proves to me the existence of something beyond the power of science to recreate. When people challenge my chosen theoretical perspective, I have to be able to counter it with…… what? More theory?

If my perspective is theoretical then ultimately there are no correct answers. For every possible theory, there’re a whole host of people dedicating academic lifetimes to pointing out its weaknesses. At this point it would be easy to adopt a postmodern standpoint – but the danger with postmodernism is it can theorise itself into non-existence. If there’s one thing I ‘m sure of in my phd travels, it’s this. I’m critical about social inequality. Most of all I’m critical about discriminatory structures which create exclusion in a digital society. I’m with Tim Berners Lee. The world wide web and the internet contains the potential for democratisation of access  – through the flexibility of messages carried via digital media to be customised to suit personal  need. Herein lies issues of power. Of possibilities and resistance and the role of higher education to create social futures where digital public spheres are built on inclusive practice.

To get critical I need a solid theoretical perspective. To avoid getting lost in research jargon, which in itself can become a language of exclusion. I need an analogy – a personal, interpretative and qualitative viewpoint.  As always for me, nature has the answer. In the way I understand binary constructions of language – where meaning derives from what an object is not –  as in a tree is a tree because it is not a bush, a shrub or a hedgerow, I turn to the woods. Without individual trees there would be no forests.  I have to find my favourite birch in among the oaks and ash, knowing I love them too. Poplars and cypress  are out. So are the massive sequoias.  I prefer trees offering shade with branches and leaves which rustle in the wind. Then I have to find others who agree and support me in my world view of trees. Here is a starting point. Lets walk in the woods.

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