Still not fluent with the ontological (and others) but hopefully gaining ground

The phd is taking shape. The biggest challenge is time. Progress is slow because of the vastness of the project versus scarcity of hours. Each week I give up sleep and half my weekend.  At the CERD Awayday 60 hour weeks were reported and accepted as normal. It shouldn’t be but it is. You can’t support, develop, meet, teach and commute without overspill.  thankfully, doing a PhD is beneficial. I’m good at positive thinking and I love words but suspect if there were more time to immerse myself in texts I’d progress faster.

I’m still not fluent with matters ontological and epistemological. I don’t feel comfortable with the jargon. What I feel/believe to be true (ontology?) and my understanding of the nature of knowledge (epistemology?) is developing but I haven’t read enough. I don’t know what is enough. There’s been some progress though. I’ve positioned myself in the post-modern with regard to O and E. From this side, the dark side for the positivists, meaning is both contextual and contested. The inside interests me. Personhood is both external and internal facing. Grant me the serenity to know the difference between what I can and can’t change – and all that.  I value experiential learning as the ground for scaffolding knowledge construction and see the process of critical reflection is the catalyst. Adopting an essentialist objectivist standpoint wouldn’t work for me.

One valuable aspects of doctoral research is the opportunity to position yourself; locate your ‘being-in-the-world’.  It’s a bit like DIY psychoanalysis. Or the messages on the Brayford Pool Bridge. Where have you been. Where are you going. The answers are more complex than you might think. I’m interested in the digital identity. How online text – anything from a tweet to a tome – is interpreted by the reader. Barthes message in The Author is Dead, reinvented as reader-reception theory by Stuart Hall, offer useful starting points for considering the ‘presentation of self’ online. Virtual reality is the ultimate replication of the real; the simulation. The internet epitomises the postmodern condition.

Regarding ‘being’ I’m still not entirely sure where I am. Which could be expected from someone dabbling in postmodernism. Identity contains multiple contradictions. Is open ended and unfinished. We’re all products of our background and location with little certainty about what lies ahead. Berger and Luckman write about social reality hanging on a thread which can be cut. Most people have experience of thread cutting.  I think this is what open ended-ness refers to. We can’t write the future. Or rewrite the past. We are what we are. Postmodernist theory is an attempt to capture the late 20th century human in an age of the machine and information overload.

Mike says I need to look at the slippage from modern to postmodern. Take care not to characterise them as all of one and none of the other. This is useful advice. Marshall Berman in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air insists the world remains a modern one; ‘We might even say that to be fully modern is be anti-modern’ (1981: 14). Anti-modern or post-modern, I need take ownership of my social reality.

Weltanschauungs or world perceptions

I really need to move on to my data collection. The reading will continue but I must start the pilot interviews. My action research methodology is participatory and I need these conversations to help construct the research process.

It’s been a struggle to locate myself. My worldview is a bit blurred. I hold multiple beliefs and don’t want to lie. But a phd has to have one of these Weltanschauungs or perceptions of the world so I’ve settled for a constructivist ontology – an interpretative rather than a positivist approach to the question of what constitutes social reality. I agree with Berger and Luckman’s 1967 treatise on the sociology of knowledge:  the Social Construction of Reality suggests social reality is produced and can be perceived in multiple ways. This applies to my epistemic position on the nature of knowledge which I would suggest is also socially constructed. How we understand and explain what we know or come to know rarely happens in isolation. It is more often a mediated process requiring communication and reinforcement (see Vygotsky’s Sociohistorical Learning Theory or Sociocultural theory and Zone of Proximal Development).

It terms of understanding the control mechanisms which shape social reality, I find Foucault useful for his work on coercive power structures in particular its historical origins and diffuse, embodied and thereby constructed nature. It’s a much debated approach but remains valuable. Foucault described power as discursive and flexible saying ‘We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’.  In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.  The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production’ (Foucault 1991: 194).

A taxonomy of world views is nothing new but it’s helpful to compare the key differences between positivist and interpretivist world views, and everyone constructs or plagiarises one. I made this myself but its almost impossible to be original.

Natural science Social science
positivist interpretivist
objective subjective
value free Value laden
ways of seeing are built on universal principles and facts Ways of seeing are personal and culturally/historically situated
The world can be known, measured and explained The world is constructed from social agency

So far this post hardly does credit to the amount of reading I’ve done but at least it locates me on the subjective side. Neither does it reflect the impact of the internet on our processes of knowing and understanding – which in themselves may need to be re-defined. I wonder what Vygotsky would say. A theory of sociovirtual learning?

Also, I haven’t said anything about disempowerment, marginalisation or discrimination.  I haven’t mentioned technology. I need a paradigm of inquiry which critiques the role of technology in higher education through examination of the social relations between staff and their tools for virtual learning.  Something which involves the agency of individuals to subvert the massification of education and resist an uncritical acceptance of the automation of teaching. The P word will be in there somewhere – sshhhh….it’s p for postmodern.

So the next step is to get critical.

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.