Research Portfolio Post #3: Philosophical Wagers

Establishing an understanding of how to do research within the confines of the broad research community is an important foundation I need to develop before I begin my own research pursuits, and the concepts of ontology and methodology are an integral part of building up that foundation. This concept was at first confusing to me, but I really started to understand ontologies importance to the research field when Abbot outlined the “Debates about Social Ontology.”1 Seeing the dichotomous relationship between ontological concepts helped me to realize that ontology is the principle that describes how the observer views and knows the subjects he is researching. The idea that there are opposite ways to approach the understanding of a subject leads me to be aware of the portion of the spectrum that I fall on between the ontological debates. When researching a topic, I need to be aware that there is more than one way to understand something.

Similarly, understanding methodology is important when developing my research. Methodology is the systematic formation of the techniques used to categorize data in a format that can be analyzed by the researcher. There a multiplicity of ways to approach the setup of a methodology, and each way will lead me to a different way to explain my research query, but no one method is more meritorious than another. Some methods may be more appropriate than another, but properly constructed methods will lead the researcher to credible results.

I hold that with the proper methods, I can objectively observe the social world. I have not neglected the notion that I am a part of the social world and I have aided in producing the reality of the social world, but when researching, I aim to remove myself from these confines as completely as I can. I concede that I cannot completely separate myself, but the ultimate goal when setting up my methods and understanding my results, is to remove myself from the social world, in order to look at my data objectively. Based off my view, I may be more inclined to choose a small-N analysis methodological approach based on where I have situated myself. According to Abbott, small-N analysis situates itself “to square the methodological circle by combining situated and transcendent knowledge.”2 Small-N analysis’ approach is in accordance with my outlook on the debate between objectivity and subjectivity. However, I am aware of the other method’s merits and I am open to whichever method leads me to uncover the puzzle of my research.

I can make valid knowledge claims about anything I can collect data on. There are many different approaches to collecting data. For example, in Fox’s article, he takes a neo-postivist approach for collecting data on official support and legislation of religion to create knowledge on state repression. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the interpretivist, Weeden, immerses herself in data regarding Syrian culture to make a knowledge claim on the way symbols and power are used in this state’s regime. Both authors take different approaches to operationalizing and analyzing, but both systematically collect data within their chosen method by their chosen ontology in order to male valid knowledge claims.

1Andrew Abott, Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004, 52-54.

2 Ibid., 58.

3 Jonathan Fox, “State Religion and State Repression,” in The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Security, ed. Chris Seiple, Dennis R. Hoover, and Pauletta Otis, London: Routledge, 2012 (pp. 182-192).

4Lisa Wedeen, “Acting ‘As If’: Symbolic Politics and Social Control in Syria,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 40, no. 3 (July 1998): 503-523.


  1. Avatar
    ag6944a September 16, 2018

    Hannah, I really like how you clearly acknowledge that neither interpretivism or neo-positivism is better than the other. I think having an open mind on which route to go with your research will allow your research to take an interesting and original shape.
    That said, I think it is interesting that you say you lean towards a more neo-positivist belief that we can objectively observe the social world but concede that you cannot completely separate yourself from the social world. Thus, I wonder if you thus are actually leaning towards a more interpretivist approach, since, if you agree we cannot completely separate ourselves from the social world, how can we be entirely objective about it? Hopefully that makes sense, I am really interesting to see how you progress in your research!

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    David September 18, 2018

    Your point about how objectivity should at least be the goal, even if it is exceedingly difficult to attain, is well taken. It reminds me a bit of Jordan’s post on his philosophical wagers, in which he concedes the postmodernist notion that inherent biases make every event infinitely interpretable, but counters that not every interpretation is useful. If you two have a chance, it might be worth talking with each other about how your research might take shape since your ontological perspectives appear to be similarly informed. My only question would be about how you intend to marry your thoughts on valid knowledge claims with your ontology. The neopositivist aim of objectivity usually conflicts with the interpretivist “data” of symbolic meaning and thick context. Although I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to subscribe to a neopositivist paradigm while placing equal value on interpretivist data, it might be worth unpacking that thought process a bit more. Looking forward to seeing how this translates into your project!

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    Dr. Boesenecker September 25, 2018

    A good post, Hannah, and a good discussion here overall. Remember to be a bit careful with terminology (the idea of operationalizing a variable only makes sense in the neopositivist world, so Wedeen doesn’t actually do any “operationalization” at all!). When you state “I can make valid knowledge claims about anything I can collect data on” I would push you to think a bit more about what you mean by that. Can you collect data on phenomena that are not directly observable, for instance? How would you do that?

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