Rolling the Philosophical Dice

  • The concept of ontology is the fundamental assumption one makes about reality. Literally, it is the study of what exists. What follows from this is a logical approach to conducting research. For instance, one with a realist ontology assumes that “the things and qualities we encounter in social reality are enduring phenomena…” [1]With this realist a priori structure defined, the next step is measuring these enduring phenomena. If they exist abstractly, in the way realists propose, it ought to be possible to measure them using empirical methods, better known as positivism. Conversely, one could endorse a constructionist ontology which assumes that things and qualities in the social world are “simply produced (or reproduced) in social interaction as need be.”[2] The logical extension of this ontology is to explore these social interactions by employing an interpretivist methodology, using tools like ethnographies. Ultimately, ontology and methodology are closely linked. An ontology is an axiom used to gain stable footing in a worldview before branching out and conducting research using methodological approaches.
  • To be frank, I do not think it is worth getting too hung up on this question of objectivity. All research is, to varying extents, reflective of the researcher’s biases. Conducting research requires making choices and these choices can be questioned and critiqued endlessly. Ultimately, all a researcher can do (and ought to do) is strive toward objectivity and document his or her thought process in a maximally transparent manner, as to provide other researchers the tools to assess the validity of the research. In the first discussion of our class, we briefly touched on postmodernism and subjectivism. In short, I will concede that postmodernism is right in that there is indeed a problem of infinite interpretations and the undeniable role of preference and bias that fuels these interpretations. However, I do not think that there is an infinite number of useful interpretations of the world, where utility is measured by how well the interpretation brings you toward a defined virtue. In this sense, it seems that I am in the pragmatist camp. The implications of these beliefs seem to place me in the realist and positivist paradigms while also allowing for some interpretive critiques. I think that while theoretically knowledge could be transcendental (and certainly is if we assume that everything is simply interactions between atoms), this may be impossible to materialize within the domain of social sciences, where one cannot perform an experiment as a physicist would. I think that knowledge is situated within a specific context, but relatively broad contexts that may be renegotiated if necessary.
  • I do not think that the subject or thing defines its potential for research and valid knowledge claims. Rather, it is the process used to explore the social world. The social world is an expansive one where no single ontological or methodological perspective is necessarily right. We have different tools and heuristics that allow us to generate knowledge on the many different situations we are sure to encounter.

[1] 46. Abbott, Andrew Delano. Methods of Discovery Heuristics for the Social Sciences. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.

[2] Ibid.

3 thoughts on “Rolling the Philosophical Dice

  1. Jordan,
    You have presented a number of interesting points. I found your perspective on objectivity particularly interesting. I agree that it is impossible to be completely objective, but that each individual should attempt to remain transparent and aware of their own personal biases. You also seem to have a firm grasp on your own beliefs surrounding these points and how they relate not only to international relations research, but beyond that as well. However, I would like to suggest that while yes, it is important to consider other factors beyond objectivity, that there is a definite value in the debate and discussion. It can be linked back to some of the larger ideas and concepts that define international relations theory, and without a certain level of understanding about how we and others view this topic, it can lead to confusion, miscommunication and flaws in the validity of research. While it does seem as though you have considered your position on this topic, which is undeniably beneficial, I would caution against viewing the continuing nature of the overall discussion as less important because it informs other areas of international relations research and even other types of research as well. On a different note, I am curious as to how you believe that your particular viewpoint will impact the nature and form of your research as you move forward.

  2. Jordan,
    I can definitely appreciate your position in the “pragmatist camp,” but even as a (tentative) fellow neopositivist, I’d be careful about being too dismissive of multiplicity of meanings. You mention the postmodernist idea that symbols can have infinite interpretations and counter that not all interpretations are useful, but I think it’s also important to remember that just because not every interpretation is useful doesn’t mean that only one can be useful. One can still reject the idea of infinite truths while accepting the idea of multiple. On another note, I’m intrigued by your assertion regarding the specificity of context and the “renegotiation” of broader ones. I know there was a word limit for the assignment, but I’d definitely be interested in hearing more of your thoughts on that sometime. Lastly (and then I’m done), your research about the Century of Humiliation in China seems to me at least to lend itself more easily to an interpretivist ontological perspective than a neopositivist one. How do you think you can reconcile your research topic with your ontological beliefs outlined here? Looking forward to chatting sometime.

  3. You have a good discussion here, Jordan, along with some good comments and questions from your classmates. I would caution against being too dismissive of the quesiton of objectivity though, not least because (as we’ve discussed in class) this is *not* just a question of — or the same as — the idea of “bias.” Bias itself is a concept that *only* makes sense in the neopositivist world where there is the assumption of an actual, separately existing truth against which we can test our explanations. Assumptions is probably a more accurate term to use in these discussions overall, not least because “bias” implies some sort of deliberate slant, whereas our ontological and epistemological assumptions are more subconscious and involuntary (and certain methodological tools in the neopositivist world do allow for the researcher to be aware of, and control for, potential biases in the proper understanding of the term bias). I’d also push you to think a bit more about the final part of the prompt, and your answer: “I do not think that the subject or thing defines its potential for research and valid knowledge claims. Rather, it is the process used to explore the social world. The social world is an expansive one where no single ontological or methodological perspective is necessarily right.” This prompt is really an *epistemological* question, not an ontological or methodological one. There is in fact a debate in the philosophy of science as to whether unobservable things are ultimately knowable as empirical phenomenon or not. How would you fall on this debate?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *