Inherent philosophical commitments, as we have learned, are not necessarily bad things to have. Although no one methodology or theory is the ‘right’ one, it can surely be right for us, for a particular project. In order to understand and then properly employ these methodologies, we must have a firm grasp on what it is we want to explore—what do we know, what don’t we know, and how? This is where ontology enters. Put simply, ontology is the study of being, but also the examination of our beliefs about the nature of reality. Ontology is far more metacognitive than epistemology, its existential cousin, which asks how we come to have those ontological conceptualizations about the nature of reality.
Methodology, on the other hand, is a systematic collection of decisions about how research will be conducted and analyzed. A method is one choice; the methodology is the bundle of choices tied together. Within the schools of ontology and epistemology lie several different approaches to research—at times, vastly differing, at others, nearly indistinguishable—each of which has a range of methodologies emblematic of those approaches. For example, underneath the thought school of epistemology lies the neo-positivist approach to research, whose methodologies typically entail statistical analysis and large sets of data.
I in no way can be an objective observer of the social world. Humans tend to believe they are exceptionally good at self-removal and critical observation; this is merely self-deceiving. The opinions we are inclined to form, the observations we make (versus those which go entirely unnoticed), and perhaps even the reason for selecting the methodology at large are all results of our particular enculturation, largely immutable and often invisible to the self. This has reverberating effects on social science research, which is why it is particularly valuable to employ a large range of diverse pre-existing scholarship when crafting original research. These previous opinions—each of them a result of that particular researcher’s environment, historical moment, and inherent assumptions—can provide a sort of buffer to my own opinions and assumptions, creating a smorgasbord of different backgrounds to draw from. It is not a perfect approach—using a wide range of others’ study to make my own less personal and subjective—but it is certainly a reasonable one.
Jonathan Fox did just this. He did not seek to build his own tools of measurement based on what he thought would be adequate; he instead employed the already-existing Hafner-Burton scale. Whether or not this was the best scale for measuring the extent of state repression is another matter altogether—what matters here is that he buffered his own biases and assumptions by using another researcher’s tools.
David Edelstein, on the other hand, is an example of inherent political assumption as a driver of research. It is implicit that his work is driven by his hesitation towards US policy in Iraq at the time, and that his ulterior goals was to motivate others to heed similar caution. To be certain, his work is plenty buffered by objective historical facts (he spends the first several pages providing exposition for why this research is important regardless of the contemporary situation abroad), but here it is clear that sometimes what motivates us to undertake such projects in the first place are our own opinions.
The list of things we can make valid knowledge claims about is comically short. Even when presenting heavily-researched social phenomena, researchers are required to make all sorts of qualifications and caveats, because they recognize that their work is narrowed by the limits of time and space (although this, in itself, is another one of my fundamental assumptions—that not all knowledge can transcend time). Even when we see things with our own eyes, we see them as we are, not as they are. It is, to be sure, still worth it to make these knowledge claims, because hearing them from other people enables us to examine what might be missing from our own.