Part 1 Ontology – Getting Real

Part 1 Ontology – Getting real


The start

When I was ten I spent every Saturday outdoors at Bullocks Farm in Canfield, Essex. It was a typical mixed farm; small fields with thick hedges, woods, pigs and chickens, potatoes, wheat, barley, field beans and sugar beet. There were old ponds and a big orchard with all kinds of apples, pears and plums. The farmhouse had heavy black beams and a chestnut tree in the garden. I could go anywhere and explore everything all on my own. I collected the display feathers of birds and put them in the yellow cover of a school exercise book I’d torn apart. I found it a few years ago, labelled in my childish handwriting: teal, mallard, jay, pheasant, English and French partridge, bright feathers stuck in with cello-tape.

I took the eleven plus when I was ten and went to Grammar school when I was eleven. I found out that I wasn’t going to be allowed to study science until I got to be thirteen. I remember gazing out of the window of the Latin room, where Wilf Sing made us sit in isolated desks and grind away at amo-amas-amat, through the windows of the science labs, with their tall taps and high benches and etched glass reagent bottles. I never reached thirteen there. At my next school I was allowed to do science and ‘A’ levels in Physics, Chemistry, Zoology and Botany; with ‘O’ level Economics and Maths for Physics. I dropped Physics and made a reasonably poor attempt to pass the others. I took them again at Tottenham Technical College and did a bit better.

I went to work at Allen and Hanbury’s in Ware as a lab assistant in the Teratology section of the Reproductive Studies Department. The Department head was Professor at the new Brunel University and suggested I apply there to do a B.Tech. Degree, a new invention. I went to Brunel the next year but didn’t like the course and moved on to a University of London B.Sc. at Sir John Cass College within the square mile of the City of London. I graduated with a Joint Honours degree in Botany and Zoology in 1972. I stayed on for two years researching the reproduction of roach, carp and tench. I continued my fish research with a water authority for a year, independant consultancy and another year of research with a commercial consultancy firm. I had a change of scientific direction and worked as a team leader for a contract pharmaceutical company for a couple of years.

I changed direction when my first son was born in 1980. For the next thirteen years, with my little family I ran our own field studies centre and a small farm in Pembrokeshire. But I kept in with science running field studies courses for ‘A’ level and undergraduate students and then training as a secondary phase science teacher in 1993 at Aberystwyth.

In 1995 I started an Open University Masters Degree in Education. It was made up of three modules over three years. I studied Diversity in Curricula, Science Education and Educational Research Methods. In 1998, having nearly completed my M.A. I started my Ph.D. in the School of Education at the University of East Anglia.

My supervisor was Professor Ivor Goodson, a leading light in life story and life history research and for me the perfect match. I was fifty when I started my Ph.D.

I had an idea of what I wanted to do and of the methodological range in educational research. I talked to Ivor about what might be possible and what to read. In conversation he raised the subject of ontology.

The surprise

I’d been in and around science for half a century and ontology was something I’d not thought about. I may have heard the word but what was he talking about? ‘Ontology and epistemology – what your research stands on’.

What did it mean? In the science I’d been involved with for so long the question of what is real, the ontological question, is sufficiently settled that there’s no need to ask it. ‘We scientists know what’s real and what’s not, we’ve got ways of confirming it and we know what we’re doing.’ Science deals with real things, chemicals, DNA, levers, birds and fish, rockets and reactions. Is ontology something you can ask questions about? I soon found out.

‘The Rose Valley’

‘The Rose Valley’, Norwich. Draught beer and crisps, a snooker table, pickled eggs. Tim and me, in the pub for a chat. One of our regular meetings when we’d talk about what we were doing, him an infant teacher and philosopher and me a behaviour support and science teacher, well into my Ph.D.

I was looking into the ontological question, reading Danermark et al. ‘Explaining society’, on critical realism and talked to Tim about it. He had a good think, shook his head and told me he didn’t get it.

I tried again, like this;

“We’re in this pub. It’s a pub. Some things are fixed, you can touch them – beer, glass, table. OK so at an atomic level the glass and the table are intermingled at their boundary but generally speaking we treat them as real, discrete things. When we ask for another glass of beer we’ll get something pretty much the same as we got this time. And the person we ask will have the same idea about beer in a glass, whether we ask him now, in an hour or the next time we come in here. And we’ll put it on the table.

There are a lot of people here in the ‘Rose’ too. It’s a pub. They’re talking and laughing and listening and thinking and imagining. Interacting or not. There’s all this social stuff going on that we’re part of. But there’s nothing solid, nothing you can touch and it’s in a state of permanent flux. Come in next time and it’ll all be different.

So if we wanted to find out about ‘The Rose’ can only look at the glasses, the tables, the real physical, touchable, measurable things in here? Is the social thing that is ‘The Rose’ real or do we have say we can’t look into it because it’s a state of permanent change? Do we need a different kind of science based in a different reality, when we’re trying to explain things you can’t touch or feel, the social world that is as important as the glasses and tables in making up the ‘The Rose Valley’? Positivist science has two layered, it’s either/or science, cause/effect with the mechanisms causing effects open to investigation. Critical realism is has three layers, the real, where social mechanisms operate out of sight, the actual where the mechanisms have their effect, singly or in combination and the empirical – where we see things happen. It’s both/and science, where cause and effect are separated, it’s tentative, it’s descriptive and contextual.”

Whatever ‘The Rose’ it was it’s gone. It’s had a name change and now it’s a restaurant.

But Tim had got it and we talked some more.





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