Part 2 Ontology – Getting Relevant

Part 2 Ontology – Getting relevant

What’s the point of ontology? Who cares? It surprised me that when looking at the ontological question as part of research for my thesis, it wasn’t a big deal in research terms. Method seemed to be more important. But it seemed important to me to open up the assumptions about ‘gold standard’ positivist research and the about research into the realities of the social world. As it turned out, when I had my viva, my examiners raised some queries about the amount of writing I had done on ontology. For my final presentation I cut out most of the detailed investigation of the ontological question – after all I wanted my thesis accepted and to stand up for my floppy hat!


And yet……. the heated argument that’s going on in the blogosphere between the attacking positivists and the others ( I include my self as an other) is going round in circles because the ontological question is not being raised properly. This circular argument is getting boring because there’s no possibility of agreement or even compromise when the opposing sides are operating in different realities. The ontology of positivism is so well-established that the loud and bullying bloggers who claim that everything else is rubbish apparently don’t know that cause-effect science is only one way of looking at the world. Or if they do they’re being disingenuous since they know their gang don’t seem to know one science from another.

So what’s to be done? If you’ve got this far, I would probably agree with you that the detailed discussion of ontology, epistemology and the relationship between the two might be the job of academics in universities. But there is a need to pursue this as ‘flipped’ academics outside institutions and inquirers after truths, because the rules governing cause-effect science are not universal, were never meant to be, and are giving rise to some peculiar artefacts. Not least of these is the attempt to use positivist science to investigate complex, multi-layered, non-cause/effect realities rather than undertaking a search for other ontologies, such as that of critical realism which can describe/explain social realities.

(see ‘The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking: The Critical Positivity Ratio’ Brown N Sokal A and Friedman H American Psychologist 68 (2013) for a clear example of misapplication).

What comes out of this, if you can accept that social reality might be different from glasses-and-beer reality, is the possibility of the people in the snug at the ‘Rose Valley’, just walking out and going to the ‘Cottage’ down the road. Just when you were about to get going with your sociological investigation.

Now, I’d had some hints about this problem when I was researching fish reproduction; in my laboratory Day-book sometimes I’d write ‘Healthy but dead’ when I found a deceased fish during my morning check, still with its clear eyes and metallic sheen, but no life. As biologists we didn’t talk about this much, that our experimental subjects could effectively leave the lab. In pharmaceutical safety testing we had means of covering it up – we’d run experimental ‘extras’ to take the place of the fallen and maintain sample sizes.

However, with people involved, this propensity to walk out for one reason or another is real and an important part of social reality – agency – the ability to act independently. If you can’t adjust the sampling procedures then you’re faced with the fact that you can only make uncertain claims that are located in a particular situation. And if generalisation, the product of positivist research, isn’t the intended outcome of sociological research then it’s pretty pointless to claim that this type of research is rubbish because it doesn’t produce generalisation.

And I don’t want to get involved in a pointless and tiring struggle with people who could and might know better.

If agency is a factor in producing and influencing social reality, then there are new possibilities opened up for discussion. I’m interested in moving away from the problem-focused approach that is the method of positivist science, because it seems impossible to critique it without getting entangled. Glassware doesn’t have agency and surrounding it with problems makes no difference to the outcomes of investigation. But when we take this approach in our conversations with other people, the fact that we focus on problems does effect the outcome of the conversation. People do feel hurt when they’re attacked by a positivist blogger who won’t engage in a reasoned discussion about reality. Students feel diminished when they’re attacked for making mistakes in their learning about themselves and how to be, isolated or detained or even socially excluded by problem-focused positivists who are making an ontological error. On the other hand people are energised by focusing on solutions, moving their lives onward to where problems have disappeared, doing more of what is already working to bring them their best life. Their agency is engaged in making positive changes, to reach towards their best hopes – people of all ages and in all situations.

Here’s my proposal. Let’s blog about what works, what is hopeful, what we’re hoping for in the whole field of learning, behaviour, schooling, professional development, science. Let’s take a critical position, challenge our own assumptions as we go along, a healthy routine. And what should we do about those positivists?

Just wait. Sometimes doing nothing is the best doing.



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