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Educational Research: Epistemological and Ontological Perspectives Essay

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Updated: Sep 29th, 2019

Introduction

Researchers ground their investigations on reflection of what they perceive and know about the social environment they are in. Epistemology and ontology are some of the fundamental principles that govern how a researcher conducts his or her research. This is because what the researcher knows reveals the persons they are since they act based on their internal world. Depending on the epistemological and ontological influence on the researcher, he or she chooses either a qualitative or quantitative approaches.

The qualitative approaches are ideal in educational research and the researcher’s knowledge and knowledge of others are inseparable to this approach. As a result, the phrase “the researcher you are is the person you are”, comes into light because in accordance with what the researcher knows, he identifies a gap and the most suitable methodology.

Epistemological and Ontological Perspectives

According to Johnson & Duberley (2000), epistemology is the knowledge of, or it is about knowledge. Thayer-Bacon (1996) quotes Kant’s idea that what one knows depends on the external and internal world. As a result, she postulates that it becomes impossible to know the actual truth since what an individual sees as “truth or knowledge” is inherently flawed by a person’s social constructions (Thayer-Bacon, 1996).

This is because individuals are born in a certain times defined by certain events, and in certain places and cultures, and therefore, no one is a neutral being. This has been reinforced by David Hustler (cited in Somekh & Lewin, 2005, p. 18), who states that one cannot enter into a field with a blank mind. There is usually that knowledge and truth that he or she possesses and either wants to oppose or enhance it.

I tend to agree with the above propositions. Each individual possesses a certain kind of knowledge that he or she obtains from the culture and society that he or she lives in, not to mention the experiences encountered. This applies to the statement that the researcher you are is the person you are since the knowledge and truth possessed from the surrounding will influence the researcher’s way of doing things.

A researcher is the person she or he is because he or she tends to delve into fields that ring at the back of his or her mind, or those which he or she has some bit of knowledge about. However, I agree with Popper, who felt that it is hard to gain absolute truth or knowledge.

When research is carried out at a certain time, the knowledge established cannot be regarded as the absolute truth since when the same research is conducted at the same place but at a different time, a different kind of knowledge and truth will be established. Therefore, one cannot say that truth or knowledge is absolute but as a researcher, I try to understand the world that am living in by gaining knowledge that is applicable to that particular time.

Ontology on the other hand involves nature of being, reality, and existence (Freimuth, 2009). It is therefore a field that focuses on knowledge of/about one’s or another’s existence. Sowa later broadened the initial definition associated with Ontology as devised by Aristotle to include the study of categories of existence (Sowa, retrieved 2008). The underpinning of ontology in educational research is comparable to the role of culture in understanding mathematical proof from a teaching-learning perspective (Balacheff, 2002).

Both ontology and epistemology therefore involve the essence of knowledge, truth, and being (Freimuth, 2009). In addition, they both aim at demystifying how educational research is influenced by social realities, or rather what we think social realities are to help in easily understanding the educational research process.

A modified and easier definition of ontology is the study of what individuals knows, or what they think they know. On the other hand, epistemology is the study concerned with how individuals achieve knowledge, or how they think they achieve that knowledge (Freimuth, 2009).

Ways by which a researcher’s knowledge and truth influences his own research are many. This is because a researcher tends to carry out research under a reflective microscope because the researcher’s beliefs about knowledge and truth contaminate the research. Hustler concurs with this rationale because he says that human beings live in a social world that they seek to understand through research and there is need to take into account the interpretation and authorial position of researchers (cited in Somekn & Lewin, 2005, p. 17).

As a way of example, in a study that aims at identifying how socio-economic status influences performance of students, the researcher’s internal and external worlds greatly influence this research. To begin with, the research stems from the researcher’s internal world in that he or she seeks to understand why students perform they way in school based on the truth that he or she possesses regarding student’s performance: epistemological perspective.

The desire to focus on socioeconomic status mainly stems from what the researcher has experienced from the environment: the ontological distinction. Epistemology is further applied to establish how socioeconomic status influences academic performance. According to Kuhn (1963), how a researcher views the world dictates his or her means of researching it thereby describing the person that he or she is.

Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches

Quantitative and qualitative approaches are classified in terms of data used, method of analysis, logic employed, approach to explanation, type of explanation, and for some, in terms of the presumed underlying paradigm. Quantitative approach/method (ology) involves the handling of numerical data and use of statistical methods to analyze this data (Moody, 2002).

The choice of method to use is governed from an ontological standpoint in relation to the research questions (Borrego, Douglas, & Amelink, 2009). The qualitative approach aims at establishing new knowledge, which would otherwise not be gained if an existing theory were imposed on the data. As a result, qualitative approaches are inductive, not deductive as compared with the quantitative approaches.

Quantitative methods are applied when aiming at verifying an already formulated theory. It applies to objective studies, and is referred to as scientific research methods. Experimental research and surveys are good examples of quantitative methodology. These are different from a qualitative approach of educational research because they are independent of the researcher’s experiences and knowledge.

Since the quantitative approach entails a view into the positivist world, a researcher who employs this research approach is perceived to be a positivist in nature. This is very much applicable in the current world where some individuals are very good in numbers while others are good narrators.

Therefore, a positivist researcher will make use of objective observation and take precise measurements for statistical analysis. In educational research, the quantitative approach can be employed in a research that seeks to establish the number of students enrolled from a particular cultural setting.

However, at a glance, one can detect the limitation imposed by this kind of research method (Houlette, et al., 2004). This is usually the main setback while using quantitative approaches in educational research; they tend to limit the complexity of social sciences like education. At times, the tools used are too complex for the students to understand and therefore, the eventual result is inaccurate information.

Qualitative approach on the other hand is referred to as humanistic research methods. This approach entails qualitative/textual data such as that which is obtained from case studies and observations/surveys. Qualitative data analysis methods are used to analyze data (Moody, 2002). The qualitative methods are best used while carrying out research on human behaviour, or related subjective spheres where educational research is part (Richards, 2003).

Since as earlier stated, the approach to be used by a researcher is dependent on his or her way of understanding reality: ontology. Educational research is a social science that seeks to understand the natural world where people live thus employs the interpretive paradigm. Therefore, educational researchers employing qualitative approaches to research can be described as interpretivists.

The qualitative approach is rather friendly because of the available variety techniques befitting to different situations, and individuals. The qualitative approaches tend to capture the detailed and comprehensive world of social sciences thus, the most ideal for educational research. In addition, it allows the students to give their views in a natural form without alteration thereby; the researcher obtains first-hand information.

The two approaches however are preferred by some researchers. Such researchers are versatile, a phenomenon that strongly faces major criticism. However, this is in accordance with what Moody states, “in practice no research is probably fully quantitative or qualitative, but rather a mixture of both” (Moody, 2002). Somekh & Lewin (2005) substantiate this further because they believe that the use of both approaches is complementary rather than competitive.

According to Bazeley (2004), the use of numbers requires interpretation, and counting is employed where textual data is in use. This demonstrates that variables cannot be articulately categorized, and processes can be interpreted through a variety of ways like numeric analysis or narrative. This leads to the acceptability of mixed methods since clear-cut lines cannot be drawn.

In educational research, a researcher will find him/herself employing both the quantitative and qualitative methods to gain knowledge like when grouping responses. The proposition that a researcher you are is the person you are in that the approach used is based on the techniques that a researcher intends to use. As an example, if a researcher is an interpretivist at heart, he or she may apply techniques such as focus group discussions, interviews, diaries, or field notes.

Ethnography

Ethnography originated from the need to have the voices of minority groups heard. In ancient UK schools, ethnography bent on exploring the classroom world, capturing the perspectives of both students and teachers, not to mention generating rich case studies. Ethnography focused on giving a tale, mostly of the less visible members in the society.

Early ethnographic studies tried to capture the natural world of the participants. Ethnography has focused on rich details of cultural scenes, what has been referred to as ‘thick description’ by Geertz (1988). It is rich and with thick descriptions because it entails a real encounter with a traveller’s journey. In the early times, ethnographers stayed in the community of study for 2 to 3 years learning the as many domains of the community.

More recently, ethnographic studies have focused on enabling the voices of the participants to be heard on their own accord, and not through the lens of the researcher (Fine and Weiss, 1998). Contemporary ethnographers spend short periods of time in the community of study, and focus on one dimension of the community. In addition, recent focus is on solving community problems rather than learning about the community.

Ethnography is a relevant method in educational research, especially in the contemporary times. It also resonates with me as a researcher. To begin with, it captures the actual daily lives of the participants as they unfold over a defined period of time.

Secondly, one gets to have first-hand personal interaction with the participants. Therefore, the likelihood of biasness from the participant during data collection is very minimal. It takes up a mixed method approach, and is comprehensive enough to include the various study elements of social sciences.

Ethnography is a qualitative kind of research. Ethnographic methods include participant observation, researcher reflection/journaling, face-to-face interviews, and analysis of archival records. These methods are recommended in a majority of the research methods books on educational research (Johnson, & Christensen, 2008). As earlier mentioned, ethnography has focused on solving community problems.

Therefore, it resonates with the epistemological and ontological underpinnings of educational research because it relies both on the knowledge a researcher already has, and this knowledge influences the research process.

Regardless of the amount of time a researcher spends observing and studying a particular community, his or her interpretations and cultural orientations tend to influence the research process. Therefore, in a study on how socioeconomic status influences students’ performance, the researcher interprets the findings commensurate with what he or she knows.

Interviews and Focus Groups

Focus group interviews are much preferred than individual interviews because they create a friendlier atmosphere since they are employed in a group where individuals are from the same socio-cultural background. As a result, they are encouraged to open up and talk freely in relation to the topic.

Focus groups were initially developed in academic research when Emory Bogardus in 1926 used focus groups in social psychology to come up with social distance scale (Wilkinson, 2004). Since the mid twentieth century, focus groups were employed in market research (Munday, 2006).

They have even gained more popularity in academic research in the fields of health and social sciences. The recent increase in popularity of focus groups is because they are easy and fast to conduct (Kroll, Barbour, & Harris, 2007). Focus groups are a means through which a researcher can learn the comprehensive structure of a community at a cheap rate in terms of time and money.

One can get the views of different people at a time. In addition, recently the use of focus groups has broadened to the extent that it relates to different social groups, development research, and cuts across cultures. This has been attributed to its collective nature and may be befitting to individuals who cannot express their thoughts and ideas clearly. It also acts as a source of collective power to the marginalized people.

The researcher acts as a driver of the focus group discussion since he or she guides the generation of data based on the truth that he or she seeks to discover. Audio-tapes have been an important development in focus group discussions. Relying solely on what the participants say may lead to missing some vital information. The tape recorder enables the researcher to capture the focus group on the spot.

The focus group methodology and interviews fall within the category of qualitative research. This is because they deal with textual data as they tend to collect data on attitudes, perceptions, behaviour, or opinions of the participants in relation to the research study topic (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2007).

Depending on who the researcher is, he or she will choose a research method that is in agreement with him as a person. A researcher who is a keen listener will prefer to include interviews in his methodology. In addition, the researcher will choose to carry out a study that is in his or her area of interest, or something that has really been disturbing his/her mind. The intentions of, as well as the known nature of participants by a researcher draw him or her into using the focus group discussion.

Since there are various disciplines in educational research as well as an array of research topics to choose from but, due to epistemological and ontological influence, the researcher will carry out a research on that topic that he or she is aware of and has identified a gap. He or she goes further to identify a suitable epistemological approach to filling in that gap of knowledge.

This method (focus group method) is applicable in my proposal of summative environment because I will gain a comprehensive understanding of the attitudes, opinions and perceptions of different cultures. This is a very fundamental aspect of learning that should be understood because the socio-cultural setting of the family/development is attributable the learning of the students. In addition, students will talk more freely through the interactive groups.

It will also capture the various dimensions of social science in terms of beliefs, knowledge, and attitudes. The students are the ones who know best where their problem in relation to performance originates from.

The use of focus groups makes it possible for the students to feel at ease, unlike if it were an individual interview as the students may restrict some information. Ethnography is an ideal method to use but in relation to my summative assessment proposal, it is not the best as I would be prying into the privacy of my students’ family, making them feel somewhat uncomfortable.

Conclusion

Educational research makes use of a qualitative approach. The theoretical perspective of a study plays a fundamental role in determining the kind of approach to be used in explaining reality associated with a particular epistemology (Crotty, 2003). Depending on ontology, a researcher is able to come up with the right epistemological approach. However, the kind of epistemological approach selected by a researcher is influenced by his or her own-self as a person as discussed in the content of this paper.

The ontological factor leads to the formulation of research questions, which are answered by the chosen epistemological approach. A positivist researcher will choose a qualitative research method while a non-positivist/interpretive researcher will choose a qualitative method. There is the possibility of using mixed methods such as ethnography when both numerical and textual data are collected. Ethnography is one such method.

References

Balacheff, N. (2002). The Researcher Epistemology: A Deadlock for Educational Research on Proof. Web.

Bazeley, P. (2004). Issues in Mixing Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches to Research. In Buber, J. Gadner, & L. Richards. Eds. (2004). Applying qualitative methods to marketing management research. UK: Palgrave Macmillan, pp141-156.

Borrego, M., Douglas, E. & Amelink, C. (2009). Quantitative, Qualitative, and Mixed Research Methods in Engineering Education. Journal of Engineering Education, 53-66.

Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2007). Research methods in education. 6th ed. London and New York: Routledge.

Crotty, M. (2003). The foundations of social research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Fine, M., & Weis, L. (1998). Crime stories: A critical look through race, ethnicity, and gender. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11 (3), 435– 459.

Freimuth, H. (2009). Educational Research: An Introduction to Basic Concepts and Terminology. UGRU Journal, 8, 1-11.

Geertz, C. (1988). Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Houlette, A., Gaertner, S., Johnson, K., Banker, B. and Riek, B. (2004). Developing a More Inclusive Social Identity: An Elementary School Intervention. Journal of Social Issues, 60, 1.

Hustler, D. (2005). Chapter 1: Ethnography. In Somekh, B. & Lewin, C. (2005). Research methods in the social sciences. London, UK: Sage Publications.

Johnson, B., & Christensen, L. B. (2008). Educational research: quantitative, qualitative and mixed approaches. 3rd ed. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.

Johnson, P. & Duberley, J. (2000). Understanding Management Research. London, UK: Sage Publications.

Kroll, T., Barbour, R., & Harris, J. (2007). Using focus group in disability research. Qualitative Health Research, 17 (5), 690-698.

Kuhn, T. S. (1963). The essential tension: tradition and innovation in scientific research. In Taylor, C. & Barron, F. Eds. Scientific creativity: it’s recognition and development (pp. 341-154). N.Y.: Wiley.

Moody, D. (2002). Empirical research methods. Web.

Munday, J. (2006). Identity in focus: The use of focus groups to study the construction of collective identity. Sociology, 40 (1), 89-105.

Richards, K. (2003). Qualitative inquiry in TESOL. New York, USA: Palgrave Macmillan.

Somekh, B. & Lewin, C. Eds. (2005). Research methods in the social sciences. London, UK: Sage Publications.

Sowa, J. (n.d.). Ontology: definition and scope. Retrieved from

Thayer-Bacon, B. (1996). An examination and redescription of epistemology. Paper Retrieved from ERIC database (ED 401279).

Wilkinson, S. (2004). Focus groups: A feminist method. In Hesse-Biber, S. & Yaiser, M. Eds. Feminist perspectives on social research (pp. 271–295). New York: Oxford University Press.

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