Approximately two years ago, I started to combine my teaching job with pursuing a research degree in education. After these two years, more questions developed and more wonders emerged. The most pertinent questions relate to our understanding of knowledge, which is called ontology and epistemology. Initially these more philosophical questions seemed less relevant to me: as I am conducting a practitioner research. However, as a qualitative researcher, such questions about reality and our understanding of that reality are essential due to the nature of our research approach. Thus, the more I familiarized myself with the different perceptions of reality (ontology) and how to create meaning of that reality (epistemology), the more I got excited about the importance of these questions. This blog post is an attempt to explain why these questions about knowledge are so important, albeit confusing. Therefore, I use the ruined castle as a metaphor for a research topic to explain, with visuals, how ontology and epistemology influence our thinking as researchers, teachers, and consumers of information. Especially because questions about our perception of reality and understanding of knowledge are important to appreciate the call for the decolonization of our curriculum and diversification of knowledge. Therefore, I present three drawings of a ruined castle to guide three random statements about knowledge.
Statement 1: Ontology matters
The foundation of our understanding of the world goes back to the question: What is ‘reality’? This is called ontology. And it addresses the core of how we perceive the world around is. On either end of the philosophical spectrum are answers to this question. One side (realism) thinks that our research can capture the essence and ‘real’ meaning of something.
Let’s say the castle in its former glory and prestige. Realists belief that doing research of a castle, using the appropriate methods, would allow you to access exactly the ‘reality’ of the castle. Whereas relativists belief that our understanding of the castle is what we make of it, thus the castle only exists in our mind. There is nothing besides what we think the castle to be and the peculiarity of these conceptualizations can be numerous.
Thus the discussion about the meaning of the castle can be very different depending on what you belief to be ‘reality’: to what truth we – as humans- have access to? A realists might be convinced of the possibility to develop one real understanding of the castle, if we do proper research with the appropriate tools. While a relativist perception is more inclined to embrace multiple understandings of the meaning behind this collection of stones, since the essence of the structure is created in our minds. Relativists and Realists are two extremes on a spectrum of approaches regarding the accessibility of reality, there is a whole lot of grey in between.
How do we make sense of ‘reality’?
The second question about knowledge, relates to how do we make sense of reality? Thus how do we create an understanding of the castle (regardless of it being a mental construct or ‘real’)? These are the questions that are related to epistemology: how do we create an understanding of the reality? Or, how do we create knowledge?
Of course, there are different ideas about this as well. On the one end of the spectrum is the perception that a castle is always the same castle, no matter who is investigating the castle. Any researcher will eventually be able to retrieve the same essence of the castle, because the ruins of the castle are ‘real’ and thus any researcher has access to the ‘same’ ruins in order to create a one-on-one understanding (objectivism). This understanding of what knowledge we are able to create relates very well with a realist perception of reality.
There are other ideas about how we create knowledge, which are compatible with a relativist approach to reality. These philosophical approaches see the understanding of what the castle was and might be as an interaction between the ruins and the researcher’s position in time, place, space. Sure, the ruins of a castle – in whatever form or shape – exist, but the researcher is determinative in creating an understanding of the castle (constructionism). Instead of providing a reflection of a castle, the researcher creates a construction or interpretation of a castle. Not a mirror image of the castle, but an interpretation of the place influenced by the purpose and interest of the researcher, like a map.
Another approach towards the creation of knowledge is subjectivism: researchers create meaning not the other way around. The researcher leads the creation of knowledge: the collection of stones only become a castle because the researcher imposes that meaning on the ruins. There is nothing besides the interpretation of the researcher that says these collection of rocks indeed make a castle.
These different perceptions about reality and ability to understand this reality also have consequences for the willingness to accept a multitude of realities on the basis of a wide range of possible evidence. A rather narrow perception about reality and knowledge, namely accessing one ‘truth’ by utilizing only a certain set of tools and objects might result in less tolerance towards other ways of being and knowing. Thus, if we want to rethink and unlearn hegemonic ideas and curricula because we deem them one-sided and questionable, it should include more foundational questions about our understanding to what reality we are speaking about and how knowledge is created. Only then, it seems, a pluralistic approach towards knowledge seems possible.
Statement 2: What you find depends on what you are looking for
As became clear from the previous discussion, there are very distinct perspectives on to what essence researchers have access to: a ‘real’ world or a mental construction of the world? And how then do researchers go about creating knowledge about that world: a perfect copy or an interpretation? The role of the researcher can be quite important for the eventual meaning making of, for example, the collection of rocks, as it depends on your philosophical stances.
Researchers make use of theoretical perspectives, to guide them in their meaning making journey. For the purpose of this brief explanation, the focus is solely on how theoretical perspectives influence the examination of a topic.
Thus, we can look at the ruins from different set of theories, which all have their own focus and manner of looking at the topic of study. As an example, if I were to use the theoretical approach of post-humanism, I would walk around the ruins and focus on the human experience as a part of an interconnected system with all other materials. The walk existed out of looking at how plants are a part of the castle walls, what other forms of life is present at the side, how the rocks are a creating a construction, the role of the mountain on which the castle is residing, etc.
Whereas examining the ruins form a feminist perspective, the focus would be on the role of gender in everyday life in and around the castle. From a historical point of view, it would mean looking into how life was for women working in the fields, maids, shop keepers, along with the life of women residing in the castle and initiating, for example, a pharmacy. It would pay attention to those without a clear gender identification and diverse sexual orientations. What were the gendered expectations and how did people challenge them?
While looking at the ruins from a critical perspective, the focus would shift towards power structures and consequential inequality. What was the discrepancy in wealth between the inhabitants of the most luxuries suits in the castle and those living at its bottom? Who were allowed and who were not? What are we not seeing? Who are we forgetting?
Hence, a clear theoretical framework helps to provide an in-depth study into the topic and gives the researcher a very distinct insight into the topic. In the case of the castle, if you would walk around the ruins without a clear theoretical guideline, your visit would only touch the surface. Whereas a theoretical focus allows you to create a deep understanding, while also acknowledging that your understanding of castle was influenced by your theoretical lens and thus partial.
This is important to highlight, because if we do not have a clear theory or theories from which we explore territories, we will not see the many things that are perhaps right in front of our eyes. Besides, if we are not aware of the theoretical stance we operate from, we are not reflective on our own shortcoming and the advantage of being in a dialogue with others.
Statement 3: We have to search for ruins
The last point that I want to propose is coming from MacLure’s article from 2011 “Qualitative Inquiry: What are the ruins?”. In this article, MacLure discusses potential strategies to challenge ideas about research stemming from the Enlightenment, like human progress, access to truth, and centralizing reason. Most researchers, especially qualitative ones, acknowledge the partiality of knowledge, in contrast to Enlightenment ideals that stood for certainty and reliability. However, MacLure states that much of the ways in which we approach doing research, and thus creating knowledge, is built upon the ruins of the Enlightenment ideals. Maclure, therefore, warns us to be conscience of these ruins and be aware that, perhaps unintentionally, most of us still work within the structure of these Enlightenment ideals.
Maclure focussed on research tools and methods, while the idea of ruins can also apply to questions about knowledge more broadly. As mentioned in the previous two statements, if we want to be aware of our own biases in knowledge, like eurocentrism, we need to address questions about our idea of reality and the ways in which we create knowledge. Thus, we first need to know the ontological and epistemological ruins on which our castle is built.
If we do not scrutinize the ruins and it’s influence in our well-established idea of reality and knowledge, our ‘liberating’ approaches might actually continue supporting the same structure just with different materials and colors. If the foundation and frame remain the same, how much are we really dismantling?
The intention of this blog was not to explain the difference between ontology or epistemology, but to give a visual representation of what these terms actually mean for doing research, but also for teaching. There have been many calls to decolonize the curriculum in Europe or to diversify schools, but if we do not address ontological, epistemological, and theoretical questions by interrogating the ruins upon which we built our castle, the chances are high that we end up building the same structure. These more fundamental questions about our perception of reality and knowledge has come to my understanding as an essential part of rethinking and unlearning our curricula.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2000. Provincializing Europe: postcolonial thought and historical difference. Princeton University Press.
Grosfoguel, Ramón. 2007. “THE EPISTEMIC DECOLONIAL TURN: Beyond Political-Economy Paradigms.” Cultural Studies 21 (2–3): 211–23. https://doi.org/10.1080/09502380601162514.
MacLure, Maggie. 2011. “Qualitative Inquiry: Where Are the Ruins?” Qualitative Inquiry 17 (10): 997–1005. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800411423198.
Moon, Kattie, and Deborah Blackman. 2014. A Guide to Understanding Social Science Research for Natural Scientists. Conservation Biology, 28: 1167-1177. Online: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.12326/full
Pashby, Karen, and Louise Sund. 2020. “Decolonial Options and Foreclosures for Global Citizenship Education and Education for Sustainable Development.” Nordic Journal of Comparative and International Education (NJCIE) 4 (1): 66–83. https://doi.org/10.7577/njcie.3554.