Written by Dr Hannes Nel
With what degree of probability can experimental physicists say that they know how the world and life on it were created?
Will social scientists agree with them?
We can gain insight into questions like these through epistemology, ontology and methodology.
The interrelatedness of ontology, epistemology and methodology is the topic of this article.
Ontology is concerned with the natural world.
It is the nature of reality.
It focuses on the core characteristics, origin and what we can observe.
The “what” question often leads to an ontology.
For example: “What exists?” “What is true?” “What is real?” “What is?”
Ontology deals with the nature of being. Such “being” is not necessarily checked for validity, although scientists often try.
You can already identify an event or phenomenon as true by making use of your senses.
The “origin of” or “the original meaning of” is given by ontology.
Phenomena are not explained but rather described or simply stated as fact.
Epistemology is the study and explanation of what knowledge is and the logic behind the knowledge.
It can also be the philosophy behind knowledge.
It focuses on explaining knowledge, how we can obtain knowledge and how we should reason about the nature and elements of knowledge.
Knowledge is often formulated and explained in terms of what an event or phenomenon looks like, why it is as it is and how models interact.
Epistemology is made up of the elements of the world in which we live.
Three such elements are popularly described.
The first element is a philosophical analysis of the nature of knowledge, which can include arguments, opinions and beliefs and how it relates to concepts such as the truth, validity, relevance and justification.
The second includes various issues of skepticism.
It asks if knowledge, arguments, opinions and beliefs are true, valid, relevant and justified.
The third is an explanation of the sources, criteria and scope of knowledge, arguments, opinions and beliefs.
For an epistemology understanding is more important than knowing and knowing is more important than to believe.
Even so, you can hardly develop an epistemology if you do not “know”.
Knowing is necessary to come to conclusions.
You will at least have an opinion or belief.
The epistemology of an event or phenomenon can be found through quantitative or qualitative research methods.
Your epistemological approach should be an effort to generate descriptions and explanations of the world, or at least the small part of the world that you do research on.
Your descriptions and explanations must, of course, be true, valid, relevant and justified.
Epistemology seeks to understand the how, origin, processes and limitations of observation.
Developing an epistemology requires operations such as drawing distinctions, establishing relations and creating constructs.
Epistemology includes a description of how knowledge impacts the target group for your research.
So, you can see that epistemology includes the research methods, data collection methods, and data analysis methods that we employ in our research.
Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.
It implies the provision of evidence for your conclusions and inferences.
Methodology is the procedure that you will follow to identify and prove your argument, opinion or belief.
Some researchers differentiate between research methodology and research methods.
They argue that research methodologies are philosophical approaches while research methods are ways of doing things.
Philosophical approaches are also called paradigmatic approaches while research methods can include data collection methods.
I am just mentioning this for the sake of those who wish to differentiate between research methodologies and research methods.
Whatever stance you adopt will probably not influence the research work that you do.
Methodology is concerned with how you know something and go about obtaining the knowledge and understand that you need to solve a research problem.
It is the way in which you would discover knowledge in a systematic way.
The link between ontology, epistemology and methodology
Ontology is the belief upon which you base your research.
Ontology defines your research framework while epistemology determines the research questions that you will need to answer.
Ontology specifies the nature of something that we can sense and that we wish to investigate further if we are to know more about and understand an event or phenomenon.
Epistemology is the philosophy and knowledge behind the belief that you will investigate by making use of a research method, or methodology.
This is called your research premise, paradigm or interpretive framework.
Checking for validity is the bridge between ontology and epistemology.
If you manage to explain a fact, you will have crossed the bridge to epistemology.
Here is a simple example – your ontology can be that something tastes sweet. Your epistemology will be the reasons why it tastes sweet.
A century ago, most people would not have known what a computer is. They never saw one and, therefore, it is not included in their ontology.
Today almost all people will recognize a computer when they see one, but some will still not know how it works. It has not been explained to them and, therefore, it is not yet part of their epistemology.
Epistemology and methodology are driven by ontological beliefs and observations.
Ontology is “the science of being”.
The ontology is a statement of fact without explanation.
A statement of fact can also be just a belief.
Thinking, evaluating, studying and theorizing about an event or phenomenon within the framework of a predefined society can be your epistemology.
Epistemology asks: “how do we come to know?”
Epistemology is an explanation, not a label.
In doctoral research, you need to find evidence that your theoretical and philosophical claims are correct.
Epistemology is the theory of knowledge and the science of explanation.
Your initial epistemology is improved through the development of new knowledge and philosophy.
Methodology is driven by your ontological beliefs and based on your initial epistemological philosophy.