My ontological, epistemological and methodological stance.

The following text is copied (slightly modified) from: Rypestøl, J. O. (2018). New regional industrial path development: Entrepreneurs, knowledge exchange, and regional contexts. Doctoral dissertations at University of Agder. pp. 61-67.

Research is academic knowledge creation that is strongly influenced by the worldview of the researcher. Thus, being aware of and transparent about one`s general assumptions regarding what exists in the world (ontology) and one`s assumptions about how we can come to know the world (epistemology) is especially important for researchers. Such awareness and transparency are essential because the ontological and epistemological stances of the researcher influence methodological questions regarding how the researcher can 'go about finding out whatever he or she believes can be known' (Guba & Lincoln, 1994, p.108).

This essay includes a presentation of the ontological, epistemological and methodological approaches that inspire my research.

3.1. Ontological and epistemological underpinnings

Ontology refers to a set of thoughts and presumptions that relate to 'the set-up and constitution of all reality and the problems/opportunities of existence' (Arbnor & Bjerke, 2009, p. 424). Thus, ontological questions are questions in science that deal with what exists in the world or how things really are. Epistemology, on the other hand, relates to our understanding of what we think can be known about this reality or 'the philosophical theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge' (Arbnor & Bjerke, 2009, p. 420). Because they deal with fundamental questions about reality and knowledge, the ontological and epistemological assumptions of the researcher will influence the research in several ways, including regarding the choices of methodology (Guba & Lincoln, 1994).

A paradigm can be understood as a 'belief system' (Guba & Lincoln, 1994, p. 107) that includes ontological, epistemological and methodological questions. Such belief systems form research traditions that have reached a consensus on fundamental questions regarding the world and how we can come to know it. Two contrasting philosophical paradigms are positivism and constructivism. In short, the positivist approach advocates an objective ontology and a dualist epistemology. Thus, this position argues that the world is real and perfectly apprehensible and that the researcher can study this real world without influencing it or being influenced by it. Consequently, for positivists, metaphysics is not part of science and researchers should, therefore, look for concrete evidence and rules in the social sciences just as in the natural sciences. For constructivists, on the other hand, reality is understood as a subjectively constructed phenomenon formed 'through interpreting perceptual experiences of the external world' (Jonassen, 1991, p. 10). The constructivist paradigm argues that knowledge is socially and culturally constructed and that knowledge, in research, is, therefore, best created through processes of interaction between the researcher and the object of investigation.

As a researcher, I distance myself from the positivist and constructivist paradigms as I am influenced by the research tradition of critical realism (CR). CR is a paradigm that is situated somewhere between the two positions of positivism and constructivism. Critical realists advocate a realist ontology with a constructivist epistemology. Thus, CR represents a philosophical perspective that argues that a real world exists and that this existence is independent of theories, constructions or perceptions. However, CR further posits that 'our understanding of this real world is inevitably a construction from our own perspectives and standpoint, and there is no possibility of attaining a "God's eye point of view" that is independent of any particular viewpoint' (Maxwell & Mittapalli, 2010, p. 146).

Following this approach of a realist ontology and a constructivist epistemology, critical realists argue that the world exists independent of our knowledge of it (Sayer, 1992). This argument rests on a distinction between the intransitive and transitive dimensions of knowledge. According to CR, the transitive dimension relates to our knowledge about the world expressed in theories, paradigms, models or concepts, while the intransitive dimension of science includes the real objects about which science aims to gain knowledge. Sayer provides an example of the difference between the transitive and the intransitive dimension of knowledge, saying:

[...] there is no reason to believe that the shift from a flat earth theory to a round earth theory was accompanied by a change in the shape of the earth itself. (Sayer, 2000, p. 11).  

Critical realism further argues for a stratified ontology (Bhaskar, 1978) and distinguishes between the three strata of the world, namely the real, the actual and the empirical. To critical realists, the domain of the real refers to 'objects and structures with inherent causal powers and liabilities which result in mechanisms that may not be visible' (Zachariadis, Scott, & Barrett, 2013, p. 3). Thus, according to CR, the aim of scientists should be to reveal these structures and powers of the objects of the 'real' through the transitive dimension of science. The 'actual', on the other hand, 'refers to what happens if and when those powers are activated, to what they do and what eventuates when they do' (Sayer, 2000, p. 12), and the 'empirical' represents what can be experienced or observed.

CR further holds that the world is characterised by emergence. Emergence is known as a situation 'in which the conjunction of two or more features or aspects gives rise to new phenomena, which have properties which are irreducible to those of their constituents, even though the latter are necessary for their existence' (op. cit., p. 12). Such internal relations dominate the social world where individuals are embedded in social structures, cultures, norms and values, and are most often formed by, and depend on, their relation to others.

The analysis of causation is a distinctive feature of realism. While, to positivists, causality is understood using a model that involves regular successions of events, critical realists argue that causality can be revealed only by 'discovering the nature of the structure or object which possesses that mechanism or power' (op. cit., p. 14). The weakness of the positivist approach to causality is, according to Bhaskar (1978), that its concept of law is tied to closed systems. Critical realists, on the other hand, argue that the world is an open system in which emergence unfolds. Important to critical realism is that, due to this interactivity, the same causal power can produce different outcomes as this power might be influenced by other objects that modify its outcome (op. cit.).

3.2. Methodology

Methodology relates to the question of how we come to know the world from a more practical angle than epistemology. Methodology focuses on alternative routes through which we can gain knowledge about the world; these routes typically consist of systems of methods that should, or could, be used to gain practical knowledge of the phenomenon of study. However, as pointed out earlier, methodology is closely related to the ontological and epistemological positioning of the researcher. Therefore, the preferred systems of methods used in research are not randomly distributed among researchers. An example of such close relations between philosophical position and methodology is found in the distribution of qualitative and quantitative research approaches. When referring to the two extreme philosophical positions presented earlier, the qualitative research approach most often pairs up with constructivism, while the quantitative research approach strongly links to positivism or post-positivism (Maxwell & Mittapalli, 2010).

As discussed previously, critical realism positions itself between positivism and constructivism, advocating a combination of realist ontology and constructivist epistemology. An essential tenet then is, as pointed out earlier, that ontology is not reducible to epistemology; in other words, the world is more than we can see, as it exists independently of our knowledge of it (Sayer, 1992). Thus, according to critical realists, the crucial role of science is to reduce the distance between the transitive and the intransitive dimension by continually aiming to reveal structures and mechanisms that are anchored in the real domain. Or, as stated by Bhaskar, 'the aim of science is the production of the knowledge of the mechanisms of the production of phenomena in nature that combine to generate the actual flux of phenomena of the world' (Bhaskar, 1978, p. 6).

Critical realism introduces retroduction as an important approach to help unmask the real. Retroduction refers to a dialogue between abstracts and concretes or, in other words, between theoretical reasoning and conceptualisation on the one hand and empirical research on the other. To critical realists, abstract research is important on its own because, by abstraction, researchers can conceptualise the phenomenon in a way that makes it more empirically manageable. Sayer (1992) addressed this issue by stating that: 'our concepts of concrete objects are likely to be superficial and chaotic. In order to understand their diverse determination, we must first abstract them systematically. When each of the abstracted aspects has been examined, it is possible to combine the abstraction, so as to form concepts which grasp the concreteness of their objects' (Sayer, 1992, p. 87). However, as mentioned above, critical realists argue that abstraction should not be an isolated activity, but rather should be in constant dialogue with empirics. CR further argues that this dialogue should cause a refinement of the abstraction so that it increases its ability to explain the phenomenon in question. This is the purpose of the routine of introduction.

Retroduction can be exemplified from the starting point of an empirical observation, which continues with the abstraction of a possible relation between the empirical (what was observed) and the real (the more profound causal powers and structures). From here, the process continues as more empirical evidence is collected and tested in terms of abstraction. If contradictions between empirics and abstraction are evident, then the process continues as a re-iterating loop between theory and practice until the abstraction appears to be robust enough to grasp the concreteness of their objects. The second important methodological principle stemming from the philosophical position of critical realism is triangulation. Triangulation, qualitative researchers have argued, is a strategy that increases the probability of researchers improving their chances of uncovering the real (Denzin, 1970). According to Patton (1999, p. 1192), the term 'triangulation' originates from the profession of land surveying and refers to the benefits of having two landmarks instead of one. Knowing one landmark only locates one's position in relation to this landmark alone, whereas with two landmarks it is possible to locate one's position in two directions.

In critical realism, triangulation is an important principle that reduces the risk of bias-based misconceptions. This focus on bias is a consequence of the constructivist epistemological stand of critical realism, which argues that all individuals are biased in some way. Thus, critical realists argue that adding more views to the phenomenon under investigation increases the robustness of the research process and improves the chances of revealing elements of the real (Sayer, 1992, 2000).

Four different forms of triangulation often referred to in the qualitative research literature, are: data triangulation, which refers to the use of different sources of information spread across different times and situations; investigator triangulation, which involves the use of more than one investigator to collect and analyse the relevant data; theory triangulation, which involves the use of multiple perspectives to interpret data; and, finally, methodological triangulation, which can involve the use of several variants of the same method and/or the use of different methods to generate data (see e.g. Denzin, 1970; Downward & Mearman, 2006).

As indicated above, methodological triangulation can take two forms. Denzin (1970) named the two forms 'within-method' triangulation and 'between-method' triangulation. While the former involves the use of several varieties of the same method, the latter implies combining data that are generated by both intensive and extensive research (Sayer, 2000). When explaining the difference between intensive and extensive research, Easton noted that intensive research 'focuses on individual agents in context using interviews, ethnography and qualitative analysis, and asks the question "what produces change?"' Meanwhile, extensive research 'employs large scale surveys, formal questionnaires and statistical analyses, looking for regulatives, patterns and similarities, accepts given taxonomic categories, privileges replication and has restricted ability to generalise to other populations and limited explanatory power' (Easton, 2010, p. 123).

As discussed previously, a mix of qualitative and quantitative research approaches can be a challenge for researchers holding extreme positions as positivists or constructivists (Maxwell & Mittapalli, 2010). This challenge results from their ontological and epistemological stance as researchers. If researchers argue a positivistic approach to social science, they will seek unambiguous data and concrete evidence that can form general rules. Thus, including more interpretive and soft data can be problematic, as they most certainly will be biased and insignificant. To constructivists, the same logic may be used the other way around; adding patterns of distribution as evidence can be conflicting and irrelevant, as it says nothing about the causes of action that they aim to reveal.

Critical realists, however, embrace both intensive and extensive research methods as valuable. They assert that, if performed and interpreted correctly, multi-method research and mixed-method research check the reliability of the data and the validity of the research process and the results. That is, 'In short, "within-method" triangulation essentially involves cross-checking for internal consistency or reliability while "between-method" triangulation tests the degree of external validity' (Jick, 1979, p. 603).

Questions related to the ontological, epistemological and methodological stances of researchers are most often subject to maturation. This applies equally to the author of this thesis. When starting the PhD, my ontological and epistemological understanding was not fully developed, as, I have been told, is the case for most candidates. Finding my position as a researcher has been a process that has involved courses and discussions as well as methodological experimentation. Today, still not fully matured as a researcher, I identify as a critical realist. Thus, being methodologically diverse corresponds to my worldview and my position as a researcher. 


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